Most Bible translations introduce Luke 15:11-32 with a title, calling it the parable of the prodigal son and sometimes, the parable of the lost son.
But this diverts our attention away from the fact that Jesus begins the story with these words:
“A man had two sons”. This is a story of two sons, not just one son. It is also the story of two lost sons, not just one lost son. The second son, the elder son, doesn’t receive much attention in the Church or in our preaching, perhaps because he has more in common with most church goers than most of us would care to admit.
And so today we turn to the parable of the second lost son today. His lostness is more difficult to pinpoint. It is more difficult to identify it. His lostness is far more respectable and thus it almost seems that he is not really lost at all. But at the end of the parable, while the first son is described as having come home, having returned to the father’s love, the second son, the elder son is perhaps even more estranged than the younger son ever was. His story is not resolved. The question is left hanging in the mind of the listener? Will the elder son be reconciled with his father? Will he be reconciled with his younger brother? We don’t know. We are not told.
Jesus leaves it up to us. He plants the seed of the story and leaves that seed to germinate. The problem is that we have so heavily fixated on the first half of the story, that we seldom reflect on what it means to be the elder son.
Who is the Elder son? Why at the end of the story does he exclude himself?
In the first two weeks of this sermon series, I reflected on the life of Rembrandt as an aid to reflecting on his painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. Rembrandt for a large part of his life was very much the younger son, who ended his life having squandered much of his wealth. But Henri Nouwen writes that digging a little deeper into Rembrandt’s life, it is clear that there is also an elder son living within Rembrandt, a hardness and a self-righteousness that could express itself in coldness and even in cruelty. When Rembrandt’s wife had died, he had an affair with the women who he had hired to look after his son. Apparently he had intimated that he would marry her, but when he never did, the whole thing turned sour. She like Rembrandt was from the Reformed tradition and so she took him to the elders of the great Kirk which led to a kind of a church trial for Rembrandt which I didn’t end well for him. But his response to her was a vindictive one, and, after drumming up false testimonies from his neighbours, he ended up having her committed to a sanatorium, saying that she was mentally unstable. Even quite a number of years later, when she made attempts to be released from the sanatorium, he pulled strings with high ranking people he knew to make sure that she would remain inside. He could be both wild and profligate, but he was also capable of being cold, cruel and vindictive.
Turning to Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son, the elder son is depicted in the painting standing on the right hand side. Strictly speaking, according to the parable, the elder son was not present at the meeting of the father and the son but only appears much later. While Rembrandt’s painting is therefore not a factual representation of the story, what he is trying to do in one frame, is to capture something of the spirit of the story.
As I have shared before Rembrandt depicts the elder son standing off to to the right hand side with a shadowy space between him and his father and brother.. He seems set a little higher in the painting as though on a platform. His posture is bolt upright, his hands in a crossed, closed position as he appears to look down in a mixture of judgement, disgust, pity, contempt and disapproval. While there is a gentle light that shines upon the father and the younger son, the elder son is appears to be disappearing in the shadows.
You can almost hear the words he speaks in the parable in verse 30 when he addresses his father and describes his younger brother with the words: “This son of yours…”. In these words, he seems to have disowned both his younger brother, and even his father. “This son of yours…”
Henri Nouwen writes of himself: It is hard for me to concede that this bitter, resentful and angry man might be closer to me in a spiritual way than the lustful younger brother. Yet the more I think about the elder son, the more I recognise myself in him. He goes on… All my life I have harboured a strange curiosity for the disobedient life that I myself didn’t dare to live… I have known the envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all the sorts of things I condemn. I call their behaviour reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I have often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself… The obedient, dutiful life of which I am proud or for which I am praised, sometimes feels like a burden that was laid upon my shoulders and continues to oppress me. And so Henri Nouwen writes that he has no difficulty identifying with the elder son who in verse 29 complains “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid to celebrate with my friends.” In this complaint, obedience and duty have become a burden and service has become slavery.
Henri Nouwen writes that the lostness of the younger son is obvious. But the lostness of the elder son is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hard-working. People respected him admired him, praised him and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly he was faultless. But when confronted with his father’s joy and forgiveness at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts within him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden for so long in the shadows of his own heart.
If this elder son is lost, he is lost, not in a distant country, living a wild life somewhere else, he is lost in his sense of judgement, condemnation, resentment, bitterness and anger. He is lost in self-imposed rules that the father has never actually placed upon him. Somehow he has placed them upon himself and then blamed his father. He is lost in a joyless life.
Timothy Keller makes an interesting observation about the older son. He suggests that while the older son outwardly seems to be the polar opposite of the younger son, he is in fact motivated by exactly the same thing. He loves his father’s money and his father’s stuff more than he loves the father. The only thing that is different are his methods of trying to achieve the same result. The younger son rudely and disrespectfully blurts out that he wants his portion of the inheritance and then runs off and wastes it when he gets it. The older son has a longer term strategy. He has his eye on his father’s wealth and aims to achieve it by compliance rather than rebellion. But on the inside there is no real warmth or love towards his father. He is more interested in money than relationship with the father. And so rather than living everyday in the light and joy of being his fathers son, he has come to regard his father as a slave driver from whom he will one day get his just desserts.
In the end, both sons are lost, but only one returns. Wild, lustful living can be wasteful and destructive. But resentment and anger can be equally destructive because it leaves no room for love. It is often the resentful saint whose moralistic intensity can spill over into fanaticism. Henri Nouwen writes that joy and resentment cannot co-exist. The elder son refuses to join in the joyful celebration of a lost son who has come to his senses and finally returned home. If it is true that joy and resentment cannot co-exist, then it is also true that love and resentment cannot co-exist either.
Perhaps what the parable is suggesting is that the spiritual answer to a destructive life of wild and
wasteful living is not going to the opposite moralistic and dutiful extreme. If our obedience, our sense of morality and our sense of duty rob us of our joy and prevents us from celebrating life and expressing love and grace and forgiveness towards others and instead produces resentment and anger within us, then it should be an alarm bell that something is wrong. Just as the younger son needs to learn something of the more responsible ways of his older brother, so the older brother in the parable needs to learn something from the younger brother (and indeed his father) in how to let his hair down and to enjoy life a little. The answer does not lie in the extremes, but in a middle way.
How can the elder son in me and in you return home, because I can see that there is definitely an elder son living in me? Jesus leaves the question open, although he makes it very clear that the father who runs out to meet the younger son is the same father who leaves the celebration to meet the older son too. There is no favouritism here. The father desires for the elder son to join in the party.
As Henri Nouwen wrestled with this question in his own life, he came to the conclusion that the way for the elder son to return is through trust and through gratitude. Firstly to begin to trust that God is not the slave driver that I thought God was. That I can relax sometimes. That I can make time to let my hair down. That rest, celebration and joy are as important as duty and hard work. If I am resentful that others are not working hard enough, then maybe it is a sign that I am working too hard taking on more responsibility than God is asking of me, that I am beginning to put myself in the place of God. And secondly, through a life of gratitude. Henri Nouwen writes that gratitude is the opposite of resentment. Resentment blocks the perception that life is a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve and that others are getting more than they should. And so underlying my resentment is normally a hidden envy. By contrast, gratitude brings us back to our senses, back to the here and now, enabling us to experience the truth that all of life is a pure gift.
Henri Nouwen writes in conclusion: There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude, because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home and declared in a voice filled with affection “You are with me always and all I have is yours.” Indeed I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off then I, and lament about my misfortunes. Or, there is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me, and to see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift, calling for gratitude. And this takes a leap of faith and trust. And every time I make this little leap, I catch a glimpse of the One who runs out to meet me with joy. Amen.