The Lost Son II - The Elder Son
by Aneel Aranha
Imagine, if you will, that one day your kid brother suddenly gets it in his head to leave home in pursuit of adventure and takes off with nearly half the family fortune in tow. Nothing is heard from him for years. Nothing is heard about him either except for disquieting rumors that make you squirm. Then, a few years later, your brother reappears with every indication that he has squandered all his money, but rather than be rebuked as you would expect, your father throws a feast for him! How would you feel?
I am fairly certain that many of us would feel pretty much like the elder son in Jesus's parable of the lost son did.
'Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound." Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." ' (Luke 15:25-32 NRSV)
The elder son was outraged and to any sensible person such outrage is probably justified. How could you possible reward somebody who has proved himself to be such a wastrel while denying proper reward to somebody who so obviously deserved it? The elder son had been obedient, loyal, dutiful, faithful, hardworking and respectable. And, yet, the younger son who had disgraced himself and the family was getting a party thrown for him! Where was the justice in this?
The elder son didn't understand—as many of us don't—two vital facts: One, he didn't understand his identity; who he truly was in relation to his father. Two, he didn't understand his father and the tremendous love and compassion he had for his children. The elder son thought of himself as a slave who was required to obey what was asked of him, and saw his father as somebody he had to serve in order to be rewarded!
See how, in his anger, he reveals his total lack of understanding. "All these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command," he says. And then he goes on, the real reasons for his outrage surfacing. "Yet, you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
I can imagine the sadness the father felt at the paucity of love in his elder son's heart for his brother, distancing himself from his own sonship by referring to him as "this son of yours", and his frustration at the complete lack of comprehension his elder son had of his father's extraordinary act of grace.
I can imagine him wanting to grab the boy by the shoulders and shaking him, crying, "You foolish boy! What's the matter with you? You have lived with me all your life and you never realized who you were! You never understood your identity. You are my son. My son! Everything that I have, everything that I own belongs to you! Why are you moaning about me giving you a goat when you could have had anything you wanted—a calf, a cow, a bull—any time you wanted! The whole damn farm belongs to you! But you never understood that because you never understood me. You never understood my love. You believed it had to be earned when it was there for free! Do you understand? For free!"
Instead, the father merely said quietly, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
Even while assuring his elder son that his inheritance was secure, his father tries to get him to realize that this is a matter of relationship, not of being right. This is a matter of grace, not of law. And, ultimately, this is a matter of love and forgiveness, not of punishment.
Still addressing himself to the Pharisees, Jesus was trying to show them how much like the elder son they were, living by the letter of the law, but with the spirit of the law far from their hearts, believing that if they followed the rules they would be able to earn their reward. (And they had rules for everything, which we will look at as we progress through this series).
Jesus had berated them before on the subject: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others." (Matthew 23:23 NRSV)
The Pharisees Today
So many Christians today live the same way. Many of us have never left home to travel to distant lands. We have remained in the faith, saying our payers and going for mass faithfully over the years. We have not despised our inheritance. We have not strayed to any great extent. We have not engaged in wild living. Yet our lives are characterized by the same things that marked the elder son in our story. We are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness and jealousy. And so little love.
We, also, are so particular about following rules. We know that Christ has secured our salvation, but we still feel that we need to earn our place at the banquet table. And when we see those we don't believe deserve to be there feasting, we feel outraged. And in our outrage, we do what the younger son did in the beginning: break the father's heart!
The parable of the lost son is not just about one lost son. The elder son was lost too. He was not physically cut off from his father like his younger brother was, which perhaps made it very difficult for him to realize this truth, but spiritually he was just as separated, if not more. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are lost as well. So what happens to us?
What happens to the elder son? Does he go in? Jesus doesn't tell us. But I believe each of us writes our own ending to this story. We can remain out in the cold, alone and isolated, resentful of those who are inside the house, partaking in the feast. Or we can go inside the house where it is warm and cosy and join them in a great celebration. The choice is ours.
May the Spirit be with you.
Next: The Hidden Treasure
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