“The Lost Elder Son(Pharisees), Part 3 of the Prodigal Son”
by Rev. James Rausch
Upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” (which means, “Lord, Save us!”) and waving palm branches, he was again confronted by the Pharisees whose anger at him was increasing. We’ve been learning why over the past couple of weeks. Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them in what the Pharisees saw as a blatant violation of their understanding of God’s law.
In their practice, a sinner was not to be considered acceptable company unless they completed their strict interpretation of repentance. To repent literally means to turn, to change direction. What this meant for the law-keeping Pharisees is that sinners must admit their sin, apologize for it, make restitution for any damage or loss they caused, demonstrate their sincerity, and promise not to commit that sin again.
Now, if we’re honest, we kind of like that too. Let’s hear it for more people taking responsibility for their mistakes and learning from them. Here! Here! That kind of responsibility-claiming is from God. However, it is not all there is to repentance, according to Jesus. The Pharisees may have nailed the part of it that settles the score when a law is broken, but they failed to appreciate the greater importance of restoration when a relationship is broken. Score-settling has its place, but far more important in God’s heart is the healing of broken bonds of love. Jesus taught an expanded understanding of repentance which transcended the formula. For Jesus, the “turning” of repentance is turning to God in acceptance of God’s gesture of love. Repentance is the acceptance of being found.
The Pharisees found this repugnant. They believed that God wanted it to be only about even paybacks and balancing the scales. Jesus’ insistence that repentance is about responding to grace radically challenged their thinking. Nowhere was this presented more clearly to the Pharisees than when Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal son and the lost older son. When the younger son returned, he even had a plan to try and pay his father back. But no payment could heal the father’s broken heart. The father’s only option was an offer of self-giving love if he was going to make his son realize that their relationship could only be restored through a gift of love from his father. And the love was there always, every day. All of that kid’s life the father was demonstrating love to the son, but he never got the point until he saw his father suffer for him by taking the abuse of the villagers as he ran to welcome him.
And by accepting that love, he is granted a new status. He is restored to sonship, not because of anything he has done, but because of the pure love of the father. And that is defined in Biblical terms as righteousness. He is given a robe, and we’re told it is the first robe of the house. Of course, this kid has no clothes left . . . this is his father’s robe, and when he wears his father’s robe the village will respect him because of the clothes he’s wearing. They wouldn’t dare tear his clothes as they would have had they been able to enact the Kezazah punishment ceremony. This theme also reoccurs in the New Testament, as it talks about the robe of righteousness believers receive in heaven.
As tragically happens all too often in our own experience, the young son had never been alive to his father’s love. As the father says at the end, “This, my son, was dead and is alive.” Now, for the first time, having seen the costly offer of love, it finally got through to him, and now he is coming alive because of his acceptance of that offer of love.
The father has very carefully, by making the reconciliation scene public, restored the boy to the entire village. The father tells the servants, “Go and dress him.” He doesn’t say, “Give the kid some clothes and let him get showered and cleaned up.” The servants are to dress him like they would royalty, and thereby he is guaranteeing reconciliation to the entire community.
But now to the elder son and his reaction to all of this. First, the boy comes in from the field and he hears music and dancing. First he will hearthe drum beats which carry quite a distance. They will be the same drums they have had for centuries, and the different beats of the drum are known. He hears the standard beat for a wedding or a big party and immediately thinks, “Man, there’s a party!” So, he hurries into the village (he’s supposed to) and suddenly he discovers, “Hey, the party’s at our house! Fantastic!” And he rushes on in to take his expected place. . . but that’s not what happened.
They haven’t yet started serving the meal because they’re waiting for the older son who has a traditional role in Middle Eastern banquets. As the “Major Domo,” he is supposed to wander around and honor the guests with special service. “Here’s a nice piece, why don’t you eat this for my sake?” The point being that the father is saying, “My oldest son is your servant.” Now this particular banquet is a bit sticky though because the honored guest is the younger son, so now we’re going to see what will happen as the older son discovers the reality of how this particular party is wired.
