Growing up in Sunday school, I was very familiar with the Prodigal Son—at least as he was rendered in flannelgraph. I disapproved of his behavior with righteous indignation; as the first-born child of a Baptist household, I empathized with the older brother. How was it fair that the bad boy got a party and the good one didn't? It wasn't until I was much older that I realized the story was infinitely more about the father's love than the prodigal's misconduct.
Only recently, however, have I begun to discover that the older son in Jesus' story is every bit as lost as the younger one. In his book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller points out that the two brothers represent the two basic ways people try to make life work. The younger son pursues "self-discovery"—he's on a quest to find and fulfill himself, even if a few people have to get hurt along the way. The older brother is committed to a more socially respectable way of being in the world—the way of "moral conformity." He's on a program of self-salvation, earning the approval of his community and the favor of his father; when he feels the terms of this deal are violated, his good attitude evaporates into resentment.
Kenneth Bailey is a theologian who spent 40 years living in the Middle East, striving to resituate Jesus' stories in their original Palestinian context. He points out that for Jesus' audience, respect for one's father is paramount; the younger son's request for his inheritance from a still-healthy patriarch constitutes an unthinkable offense. It amounts to saying, "I wish you were dead."
But the older son's conduct—refusing to join the party for his brother and arguing with his dad in front of the guests—is no less egregious. Hospitality was of supreme value in 1st-century Palestine. The entire village would likely have been invited to the party, and the oldest son would be expected to co-host the proceedings. His refusal is another round of humiliating rejection for the father. But the father actually goes out looking for this son, entreating him to come join the party, and Jesus leaves the story unfinished. Will the son abandon his own plan for making life work and accept the extravagant gift of his father's love and inclusion? Or will he stick to the terms of his deal and exclude himself from his place in the family?
I was discussing this story not long ago with a Bible study group made up mostly of "older brothers" and "older sisters." We'd played by the rules much of our lives, but we were beginning to see that our good behavior had been at least subconsciously a form of self-salvation—an attempt to earn God's approval and maybe even obligate him to do what we wanted. When we considered the fact that Jesus told this story to the Pharisees (older brothers if ever there were some!) in response to their outrage over his association with "sinners," we realized the parable is primarily about the father's relationship with the older son. "How did this story about two sons ever even get called 'The Prodigal Son'?" one of us asked. "An older brother must have named it!" was the answer.
As we pondered the implications, one of the women confessed, "Still, it doesn't seem fair that the father had never thrown a party for the older son." ? Several of us admitted that we, too, related to the son's complaint.