The soul of the elder brother, in Jesus’ parable of the wayward younger brother, is suddenly set in a dark place. He – the elder – is resentful, perhaps dispirited. He believes his father has been ungrateful, that he has obeyed his father’s commands all for nothing.
Jesus does not say that the elder brother was proud or unloving. He does not condemn him. But he does most surely warn us against the secret pride that might keep us from celebrating the forgiveness of a father who never gives up on life and love.
If we have worked all day long in the heat for a single day’s wages, we should rejoice that the Lord of the Vineyard gives the same wages to those who have worked but an hour in the cool of the evening.
If we have been invited to the wedding feast that no man can merit on his own, we should be glad and rejoice to find others there who have spent most of their lives in active demerit, but whom God has saved at the last, by the skin of their teeth, not to mention the repentant whores and shakedown artists whom no decent person once would countenance.
After all, if we are honest with ourselves, we will say, as in the fine hymn for Holy Week, “I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.”
May we then all agree that it is better to be the repentant younger brother than the elder brother, supposing that the elder should persist in grudge-holding, and that his resentment should harden into hate? But what if we approached the parable, to illuminate what is going on in our time?
The father goes out to meet his son in the fields. “You’re a real prig, you know,” he says to the boy. “You’re a rigid little puritan, who never obeyed a single one of my commands except for fear, or to get on my good side. You want to stay out here? Fine, stay out here. We can’t stand you anyway.”
Or this. The father says, “Hey, another letter from my boy! That’s a swinging country he’s in, for sure. You there,” to the elder brother, who’s been trying to scrape the mud from his boots after a particularly foul day in the sheepfolds, “how’s about we go take a trip out there, and keep your brother company on one of his jaunts at night? We don’t have to do anything,” he says, with a glint in his eye, “but it’s sometimes fun to watch. He’ll never come back home otherwise. But then, why should he come back here? Home’s where he is already.”
And when the elder brother hesitates, he adds, “Judgmental, aren’t we? Maybe you’d have been better off going with him. Hey, you,” – this to a servant – “get out my fancy robes, some new shoes, a ring or two, you know. I’m going to town.”
Or this. The father says,
What do you know, son! Your kid brother is coming home for a visit! He says here that he’s doing very well out there, making decent money. Why, I’ve got a grandson now! No daughter-in-law, sure, but since when does everything have to be in perfect order? He wants to spend half his time here, during the slow season, and half his time there. Hmm, he’s even got a job for you in his business, if you want it.
The elder brother takes a deep breath. He’s spent most of the day hunting down a little pack of wolves that have been leaving lambs here and there with their bellies torn out. “He sells kewpie dolls to Greek tourists. No, they are not idols, certainly not. Besides, what is idolatry, anyway? We all worship the same god. Here, go fetch me my sandals and get me a jug of wine. This weather gives me the sweats.”
Or this. The father says, “Son, I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly sick of this place. Every day it’s tend the cattle, feed the sheep, mend the fences, clean out the stalls – and you have to do it right, or the stupid beasts get sick, and there’s never a day off but the Sabbath. Law, law, law, no imagination, no liberty. If it’s fit for you, fine, but it isn’t fit for me. You can stay here if you like, but I’m not with you, and all that I have is going with me, except for the beasts and a couple of the old servants. The far country is calling.”
Or the father says to the younger son, “That’s your brother out in the fields, you know. I’ll bet he’s stewing now. Let him stew. I’ll tell you a secret. I never cared for him. That day when you were leaving, I wanted to give you even more of my estate, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I figured that I’d better not stir up any worse trouble. You know how he can get. But I want you to know that I was always with you. Don’t apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for. It was good for you to ‘sin,’ if we want to use the tired old word. You were stretching the wings of your soul. You were staking out new territory for mankind. You were developing, while all he did was to stay here, like a dumb stump in a swamp.”
Or this. The lad falls to his knees and says, “Father, I have sinned before heaven and before thee.” But the father winks and replies, “Haven’t you heard that the only sin is to believe that there is sin? Haven’t you heard that Heaven is within you? How can you sin when there is no sin, and how can you offend Heaven, when you obey the spirit within you? Don’t be so silly. Get up, brush that dust from your knees, and tell me about your travels.”