Instead of rushing into his home, he cautiously sizes up the situation before he decides whether to do as his role calls him to. So, he calls one of the “paidon,” one of the young boys. He doesn’t call for a “doulos” (a house servant) or a “diaconos” (a waiter). Out in the courtyard of the house there is a crowd of young boys who may get something to eat later on, but they’re certainly not at the first sitting. They’re not allowed in with the elders who are enjoying the festivities. It’s one of these kids that the elder son calls. So, we see how the older son came in suspicious – he doesn’t rush in . . . but asks, “What’s going on?” He then finds out what has happened. “Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him safe and sound. He has received him with peace.”
A part of the profits of the farm are being spent on a big party. If that calf were not butchered by the end of the year, it would become part of the capital which will sooner or later be given to the older son. Now, what will he do? His role says he should rush in to the party. Familial bonds would suggest that he should erupt joy over the fact of his brother’s return. He doesn’t. People start to recognize that he is outside and not coming into the party. The murmuring among the guests begins and things start to get awkward.
When Ken Bailey first taught this, he had a 16-year-old son. He felt fortunate that they get along quite well. They didn’t quarrel often, but when they did, his son never chose to do so in public. If his son chose to do something like that, for instance, when his father was giving a dinner for his most important colleagues at the school in Beirut where he taught, he would be deeply humiliated. He wouldn’t know how to respond, and he would get all red faced and flustered and would have to get up and take the son out of the room to say, Look, son, you can say anything to me, but please not in public. He would try to postpone the argument and then return to his guests struggling to regain his composure which he would never fully recover that evening.
Well, the older son not only chooses a public occasion to have a fight, but an occasion when all the leaders of the village are there. Now, how is he going to announce this fight? He refuses to go into the banquet. So, what is the father going to do? Well, he’s expected to do one of two things. Either send a couple of servants out to thrash the kid, or ignore him and go on running the party, waiting till everyone is gone before he really gives it to the kid. Those are his two options.
The unexpected choice the father makes is a costly third option (the same as shown to the younger son). For the second time in the same day, he offers a very costly demonstration of unexpected love. For the second time in the story now we see a son breaking not a law but a relationship with his father. The insult to the father by the older son is on par with the insult made by the younger son. They have both fallen into the same pit. The only question is, do they both know it? And now we find the father in enormous courage and with great public humiliation and pain . . . he goes down and out to his son, hoping to reconcile him with this costly offer of love. On the same day, for the same reason, a costly demonstration of love is required. One time for a son who broke the rules . . . a second time for a son who kept the rules. With the same problem, they both need the same solution. Now the costly offer of love to the younger son was accepted. Would this costly offer of love to the elder son, offered with as much personal pain and humiliation in public be accepted?
The elder son reveals his understanding of his relationship to father. When the father gets out there, his son starts shouting. And all through the story up to this point, in traditional fashion, the sons have addressed their father with a traditional title, “Father.” Suddenly, now the elder son addresses his father without a title at all, which is a very clear and cutting sign of lack of respect. And he says (arrogantly), “These many years I have served you (the verb means “served like a slave”). Look at how hard I have worked. I have served you as a slave. He is thereby defining his understanding of his relationship to a father. He had not been offering a response of love to one who has done everything for him, but instead was working as a slave and obeying his father’s “laws.” “I have never disobeyed your commandments,” he shouted! Amazing! The parallel to the Pharisees here is unmistakable.
Think of Jesus’ audience here. These Pharisees are those who will refuse to set foot in the judgment hall of Pilate lest they be defiled, but they sense no defilement at all in the offering of the Son of God to be killed. This innocent man will die, but they will not have broken the law. They will not defile their state of ceremonial purity by standing on those Gentile stones (in the judgment hall). And so here in our story is an elder son who feels, “I have kept all of the rules. Look at my life.” And he is ready to give you the list of all the wonderful things he has done. In the very process of breaking a relationship he is able to boast of how well he has kept the law.
Let’s look now again at our chart. We see the costly offer of unexpected love being given. It was accepted by the law breaker. This was defined as repentance, and upon the acceptance of it he was granted a new status which is called righteousness. Now, this character is offered the same demonstration of love and it looks like he’s not going to accept it. Why? Because he’s not here on the chart (pointing to bottom “sinners”), he’s not running on the infield, he’s out in foul territory in what Dr. Bailey calls a place of hardened doctrine. He looks at the world through the eyes that say, “There is a God. God gives us law. The good guys keep it. The bad guys break it. I keep it. Therefore, I am one of the good guys. My brother broke it, and so he’s one of the bad guys. And the only way he can rejoin us good guys is to admit that he broke the law, make up for what he has done, demonstrate that he will keep the law . . . then we’ll let him into our club.”
