This 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.