What are we to make of this older brother? He is also a man of immature love. He compares himself to the youngest and resents the generous and reckless mercy of his father. If you look at the failures of others, it may serve to justify your own attitudes and behavior. But was the eldest any better than his brother who shamed the household? What was his response when the younger brother first talked of leaving?
The older son in such cases was expected to step in and help the father save face. But no such thing happens. Neither son lived up to what was expected.[i]
When are we like the eldest son?
We are like him when we seek approval from performance rather than relationship. He justifies his approval by working hard in the field at a distance from his father. He does not want to join in the merriment of celebrating with his family because they fall short of his idea of performance-based approval.
The father, in Palestinian culture, is expected to sit in the house, emotionally withdrawn, and wait to hear what the son has to say for himself. The mother, on the other hand, can greet the poor boy with kisses before the kezazah ceremony. Although running is an act done mostly by servants, the mother is allowed to run a little bit to greet her returning son. However, a patriarch never runs. Doing so would be highly undignified and even contemptible.[ii]
The eldest son is more tuned to cultural norms than he is to the undignified love that seems to lose its respectability.
We are like the eldest son when we resent our brother and assume the worst. He accuses his little brother of being with whores when that is not given in the story. Jesus indicates that the youngest son made poor choices and lived expensively. He was unwise with his money, but Jesus did not say anything about prostitutes.
We are like the eldest son when we speculate on how bad others are. We assume the worst and withhold love and approval. We have everyone on probation until they can prove that they are at least as good as us. Even though we question whether the love will be there for us, we are certain that it should not be there for those we deem to be greater failures.
The eldest son thinks the party is for the shameful brother. But really it is not. The party celebrates the mercy of the father. The townsfolk would not come celebrate a son who is so foolish and dishonoring. They come to support the father who is leading the charge to restore this boy back into community. They come because they respect the father and must decide if they will join in the restoration of a community member.
How did a good father end up with two boys that were so lacking in love and respect? Maybe, the story reminds us that we are God’s children finding our own ways to disrespect Him. In spite of us, God’s love is offered freely to all the sons and daughters. Perhaps the Father’s acceptance might change our hearts in time.