The Parable of the Recalcitrant Older Son

At church yesterday, the pastor continued his series on how the Resurrection of Jesus impacts our relationships. The passage he used was what is normally known as “The Prodigal Son”.

The conventional message from this parable is that the prodigal son represents us, the father in the story represents God, and the theme of the story is God’s forgiveness.

One might hear an alternative discussion of the theme of the story, in which the elder brother is the focus; his unwillingness to forgive his brother is “the point”, and we are admonished to search our own hearts, to ensure we are not being unforgiving.

The pastor tied these two themes together. He began by pointing out that, in Jesus’ day, the “Honor-Shame” culture was the basis for Jesus’ listeners’ understanding of the story. I’d heard before that the younger son’s request for an immediate distribution of his share of the inheritance was extremely disrespectful (in short, he was saying that he wished his father were already dead), but the pastor pointed out that the elder son’s failure to take his brother aside and counsel him on proper etiquette was also extremely disrespectful of the father.

Neither son had a good relationship with the father.

The pastor then described that the surrounding community would have gotten involved, to make sure that the younger son was properly punished for the dishonor he had done to his father, but the father himself abrogated such punishment by granting the younger son his wish.

At the end, when the younger son had determined that he would go back and beg to be a servant, the father sees him from far-off, and races to meet him. The pastor said that the implication is that the father brings more dishonor to himself by hitching up his robe and running through town in order to meet his son before the townspeople could exact the proper punishment on the younger son.

The father bestows undeserved honor on the younger son.

Meanwhile, the elder brother doesn’t even know what his father is doing, which is a strong indication that he is acting as hateful as the younger brother, even though he thinks he is “doing the right thing”.

The story ends on a cliffhanger.

The church podcasts the sermons; I recommend it. Yesterday’s sermon is not up, yet, but you can listen to past sermons.

Something I’d like to touch was the elder son’s relationship with his brother. I tend to identify with the elder brother, since I did not have the opportunity, or the courage, to live a profligate life. I think that the elder brother was suffering from envy. The set-up is that the younger brother severely dishonors his father, and rather than smacking him in the face, the father grants the younger son his wish. The younger son then goes and proves his unfitness for society by spending all the inheritance on wine, women, and song, and winds up at the lowest point someone in his society can reach: feeding swine, and wishing he were a swine so that he could have something to eat, at least. And then, and then: rather than showing the younger son mere mercy by giving him a place among the servants and a crust of bread to eat (which is what the younger son expects, and more than he deserves, in a way), the father shows abundant grace, by restoring the younger son to a place of extreme honor.

In the elder brother’s eyes, the younger son got away with it. He got to “enjoy” a life of sin, and then not suffer any consequences for it. Full restoration. I bet the elder son thought, “I should have demanded my portion of the inheritance, too and had a ‘good time’ with my life–I would certainly have not lost it all, like my dumb brother, either.” The elder brother will also have to carry the burden of his father’s grace, since it would be expected he continued to support the younger brother, and not kick him to the curb after the father dies. This attitude shows disrespect to the father, because it discounts the father’s love for his sons.

Also, the younger son did not “get away with it”. The father points out to his older son that “all that I have is yours”; this is literally true. When the father dies, then the older son inherits everything. The younger son already got his “inheritance”, and it is now gone. He will be completely dependent on the elder brother. He has the unhappy memories of the consequences of his sinful life. And while the younger son has been fully restored in his relationship with his father, it is evident that his relationship with the others in the story is still broken, and he will likely have to live with being seen as someone to be avoided for the rest of his life.

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One Response to “The Parable of the Recalcitrant Older Son”

  1. Rachell Mathis Says:

    Interesting interpretation of the Prodigal Son story. The article made me think about some things I’d never thought of before. However, it is probably true that the father was wrong in his handling of the younger son’s return — bringing dishonor to himself. When I go back and think about the usual interpretation of the story though, I think about who the earthly father represents: our Heavenly Father. I’m so glad that He welcomes us back and we’re able to have a good relationship with Him if we are truly repentant.

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