The Prodigal Son

This isn't the first reflection to try and understand the position that the eldest son finds himself in, but it does manage to get to the heart of the question of family dysfunction in a fresh way, I feel.

October 17
He was angry and refused to go in.
Luke 15:28a
Parable Series 4 - Part Six


Luke 15:25-28a "Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' But he was angry and refused to go in.'"

Finally, we meet the elusive oldest son. And like his younger brother, Jesus' audience would have been surprised to find out that he is not a typical oldest son. He is no Cain, or Ishmael, nor Esau... he is not a conventional older brother as far as their stories were concerned.

Largely due to hearing this story over and over again from childhood, our almost immediate reaction to the older son is disdain. We see him as a whiner and a winger. Someone who refuses to celebrate the miraculous return of his brother. But if we set aside our inherited views and preconceived ideas of the oldest son, we might find that we have empathy for him. While the father called the whole neighborhood to come and celebrate, he neglected to find his oldest son and invite him too. I wonder how many times that had happened before? The oldest son's anger is not misplaced.

Sibling rivalry and family dysfunction are not at all uncommon in Biblical stories. In fact, these notions are central to most of them.

Luke 15:28-30, "So his father came out and pleaded with him. But he replied to his father, 'Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.'"

Finally, this parable starts to emulate the first two. The first time the father goes in search of something that is missing and lost is when he goes out from the party to find his oldest son and plead with him to come in. Unlike the sheep in the first parable that can be lifted up and taken to wherever the shepherd wants, or the coin that the woman found and placed in its rightful spot, a person is not passive. Returning the lost son (the oldest son) to his rightful place by his father's side at the celebration proves much more difficult.

Perhaps the father did not know which son was truly lost until this moment. Could it be that son lost to him was sleeping just a few rooms away all these years? Once he sees what is missing, like the shepherd, and the woman, he seeks to make his family whole. And the father does what he should. He let his son express his turmoil. Human relationships, family breakdown, are more complicated to bring to completion than lost a sheep or misplaced a coin. It takes time, humility, vulnerability, and courage. And it takes great love.

Don't give the eldest son a hard time here. After all, he's right. He's not the one who was off sleeping with prostitutes and he didn't waste his father's fortune. He had been working hard all these years hoping for a fraction of the love he gave his younger brother. You guys know what it's like; when there is a child or a person with a problem or an issue or is more rebellious and wild than the others, they seem to garner the most attention. All the while, the others go less noticed, perhaps even unseen. It would be easy to feel forgotten and less loved than the child getting all the attention. And in this, the son was right to express to his father what he was feeling and perhaps reveal to him the real rift in the family.

These two brothers were at odds with each other and the father is only just beginning to see what is really happening in his household.

To be continued…

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