The joy of the return: the prodigal son and his older brother

Bahman Kby Bahman Kalantari

There are a few ways to understand this marvelous and superb parable. (Luke 15:11-32)

The key to do so, perhaps, rests in the identity of the older son.

First, we need to say something about the father. The father represents the god – revealing himself through the presence, life, mission, teachings and ministry of Jesus.

Who do these two brothers represent?

If the older brother represents the Pharisees, the prodigal son might represent the ones who have been labeled as sinners and have now come to follow and embrace Jesus. If the older brother represents the Judeans, the prodigal son might represent the Gentiles. Or, if the older son represents the Judeans who reject Jesus, the prodigal son might represent the Judeans who have decided to embrace Jesus.

There is a tiny problem with these interpretations. The older son, in his conversation with the father, reveals something that goes beyond the dichotomy between two rival groups within the community, or between the community and the outsiders.

When the older son refuses to go in the house, the father begins to plead with him. This is the irritated older son’s response: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” (29a NRSV)

The older son has always been with the father, had total access to what he had and has worked loyally and obediently, like a slave for his father. Let’s not forget that the father does not deny that his older son has worked for him like a slave.

These are not necessarily the characteristics of the oldest son of a father in Jesus’ time and land. The oldest son, the firstborn, will get two thirds of his father’s property after his death. He will be the next chieftain of the extended family. He will be the bearer of all kinds of blessings that could be transferred when and how he wishes. If this is the case, does the oldest son need to work for his father like a slave? No, he only needs to obey the rules and regulations with respect. There is a huge difference between a dutiful son and a slave.

And we should keep in mind that the older son says: “I have never disobeyed your command.” If the father represents God, we need to ask: who has ever been an ideal person, stainless and pure and spotless, like this? Of course no human being! Therefore, we have an alternative solution.

Perhaps the older son represents the angelic host and the prodigal son human beings.
Humans feel lost from time to time in the vast and unknown universe. The Lord of the universe acknowledges human uniqueness, human free will, human struggles, their separation from their origin, and their tendency to lose track. This is the reason why the Lord cheerfully stretches out his arms for humankind when it returns to him. The Lord celebrates, throws a party, rejoices and laughs when humans realize their true selves, their roots.

The Lord also teaches the angelic host to celebrate and rejoice with him. Humans are the masterpiece among all other beings. A human, returning to his or her source through his or her decisions, is worthy of praise in the whole universe. When they return, the Father’s realm is joyfully opened to them with festivities and celebrations.

Humans may experience the worst, but joy will be the result of their return.

The Reverend Bahman Kalantari is Rector of The Church of Our Saviour The Redeemer Stoney Creek.