Luke 15:25–30: Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (ESV)
When we speak about the parable of the prodigal son, we generally think of the lost son being the one who left home. However, a closer reading shows that the older son—the one who stayed home—was also lost, albeit in a different way. Even children who do not leave home or the church can be lost to a quiet kind of rebellion.
This can manifest as unhappiness, a lack of respect, or insufficient reverence for God. We do not need to leave our parents’ house to cause them shame or pain.
The Bible does not tell us why the older son turned out this way and what caused him to rebel. Maybe he felt neglected. Although his father loved him, he spent his time sitting at the window and waiting for the younger son to return. Even while physically present with his eldest, he was not as light-hearted and happy as before. The father’s depression overshadowed everything else, and the older son could not fail to notice. How would this have made him feel? He was still there, after all. He had not turned away from his father. But his father seemed to mourn his younger son more than he appreciated his older one. Did this mean he valued the absent son more? It is only natural for parents to mourn a lost child, but if the expression of this grief takes precedence over the needs of our other children, they will suffer as a result.
In his own way, the older brother rebelled as well. His rebellion was less apparent, being expressed as a lack of empathy and compassion, as growing anger toward his brother and their father, and as an expectation of favorable treatment in exchange for his obedience and good behavior. Caught up in a sense of self-righteous entitlement, he was unable to rejoice in his brother’s return. Toward his father, he was defiant, rebellious, accusing, proud, and arrogant. His father’s reaction made no sense to his hardened heart, and he was unwilling to change and let it soften. He was too full of rage.
In his father’s place, he would have ensured that his brother got what he deserved. It only seemed fair, after all. Instead, their merciful and forgiving father was thrilled that his younger son had returned. The returning son needed his father’s grace, just as we all need grace, whether at the height of our success or in the depths of grief and despair. Acceptance, empathy, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation all arise from grace—and grace arises from love.
We know that society at the time placed great value on honor. That is what made the younger son’s actions so damaging. By violating the family’s honor, he brought shame on them all. However, the family’s dishonor could not be laid entirely at his door: His older brother brought shame on their father as well when he refused to take part in the celebration of his brother’s return. Just imagine the father setting up a party to welcome his younger son back home. As the guests flood in, he sees neighbors, friends, and business associates—but not the guest of honor’s elder brother. He had remained out in the fields, perhaps working out his anger and frustration on the soil or the weeds. One guest after another would have asked the father, “Where is your other son?” With no good answer, the father did something that would have been unimaginably rude at that time, abandoning his duties as a host and leaving his own party. In their culture, this was simply not an option! But he did so nonetheless, choosing to go after his eldest son to remind him that he loved him very much and that everything he owned belonged to him.
The older son did not say much, but his choice of words reveals a lot about his feelings toward his brother and father. “This son of yours,” he spat at his father.
“Your brother,” reminded his father him gently.
“These many years I have been serving you,” he accused his father (“slaving for you” in the New International Version), although they had actually worked together as partners since the father had already split his inheritance between them (verse 12). Two thirds of the estate already belonged to the eldest! By this point, the father himself only lived there. Everything the father had once owned now belonged to the older son, the younger one having already wasted his portion. It is even possible that he had already bought out his brother’s share and now owned the original estate in its entirety. And now that brother just showed up, expecting to live here even though he had no claim on the property any longer! That was probably part of the problem. The older brother saw all too well that every cent spent on his brother came out of his own inheritance. All this money was just being thrown at his brother—the one who had chosen to renounce them! The funds for this party were coming out of his pocket, and no one had even asked his permission. If they have to hold a party for someone, he thought, why couldn’t it be me?
– To be continued –