One of the other speakers at the conference was Sonja Corbitt, who spoke about the parable of the Prodigal Son, in reference to the Year of Mercy. She had a slightly different take on the older son than I do, but re-reading the passage yesterday as she talked about it brought some new facets of it to light.
"And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry.
"Now his elder 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 this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. it was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15:21-32)
What strikes me is that the father tells each son what he most needs to hear. In the case of the younger son, he doesn't speak directly to the son, but to the servants and everyone around, officially proclaiming that he welcomed his son back into his household as a son, not as the lowly servant the son asked to be. He draws his son into his house by his actions. And what's interesting is that the way the father celebrates his son's return is by taking the very actions that got the son into trouble in the first place -- the partying, the music, the dancing, the rich clothes and food and wine and celebrating -- and turns them around to make them signs of love and forgiveness, not of decadence and dissipation.
The older brother is out in the field, doing his father's work, we assume. I guess you could read it as the son having separated himself from his father in some way, just as the younger brother had. Perhaps doing all this work day in, day out, doing his job and the job of the younger brother who has left, has worn him down. Perhaps he's taken on extra work he doesn't need to be doing -- this house is apparently lousy with servants and people who could be working in the field. Perhaps the father can afford to hire laborers for his vineyard, no matter the cost, as in the parable of the vineyard owner and the hired hands. But maybe older brother feels he has to do everything himself. After all, he's the responsible one.
Anyway, the older brother is out, and no one comes to tell him that his brother is home. No one calls him in to join in the celebration. So the older brother comes home, weary, hungry, maybe a little heart-sore, and he sees that there's some kind of extraordinary party going on, without him. He calls one of the numerous servants over, and gets the story, and he refuses to go into the house. Now, you could interpret this as the older son pouting, throwing a tantrum, but I read it a bit differently. When I myself am angry, I refuse to go in, in a sense. I try not to speak, to enter into whatever situation is making me angry, because I know that words spoken in anger can't ever be really forgotten. So I'd rather stay outside, so to speak, than do something that I might later regret. And perhaps the older brother knows that if he goes inside in the mood he's in, he'd cause some sort of scene that he'd regret. And he doesn't want to do that. He stays outside.
Just as the father did with the younger son, so he does with the older son. He goes to meet him himself, not sending a servant to reason with him, but coming personally to his firstborn. And the older son pours out his hurt and his frustration. "Your son," he says to the father, not even able to call that son his brother. How does the older brother know that the younger brother has squandered dad's inheritance on prostitutes? Probably because that's how the younger brother acted before. Why did he need all his inheritance now? Because he didn't have any money left of his own. Where did it go? I'd go with the older brother's assessment here.
But the father sees deeper than the complaints, and tells his son exactly what he needs to hear and has perhaps been hoping to hear: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."
The older son needs to know that the father loves him too, personally, that he's not just another cog in the machinery that runs the farm (even if he is a big cog), but that who he is and what he does matters to the father, that the father sees and cares what the son does. The son needs to know that he doesn't just get a fatted calf and a robe, he gets everything. The younger son had to take a portion of inheritance away to spend? The older son, living at home with his father, already has that portion, and so much more besides. His faithfulness hasn't been overlooked. It's already been rewarded, only the son perhaps didn't trust his father enough to ask for a goat to celebrate with his friends. The older son is more cautious than his younger brother, who was confident enough that his father would give him anything that he asked for his inheritance up front. The older brother is more reserved, more trustworthy than his brother, but I think he feels things more deeply too. The father knows that big actions and gestures will reassure the younger brother of his love, but that the older brother needs not only gifts (which the brother would take at this point as an insult, just an afterthought of his brother's celebration), but words, personal reassurance, a direct encounter with the father. As with the younger son, the father offers the older son the very thing that pulling him away from the father. I don't need to give you a goat, son. It's already yours.
And the father knows how to talk to this more cerebral son. He doesn't give him a guilt trip for not being happy for his brother or ply him with a sob story about how the brother came home dressed in rags and made this speech. Instead, the father says, "It is fitting to make merry and be glad..." This is the appropriate, reasonable action for a man of the father's stature and wealth in this situation, to throw a party for a son who was dead, and now is alive. It befits him. This explanation of the correctness of this action is exactly right as an appeal to the older brother, to help him understand and appreciate his place in the family and in the festivities, just as the father's dramatic gestures of throwing a robe around his son and making a proclamation and throwing a feast were exactly right for the younger brother's understand.
We don't see the reaction of either brother, mostly because the story is not about the sons, but the father. We assume that the younger son accepts his father's proclamation, because we know that the party is going on. We don't see the older son's reaction to his father's appeal, and in a sense he has the harder struggle, because he's wrestling not with his sense of unworthiness, but with his pride. Someone said that no one ever minds getting better than they deserve, and somehow I don't think the younger son felt many qualms about accepting the ring and the robe and the fatted calf, and being restored to the family. The older son, though, feels personally unloved and taken for granted, and that anger is hard to let go off. I hope he went in, because I hope that's what I would have done.