The Episode Between the Father and the Older Son Who Stayed at Home.
This is a post that continues the thought in an earlier post today about our Sunday gospel focusing on the parable of the Prodigal Son. At this point, the younger son has returned home from his misadventures and prodigal lifestyle and has been welcomed by the father.
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 one. 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. Here we again refer to the vv.1-2 and opening table scene between Jesus and the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees, the older son has social norms and propriety on his side – the younger son has shamed his father and deserves to be shunned rather than rewarding such dishonorable behavior with a feast.
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. Ironically, the older son acts outside the social norms as he refuses to go the father and enter the house, “calls out” his father, and then does not address him as “Father.” Once again the father has to leave the house to go out a meet one of his sons.
In contrast to joy, the older son feels anger or rage that 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, again shaming himself, 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 went 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 theses 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 no, one must leave all in the hands of a merciful and gracious God.
- R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©