In part 1 of this series, we focused on the younger son in Jesus’s Parable of the Lost Son. The younger son left his father, treating him as if he were already dead, and went to live in a distant country where he squandered the blessings bestowed upon him. As a result, he became needy, nearly starving to death. It was at this point that he came to his senses and returned to his father’s home, where his father welcomed him back warmly and celebrated his return with a glorious feast.
What did we learn from the first part of the story? The younger son represents humanity, and his father represents God the father. God did not and will not disown humanity. Humanity has squandered its potential by its belief in limitation, suffering, and sickness. We have been conditioned to believe that we are no longer worthy to be God’s children. Even so, we can be transformed. We can come to our senses, recognize God as the source of our life and well being, and learn to accept his extraordinarily high opinion of us. We are his children and everything he has is ours! That is how humanity is reconciled to God – by being united in spirit with him.
Of course, the other question is how humanity can be reconciled with one another. This question is addressed in the second half of Jesus’s Parable of the Lost Son, which describes the older brother’s reaction to his younger brother’s reception. Let’s look at the remainder of the story in Luke 15: 25-31.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” [verses 25-28]
This is puzzling. The servant knew what was going on, but the older son did not. Why did the older son not know of his brother’s return? Wouldn’t he be among the first to know of an event of such great importance to the family?
Part of the answer appears in verse 25: “the older son was in the field.” He is busy working on the family’s business affairs rather than attending to family relationships. So when the older brother hears of a celebration for his disloyal younger brother, who abandoned the family business to go party hearty and left his older brother to shoulder his share of the work, the older brother becomes angry and refuses to join in the festivities.
Upon learning of this, the father steps out of the party to plead with his older son to come inside and celebrate with everyone else.
“But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.’” [verses 29-30]
Notice the older son’s attitude here. He views his father as a taskmaster to be obeyed rather than as his cherished source of life and love. He disowns his brother, calling him “this son of yours”. He highlights his brother’s past errors to differentiate himself from his brother. To the older son, a person’s worth is measured by past performance and should be rewarded accordingly. He sees his father’s celebration of his brother’s return as being unjust. After all, the older son has been a loyal servant all these years, whereas the younger son has been disloyal for most of his life.
We see here the contrast between the older brother’s thinking and his father’s compassionate heart. So how does the father handle this?
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’” [verse 31]
The father understands that his older son needs a shift in perspective to be at peace. The older son needs to understand that the two of them stand together, fully united, and that he has access to all that his father possesses. They share everything, and the son lacks nothing. Notice the father’s language as he pleads with his older son. The positive is emphasized in the present tense: “you are always with me..”“everything I have is yours..”
The father also sees that his older son is dwelling in the past and uses the present tense to encourage reconciliation: “this brother of yours…is alive….and is found.” By reconciling with his brother, his older son can stop robbing himself of joy and begin to live in the present. What has happened in the past does not matter; strictly speaking, the past no longer exists.
Strangely enough, Jesus ends the story at this point. We never find out whether the older son accepts his father’s advice and joins in the celebration. Why would Jesus leave the story open ended like this? What is he trying to tell us?
Just as the younger son’s reunion with his father represents the
reconciliation of humanity with God, the older son’s challenge in having compassion for his brother represents humanity’s challenge in becoming reconciled with one another.
The older son sees the world through a lens of judgment and separation. His father sees a holistic and unified world. The father’s primary concern is the joyful and peaceful reunification of his family, which comes through forgiveness rather than condemnation or judgment.
Humanity, like the older son, needs to adopt the perspective of God. How can we do that? By overlooking or forgiving each other’s past offenses in order to enjoy life in the present, moving forward together in a spirit of unity. This is a decision that we must make over and over again every day in order to live peaceably with each other.
So why does Jesus not conclude the story? Because the choice is ours. We can keep the human family divided, or we can transform the world we live in. We can establish world peace, save the planet, and eradicate poverty, sickness, and disease.
The older son represents each of us. What will we decide?