The Lost Older Son

There once was this person who was a pillar in their church. They never missed a worship; a Bible study; a gathering of any kind. This person attached themselves to as many ministry teams as humanly possible. Others looked up to them. Others wondered at their stamina and drive. But somewhere along the way all of this serving had been reduced to mere duty. And somehow all of this serving had darkened their heart towards others who didn’t serve, or didn’t serve as much, or didn’t serve in the right way. But at least they go to church; at least they are actively involved in good ministries. Right? But this person may be just as lost as the person who never darkens the doorway of a church.

              Luke 15:25-32 is the second part of the parable of the lost son. Maybe it should be the parable of the lost sons. When the older son reappears in the story he is out in the field. I think Jesus gives this detail because he wants the hearer to envision a dutiful son. This son comes home and hears a party. There is a band playing – the word means either an instrument that produces two sounds or more than one instrument. There is either singing or dancing and maybe both. Either way, he hears a celebration. Maybe he guessed at the purpose of this shindig, because he doesn’t go in to find out what it was all about. He summoned a servant and asked him all about it.

The servant doesn’t put in quite the same dramatic language as the father had, with the whole dead and alive thing, but he does capture what the concern of the father had been. He tells the older son that his brother has returned and is being honored because he came back unharmed. Those of us who are parents catch the tone here. Anything can happen in the far country. People die in the far country and worse. But the younger son is now safe and healthy. Now that will make a parent party.

The older son becomes enraged and refuses to enter the party. There will be no celebrating for him. And just as the father ran to greet and kiss the younger son home, he now goes out to plead with the older son. He is trying to animate celebration. Some people have to be prodded to joyful parties. The son responded with a tirade. He speaks of his long years of service. But he doesn’t say service; he doesn’t speak of contributing to family well-being. He says, “I have slaved for you.” One source said that this is just angry words and not too much should be read into it. Then the source mentions that the same word is found in the Greek translation of Genesis 31:41 in the words of Jacob to Laban. I’m not sure that proves the point at all. I think Jacob also viewed his service as slavery, and for better reason. Okay, back to the parable. The son slaved and never passed over a single command of the father’s. And the father never gave him so much as a young goat. It is not the goat that he cares about. It is recognition. Recognition is always important, but when relationship is reduced to slaving duty, it becomes heightened.

Especially when that scoundrel of a do nothing brother waltzes back home and receives fatted calf recognition. The older son cannot even bring himself to say “brother.” He is “Your son!” Your son who ate up your life-resources with prostitutes. Where did this idea come from? There is no way this son could know this about the other son. It is an assumption. Righteous indignation often assumes the worst. I work with incarcerated people; young and old. Assumptions get made. For this immoral slob of a son you kill the fatted calf; you recognize and honor.

The father then attempts to show this son’s lostness. You have always been with me. All that is mine is yours. We are in relationship together. All of the service; all of the staying; all of the long years is about relationship. And this son, because he missed his own relationship, cannot comprehend the joy of renewed relationship. He missed out on relationship with the father and relationship with his brother. And isn’t that sad. In his own lostness, he could not rejoice over a found brother. In his anger, he could only feel resentment toward a shiftless brother.

Jesus ends the story there. We don’t know if the brother continues to pout outside, hating the sounds of party filling the air. We don’t know if he softened his heart and entered in. You know, just to check out for himself what happens when a household bursts out with celebration. Jesus ends here, because he wants those who view his eating with sinners as oh so wrong to decide what they will do. Will they rejoice with renewed relationship; theirs and the sinners’? The lost being found? Will you?