This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C: the Prodigal Son. The story would be complete as it stands with the return of the prodigal son and the father’s open-armed acceptance. But another story interlocks with this: the story of the elder son who has not appeared in the story. The father has responded to the prodigal son’s return with compassion. How will the elder brother respond?
Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. (vv. 24-26)
In anger, the elder son refuses to join in the celebration, thus physically distancing himself from his family and his own role as elder son in a celebration of this kind. “At such a banquet the older son has a special semi-official responsibility. He is expected to move among the guests, offering compliments, making sure everyone has enough to eat, ordering the servants around and, in general, becoming a sort of major-domo of the feast. [Baily, 294]
His refusal to enter his own home is also a refusal to share in the meal, a symbolic act of epic proportions in a culture where kinship boundaries are secured through the sharing of food. In his reply to the elder brother, the slave had referred to “your brother” and “your father,” but the elder son’s actions reveal a different understanding of familial relations. When addressing his father, he does not name him as “Father.” Similarly, the younger son is only “your son” – pointedly not “my brother.” Clearly the elder brother does not support his father’s resolution concerning the younger son.
The elder son’s anger and self-righteousness make him resentful; not even the return of his brother will make him share the family celebration. The tragedy here is that while the older son has never left home, never disobeyed, and has “slaved” faithfully – he has also never felt rewarded and thus resents the father’s joy at his brother’s return. In contrast to joy, the older son feels anger or rage which is freely expressed in every gesture (refusal to enter the house) and word (his responses to his father). The anger he feels for his father is transferred to his brother. The older son has not only failed to recognize his privileged position with his father, but he is also blind to the fact that his father offers him the same constant care and concern – the father comes out to him also, seeking what is being lost.
Again the pivot is the father’s love. He goes out to the elder son as he had gone out to the younger. He wants both of them to be happy. The elder son cannot see beyond propriety and is trapped in his own righteousness. The father does not deny the faithfulness of his elder son. He implies that all that is beside the point at this special moment. Something far more important is going on: a son and brother has returned from the dead. Everything else fades before that fact: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice!” Within the father’s words is this key message: “one cannot be a son without also being a brother.”
The father has extended unconditional forgiveness to both sons prior to their repentance. Despite each son’s contemptuous behavior, the father assures them they are loved and belong. The attitude of the father is not determined by their attitude, but by his own attitude. Martin Luther’s first thesis was that “the entire life of the believer should be one of repentance.” While doctrinally correct, it is not achievable in human effort. Even the mostly stoutly religious, in the end, must rely on the grace of God. When all is said and done in this life, having lived well or not, one must leave all in the hands of a merciful and gracious God.