03 November 2015

Culturally Understanding the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Pt 3

In the first two parts we looked at the prodigal son himself. His request, his leaving, he ruin and his return. After his return, the attention is then turned to the older son who returns home to the celebration.

"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. (Luke 15:25-28a ESV)

In their culture, the eldest brother is the one responsible for assisting in the reconciliation process between the father and younger brothers if the need arose. This older brother should have stepped in way back at the begging of the story, and tried wholeheartedly to stop the younger brother from doing what he was doing in breaking the father’s heart to begin with, but he did not.

The older brother was obviously not doing his duty – he was not being respectful to the father or loving to the brother. Now that the brother has returned, he is more upset and refuses to even join the party. In doing so he is showing his hatred of his brother, as well as disrespecting the father himself, and he deserves punishment now himself.

Also, the custom in these types of party situations is that the oldest son is usually serving in the place of a kind of head waiter. He is not a waiter in the sense of how the servants serve the guests, but he is in charge and is a visible sign of just how respected the guest are. He would be like a manger, overseeing things and interacting with the guests. So his refusal to do so in this situation is to disrespect his father’s guests also.

For the older son, this whole situation is inconceivable. Reconciliation and restoration cannot occur without a penalty being paid by the offending party – that is the way it is to be. Since that is not what has happened, the oldest son is too angry to take part in any of it.

The older son’s rebellious attitude is public, and the guests as well as the father are made aware of the attitude he has in this situation, because the father immediately responds, but instead of punishment as the son deserves, the verse tells us:

His father came out and entreated him… (Luke 15:28b)

Again, the father responds in an out of the ordinary fashion. The son’s public refusal of duty as well as disrespect for brother and father should be met with sternness, but instead, the father pleads with the son to not act this way. The word used here for entreat means to call to one’s side, strive to appease, to exhort, to comfort, to encourage. It is the same word Paul uses in 2 Cor. 5:20:

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20b ESV)

The father is begging the older son to change his mind and be reconciled with his brother as the father has already done. But the oldest instead lays forth his case in frustration:

but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' (Luke 15:29-30 ESV)

Though this statement, the oldest son exposes a few things. First, he does not even properly respect his father in speech. The normal cultural response from the son should have been something the lines of “O father, these many years….” But the son just blurts out in frustration to “look at what I have done.”

Second, extreme jealousy is obvious, as he states how the father has done so much for the rebellious younger son, yet has done nothing for him in all the years of obedience. On top of revealing the jealousy, he is also accusing his father of favoritism here. His anger for his brother becomes clearly evident when instead of referring to him as his brother he refers to him as “this son of yours.” They both have the same father, and yet he will not be associated with him in a family setting.

Again, this outburst of disrespect from the older son should get him immediately arrested and taken away for punishment by the word of the father. That is what normally should happen in that culture. But again, the father does the opposite:

And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'"  (Luke 15:31-32 ESV)

The father does not respond in anger, nor is any form of punishment or rebuke mentioned. He overlooks the disrespect, the bitterness, the arrogance, and the accusation of favoritism. Instead, the father reminds the oldest son that what is left of the inheritance all belongs to him. All that he has worked obediently for is still his to possess.

The father also addresses his son here using a different form of the word for son. All through this story, the normal word for son has been used, but here when addressing the older son he uses the term teknon which is a word displaying love and affection. 

The only rebuke is that the oldest son should likewise be celebrating at the return of his lost brother. He should be showing appreciation that the lost son has returned and been restored to fellowship with the family.
How does the oldest son respond to this final statement by the father? The story stops and we stand waiting alongside the other party guests wondering just what will be the rebellious son’s response. Will he give up his rebellion and likewise be reconciled with the father and return to the house in humility? 

We do not know from this story itself, because it is addressed to the audience in Yeshua’s day, and their response was being revealed at that time. He was addressing a rebellious group of religious leader who stand in opposition to this message. As with most of his parables, this one to is directed at them.

Will they be reconciled with the father, or will their hardness of heart not allow it? Well, we of course know the ending of the story as it played out in history. I will use the words of Kenneth Bailey here:

Then the older son in great anger took his stick and struck the father. (Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, pg 87)

This of course is referencing the response of the religious leaders of the day, who stayed in their rebellion, continued to reject the message as well as the messenger from the Father, and took that messenger and nailed him to the cross. They were not favorable nor tolerant of the other brother being brought into the family with them, and we see that struggle throughout the New Testament.

Of course we also know that the Father did not respond in love to them in the end, as he brought fire and destruction down upon them and their city, wiping them out of the family permanently in the war of the Jews that ended in AD 70. 

In the next part we shall begin looking beyond a cultural understanding of the literal story being told here, and begin examining the meaning and application to the actual parties being address by and through this parable. Who does the prodigal son represent? Who does the other son represent? What point is Yeshua making in this parable? Find out more in part 4.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4