That’s not what has happened to his brother, and that’s not what now will potentially happen to him. Let’s go on and see what this fellow who is keeping the law does with his father’s enormously costly demonstration of unexpected love offered in public humiliation.
“You never gave me a goat. This character gets a whole calf!” He’s accusing his father of loving the younger brother more than he loves him. You are loving the bad guys more than you love us good guys. You never gave me anything to party with my friends. Obviously, the people inside, namely his family, do not constitute his friends. He wants his party with someone else! His brother and father are not amongst his friends, and his idea of joy is also pretty clear. It is not welcoming his brother home. His idea of joy is a belly full of meat with his buddies. You see this fellow is telling us a great deal about himself. “When this son of yours…” (AH! He doesn’t say “my brother.” I have nothing to do with him. You may be related to him, but I’m not.) … has devoured your living with harlots . . . Now, where did he get that? He knew absolutely nothing about how the money was spent. He’s making it up as he goes, which is what we often do in our self-righteousness – looking at others.
The elder brother’s position is now stated (and it is the same as the Pharisees). This action of rewarding this character for having broken the law is irresponsible . . .How are we going to have a decent society when you do ridiculous things like that? How are we going to grab him by the ear and twist it until we force him to keep the law if you reward him after he breaks it? Okay . . . this mirrors what the Pharisees were saying about Jesus. How come you welcome these sinners? How can you show love to people like this? They’ve first got to keep the rules!
The elder son entirely misses the fact that he too has been offered the reward of his father’s love. The father has just reached out in a gesture of love even in the face of all this hostility and bitterness and all of this twisted perspective as he makes this incredible public offer of love in deep pain and humiliation.
Now the father says tenderly, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” And here he uses a special word. Up to now in the story the word for son is “huios,” the ordinary Greek word for son. Now we’ve got a special word, “Teknos,” which means “my beloved son.” The offer of love is now verbalized. The father’s dramatic action had made no impact. Now that dramatic action is verbalized as well. My beloved son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. He’s saying, “Relax. I’m not going to carve away from your rights. I’m not going to make a new will. You won’t lose anything by having your brother at home. And there he ends up having to defend joy!
Has the elder son been persuaded to accept that he needs reconciling love to restore the relationship he has broken, or will he remain defiant, confident in his self-righteousness? Alright. We come to the absolute climax of the story at the end. All of these little kids in the courtyard are listening, and all the guests inside are listening, and now we’re waiting to hear his response. Is he going to accept his father’s gesture of love, embrace him, come in and apologize in front of all the guests? Or will he stand outside in the self-righteousness of his defiance of the offer of love which breaks down his self-confidence in his self-righteousness – which is all based on his belief that he has kept the law and is better than the next guy who doesn’t keep it? What’s he going to do? There the curtain closes and we don’t see. The response is left open for the Pharisees to write the ending.
The reason for this is that this is the part of the drama in which the audience truly becomes a part of the play. Now the pharisees who are listening walk on stage, and now they must answer up to this parable. Are they going to say, “We see now. This young man is God’s Messiah, and he’s giving us the vision of how God wants to deal with us. He is the unique agent of God who comes to us in self offering love and humiliation… And we are called upon to respond …?” Or will they remain bitter and cement the break in the relationship? We don’t know at the end of the story. But by the end of the gospel, we know that their choice was to have Jesus killed.
Not coincidentally, the very act of Jesus’ submission to their rejection and murderous treachery in real life mirrored the father’s response in the story when both sons wished him dead. Jesus went through with it in the greatest possible demonstration of costly love. The story remains unfinished for each of us until we make our choice to accept or reject the love offered to us. In accepting grace, we then live in thanksgiving and take our place at the banquet.
Many times, Jesus’ stories end in a banquet. The banquet of the Messiah which Isaiah looked forward to . . . The banquet in which God himself sits with all believers at the end of history. Until that time comes, Jesus says, “When you sit with me, you participate in that banquet “proleptically,” you celebrate ahead of time.” And when we break bread in the Holy communion, we are participating in the banquet of the Messiah at the end of all history, ahead of time, in the now.