The Prodigal Son: Why isn’t his brother invited to the party? (Luke 15:25-32)

rembrant-prodigal-son-detailThis post has no answers. I’ll admit that now, because that’s a part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that bothers me. It bothers me because it messes with the traditional interpretation and I don’t know what to do with that.

So the Prodigal Son returns home and his dad, instead of tearing him a new one, throws a lavish welcome home party. The elder brother, who’s always been the dutiful son and has always kept the rule, is angry at this, refusing to go into the celebrations. Because of this he’s treated as an ungrateful, resentful legalist with a stick up his butt. Who’s knows, maybe that’s the idea. Certainly that’s what I learned when I was growing up: God’s the father, the Prodigal represents ‘sinners’ and the eldest son is a metaphor for unforgiving religious types. Easy.

But one day I read verse 25 and something lit up and now it messes with me every time I hear this story.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard music and dancing.” Okay, what does that tell us?

The eldest son wasn’t invited to the party.

Look, the party’s already in full swing. There’s been enough time to round up a band and get some guests together. The next verse shows us that the fattened calf has been killed and cooked, and we know that because at least one of the servants knew what was going on. A fair bit of time has passed since the Prodigal got back.

No-one told his brother.

The servant explains what’s going on, but he has to be summoned so it’s not like he was ¬†already on his way out to the field to round up the family. The eldest son is out of the loop and hasn’t been invited.

So of course he refuses to go in. Of course he’s angry. Of course there’s a tense conversation with his father.

It’s hard not to get the impression that this is a messed up family. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!”

Is this true? Did the eldest son ever actually ask? Was he not invited because, let’s be pragmatic here, it’s not always easy for farmers to drop everything and party? Did the father ever directly refuse to give him a goat? In the next verse the father says “Everything I have is yours,” but his eldest son doesn’t seem to believe it. “You are always with me,” the father says, but he forgot to invite his eldest son to his brother’s homecoming, the biggest party the family had thrown for years.

Maybe I bring too many issues to this, but something doesn’t seem right. This exchange, with its tensions and undercurrents, makes the parable more complicated, more difficult. Jesus often told stories in which the God substitute was a little unflattering, but this almost seems to be lampshaded. I still tend to lean towards the traditional interpretation, because I love grace and stories of grace, but I can’t help but think I’mm missing something here.

And why not? The Bible’s a complicated book. It contains allusions and imagery and debates and arguments. Some of its metaphors are messy and we have to wrestle with that. We need to engage with its ideas and in doing so engage with God. I think that’s what Jesus the storyteller would want.


One thought on “The Prodigal Son: Why isn’t his brother invited to the party? (Luke 15:25-32)

  1. A strange thought occurred to me. Perhaps the eldest son in the parable represents Jews who reject Christ, and the prodigal son represents saved Jews and Gentiles who have accepted Christ. In Rev 19: 6-9, there is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb which is for those who have accepted Christ. A celebration for those who have come to God thru Christ, the Bride, the Church. The Jews would be the eldest in relationship to God, with anyone who accepts Christ, the later relation, younger son. It’s not so much that the Prodigal is a sinner, for the eldest is a sinner too, but the Jew is one who has been God’s chosen, been obedient, followed and been faithful, teaching His commands and filling the world with God. The verse about always, “slaving away and being obedient and you never gave me a goat to share” . The father seems a bit stunned and says everything I have has been yours. Isn’t that the gift to the Jewish people that He has always been taking care and providing for them? What He is, is theirs? Were they not aware of how much they already had? And part of their teachings were the coming of the Messiah. But did the Jewish follow Christ when He came? There was rejection, especially since it would allow Gentiles to become part of God’s family. And now the younger son, the unsaved of the world, wants to come home to dad, after never even really knowing Him, but knowing Him enough that He would love Him. Is this perhaps a reference that the eldest son, regardless of when or how he found out his brother was home, should have been happy to have his brother back with his Father? That all should know God and become part of His family? But the Jew refuses to accept them because they come through Christ, and he feels shafted. When all along , the Jew, the eldest son, had God’s love and grace, if only he would accept His Son. But the eldest is excluded, either by his own anger or God’s will, because he refuses to be happy for his brother coming home and rejoining the family. I will be reading this one very carefully again and again ,because I think you’re on to something here.

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