Closing the Gap: The Older Son and the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

If there was a list of the greatest hits among Jesus’s parables, I am sure that the Parable of the Prodigal Son would be on it. I’ve heard this story at least a hundred times over the course of my life. Despite my familiarity, I heard something new to me in the story the other day while reading it aloud for a group discussion. Allow me to recount some basics about the parable in order to set up this “new” observation. 

If you have attended church for any significant time, you are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son told in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. A younger son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance early. The father grants this request. Not long after receiving his inheritance, the younger son goes off to a far country and spends all his money on wine, women, and song. Luck was not with him as a famine hits the land at the same time. He is relegated to being a farmhand feeding pigs — a particular atrocity for Jesus’s Jewish audience. He decides to return to his father with the intention of becoming one of his hired hands. The father sees him coming down the road in front of the house and runs to meet him. Before the prodigal son could really finish his prepared speech, the father is feeding and clothing him. The father has no intention to let his younger wayward son become one of his hired hands. He fully restores him. He rejoices for his son “was dead but now has come back to life; he was lost but now he is found.” 

That is a wonderful story, but this father had two sons. His elder son never asked for his inheritance early and never left his father’s side. He was the good son. Yet here is his father celebrating the return of the son who squandered away half of the family’s fortune. The elder son breaks. He complains that the father kills a fattened calf for the younger son and has never given him even a goat to celebrate with his friends. He has always been around. Why doesn’t the father celebrate him every once in awhile? The elder brother is angry at both his younger brother and his father.

I think that the elder brother’s anger is easy to understand. The exact arrangements of the transfer of wealth in the beginning of the parable are not spelled out. But wealth was primarily in land in Jesus’s agrarian culture. It is quite possible that the younger son sold half of the family’s farm. However it unfolded, the younger son not only squandered his inheritance, but also significantly harmed the family’s overall financial situation. Even so, the father has the temerity to celebrate his return.

Parables are designed to elicit a response in the hearer. In a more complex parable like the Prodigal Son, we probably are meant to identify closely with one of the characters. In fact, I think the audience is supposed to identify with one of the two sons. The person who has been in desperate straights and found peace in God through Jesus would obviously identify with the younger son. The extravagant love of God knows no bounds when a sinner repents and returns home. If the story ended there, everyone would go home feeling content. It is never that simple.

For myself, I identify with the older son. I have grown up in church and never strayed that far. My sowing of wild oats in early adulthood was relatively mild compared to some of my friends. I do not have a dramatic conversion story. Whenever someone new comes in to the fold and gets recognition, it is really easy for me to say, “Hey, I have been here the entire time.” In fact, the response of the father to the younger son’s return upsets my sense of fairness. Is it really “fair” that the younger son gets fully restored? This question disturbs my reading of the parable for me. Reading it recently, I did not leave it feeling good, but with questions about how the extravagant love of God squares with my sense of fairness and justice. What exactly is the response Jesus is trying to get out of me with this parable?

This sets up the observation I mentioned in the first paragraph. When the older son is talking to his father, he refers to his brother as “this son of yours” (Greek: ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος). This is a very interesting way to refer to your brother. It reminded me of a discussion on the pragmatic effect of word choice in Steven E. Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Hendrickson, 2010). As an example, I could refer to my children in a few different ways. I could refer to them as “my children.” This effectively creates a closeness between me and the children. I am closely identifying myself with them. If I am with my wife and we are watching the children being particularly cute, I could call them “our children.” This creates a closeness between both my children and my wife. If the children are being difficult, I might say to my wife, “your children are misbehaving.” This creates the effect of distance between myself and the children. Nothing has changed in their genes. They are still physically my children. Plus, all three phrases are technically true and the semantic meaning of the words have not changed. My word choice within a certain context has the pragmatic effect of establishing a distance between us depending on my feelings at the time.

The older son does something similar when he calls his brother, “this son of yours.” You would expect him to use the closest relational descriptor, which would be “brother.” But the oldest son does not want to be associated with his younger brother. Through his choice of words, he is distancing himself. 

One could argue that the older son is an aggrieved party along with the father in the story. His brother’s sin has affected him as well as his father. This brings up an important point. The younger brother is the most obvious sinner in the story. Sin has created distance between the son and the father. But the father is more than willing to close that distance when the son returns. Sin creates a kind of distance between us and God. God is ready and willing to forgive that sin. But sin also creates a distance between humans. If I lie to a friend, that creates enmity  between us. It will take some time and contrition to heal the breach. In that light, the fact that the older brother is holding the younger at an arm’s length is understandable. However, the father’s response to the older son is as remarkable as his response to the younger.

First, the father tells the older son that he is always with the father and everything the father has is his. But then he refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours” (Greek: ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος). The older son created distance by calling his brother, “this son of yours.” The father quickly closes that distance by reminding the older son of his closest relationship to his younger brother. Consider each Greek phrase together:

Older Son: ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος
Father: ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος

Together the phrases have a kind of parallelism. The two constructions are in the same form with only the change from “son” to “brother.” This strongly suggests that Luke wants the reader to notice the two phrases and the change that happens between them. He wants you to see that the father has brought together what the older son wanted to hold apart.

There are lessons associated with each son in the parable. With the younger son, the parable teaches that God is reconciling sinners to himself in Jesus. With the older son, it teaches that God is also reconciling sinners to each other. Within the body of Christ, we are brought together despite our many transgressions and offenses.

For people like me who identify with the older son, the parable is trying to bring about a response of celebration when someone who was lost comes home. It may upset my sense of fairness, but that’s okay. God is represented by the father in the parable and God is ultimately the one who defines fairness. The treatment of the two sons may not seem like fairness from our perspective, we should have faith that our loving and just God is in fact being fair in the end. We simply lack the perspective to see it at this point. Therefore, we should put those concerns on the back burner and celebrate the return of a wayward child. God has laid out an incredible feast for all of us. We could never match the extravagant love of God for the prodigal, but we should at least be at the reunion party. 

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