When the elder brother hears from the servants that his younger brother has returned and has been reinstated by his father, he is furious. Now it is his turn to disgrace the father.

He refuses to go in to what is perhaps the biggest feast and public event his father has ever put on. He remains outside the door, publicly casting a vote of no-confidence in his father’s actions. This forces the father to come out to speak to his older son, a demeaning thing to have to do when you are the lord of the manor and host of a great feast. He begins to plead with his eldest son to come in, but he continues to refuse.

Why is the older son so furious? He is especially upset about the cost of all that is happening. He says, “You’ve never given me even a goat for a party, how dare you give him the calf?” The fattened calf is only a symbol, however, because what the father has done costs far more than the calf. By bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to one-third of their (now very diminished) family wealth. This is unconscionable to the elder brother. He’s adding things up. “I’ve worked myself to death and earned what I’ve got, but my brother has done nothing to earn anything, indeed he’s merited only expulsion, and yet you lavish him with wealth! Where’s the justice in that?” That is why the elder brother refers to his record. “I have never disobeyed you! So I have rights!” he is saying. “I deserve to be consulted about this! You have no right to make these decisions unilaterally.”

And so the elder brother’s fury leads him to insult the father even further. He refuses to address him in the elaborately respectful manner that inferiors owed superiors in that culture, particularly in public. He does not say “esteemed father” but simply, “Look!”—which is equivalent to “Look, you!” In a culture where respect and deference to elders was all important, such behavior is outrageous. A modern-day equivalent might be a son writing a humiliating tell-all memoir that destroys his father’s reputation and career.

Finally we come to the denouement. How will the father respond to his older son’s open rebellion? What will he do? A man of his time and place might have disowned his son on the spot. Instead he responds again with amazing tenderness. “My son,” he begins, “despite how you’ve insulted me publicly, I still want you in the feast. I am not going to disown your brother, but I don’t want to disown you, either. I challenge you to swallow your pride and come into the feast. The choice is yours. Will you, or will you not?” It is an unexpectedly gracious, dramatic appeal.

The listeners are on the edge of their seats. Will the family finally be reunited in unity and love? Will the brothers be reconciled? Will the elder brother be softened by this remarkable offer and be reconciled to the father?

Just as all these thoughts pass through our mind, the story ends! Why doesn’t Jesus finish the story and tell us what happened?! It is because the real audience for this story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers. Jesus is pleading with his enemies to respond to his message. What is that message? The answer to that question will emerge as we take time in the next chapters to understand the main points Jesus is seeking to drive home here. In short, Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.

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