Jesus concludes the first eight stanzas of the parable with the celebration getting underway. In the ninth stanza, Jesus shifts the focus to the older son. As you will recall, the older son was silent when the younger son did the unthinkable by asking for a division of his father's estate. The expected role of the older son was to intervene and become the mediator between his father and younger brother. Instead, he is passive and accepts the division of the estate.
25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves [young boy] and asked what was going on.
The typical village had the wealthiest people at the center with decreasing social status as you moved to the outskirts. The fields surrounded the village. The workers went out into the fields during the day and returned in the evening. The road to the village would have passed through the fields into the village. Thus, in both sections of the parable, a son is returning from a field to the father’s house.
The houses in these villages were walled in enclosures with an expansive courtyard in the middle. The celebration is loud and boisterous. As the son approaches the village, one might reasonably expect that he would quicken his pace to see what the celebration was about. Upon entering the house he would be greeted by cheers of welcome and be informed of the good news. His role, possibly after changing clothes, would be to mingle among the guests and make everyone feel at home.
Instead, the older son finds a young boy and inquires what is happening. The word for the boy is paidos which can mean either slave/servant, young boy, or son. “Son” doesn’t fit here. Kenneth Bailey notes that in verse 27 the boy responds “your father did so and so" instead of “my master did so and so" which means he almost certainly was not a servant. Children were not allowed into the house for such events and this boy would no doubt be one of the children playing in the courtyard. The servants would be occupied with serving at the celebration.
27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28Then he became angry and refused to go in.
There are a couple of important subtleties in this passage. The phrase “your brother has come” does not accurately convey the meaning hear. The Greek does not have the passively receiving his son. The connotation is that the father is the one was active in "bringing him back." The Greek word translated here as “safe and sound” is the same one used in the Septuagint (i.e., Greek translation for the Old Testament) for the Hebrew word shalom. It means wellness, prosperity, peace and right relationships. The father, of his own action, has achieved shalom with his youngest son.
The oldest son is furious. He is incensed that the father would reconcile with the younger brother. Bailey points out that it is hard for us to imagine how insulting this behavior was. He suggests that we imagine a wealthy man having a black tie, candle lit dinner for prestigious guests, only to have his son show up at the door unshaven, without shirt and shoes, and begin to verbally attack the father. According to Bailey, this analogy is too mild to convey the revolting nature of the older son's behavior!
Bailey suggests that the behavior of this son is actually more cutting than the behavior of the youngest son at the beginning of the story. At least the disrespect was done in private. The oldest son has now embarrassed his father in front of the whole community. A traditional father would have called his servants to subdue his son and have him locked in a room. How does the father respond?
His father came out and began to plead with him.
Keep in mind that this exchange is now happening in full view of the community. Rather than retaliate, the father humiliates himself and implores his son to come in and join the celebration. The first hearers of this story would once again be absolutely stunned at the reaction of the father. His extension of grace earlier in the day had brought one son into shalom. Might it happen again?
29 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.
The first thing to note about this statement is the disrespect of the son by failing to address his father with the title “father.” Second, he says “I have been working like a slave for you.” Does this father exhibit anything remotely suggesting that he is a mean taskmaster? Third, “Never disobeyed?” Really? Never? Note that he is saying this in front of the community in the most disrespectful and disgraceful way he can. What about his refusal to mediate between the father and the younger son at the beginning of the story? Clearly the son sees his relationship with his father as a stifling and constraining one.
The older son accuses his father of favoritism but there is something more subtle being said here. The older son has technical control of the estate but can not dispose of it the way he wants because his father is still around. His father and brother are at this banquet but apparently they do not count as part of “with my friends.” He does not even see himself as part of the family. If his father were dead, he could throw parties whenever he wanted to and invite whomever he wanted to. In essence, just like the prodigal, the older brother wishes his father was dead and out of the way!
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
“This son of yours” is the older brother’s expression of contempt for his brother by refusing to even acknowledge that he is his brother. But pay particular attention to the accusation he makes, “devoured your property with prostitutes.” Remember in an earlier post I noted that nothing Jesus said about the youngest son suggested anything about bedding with prostitutes. The “wild living” merely connoted that he was financially reckless. But the real question is how would the older son know anything about what his brother had done since he had just come in from the field? He wouldn’t. So why the remark?
The older brother knows the celebration will seal the new found shalom between the father, his brother, and the community. Sleeping with prostitutes would be bad enough but he was in a far away place, which meant he would have been sleeping with gentile prostitutes! This is an insult that might provoke murder. The son is intentionally being inflammatory as he viciously tries to destroy the shalom between the father and the younger son in front of the whole community. The older son knows if he can make such a fabrication stick, no father in the community would give their daughter in marriage to the younger brother. He is outraged that his father will not enforce social custom.
Furthermore, the oldest son misstates the point of the celebration. The celebration is not about the prodigal son. It is about the father’s joy at having achieved shalom with his son! The older son can only see it as a competition between him and his brother.
31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
Bailey writes that this response “staggers the imagination.” The older son refused to even address his father as “father.” Bailey notes that huios, meaning “son,” is used eight times in the parable. Here Jesus uses teknon, meaning “beloved son.” Just as one might respond affectionately to one’s father as "daddy," this is the reciprocal endearing response of a father to a son. After humiliating the father in front of the entire community, the father calls him teknon!
The estate belongs to the oldest son. The father is actually reminding the son the all his “slaving” has actually been for himself since he already owns the estate. The older son is fearful of loosing what he has a “right” to and the father assures him that nothing has changed.
32 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.'"
Without digressing into great detail, the first portion of the verse 32 could be taken as a defense of the father’s action. This translation gives some of that feel. In fact, it is more likely an observation that the celebration was irrepressible. In essence, how could it occur to anyone to do otherwise?
The father, countering the older son’s remark “this son of yours,” says “this brother of yours.” He will not let the older son distance himself from the family and the relationship.
Finally, in Greek, “he was lost and is found” emphasizes the father’s action in “finding” him and restoring shalom. The father still holds out hope that his self-deprecating love will even yet draw his older son into the celebration as well, restoring shalom among all.
But there is something missing here. If you go back and count you will see there have been only seven stanzas. The story begs for an eighth stanza. What did the older son do? Bailey suggests that an anticipated ending might have gone something like this:
And the older son embraced his father and entered the house and was reconciled to his brother and to his father. And the father celebrated together with his two sons.
But it doesn’t say this. It just stops. Jesus left it to the religious leaders he was addressing to fill in the ending of the story with their response. He does the same for us.