The younger son is infamous. He wished his father dead, and said so! The fool was soon parted from his money (was it ever really his money?). Finally, with his back to the pigpen, he devised a humble return to the family farm, even if it was only as a hired hand. Of course, the father would have none of it. He was watching for his boy all along. He wouldn’t even listen to the elaborate deal the younger son proposed. The father celebrated his return and invited everyone to do the same. This much we know.
The older brother is not as famous, but he’s gotten his share of recognition over the centuries as well. He wasn’t happy about the return of his brother. He used the father’s extravagance as fuel for criticism of his Dad.
Like many families today, both boys would be surprised to hear what others saw they had in common. They provide four meditations this Monday:
Both sons failed to grasp their identity: the younger son rejected his role as a son. He tried to “hire on” when he returned, which means he still didn’t see himself as the father’s son. But neither did the older brother. He said to his father “all these years I slaved for you.” (verse 29) Apparently he saw his role as a slave, not a son. Whether this slavery resulted from the expectations of his culture or a poor relationship with the father, we can only guess. Both sons had the unspeakable privilege a blood-bond, but neither could grasp their identity.
Both sons separated themselves from the father: the younger son famously flew the coop, but the older brother was left in the outer darkness beyond the house, hearing only the faint music of celebration in the father’s house. Both did so by their own choice, and for a time both missed out on abundance, feasting, and joy.
Both sons experienced the father’s loving pursuit: while the younger brother was still a long way off the father dropped everything and ran to him. Never was a boy so willingly captured. The older brother saw the silhouette of someone coming out from the house. It was the father, looking for a missing son. He was the kind of father who never forgot either of his boys, even when the party was in full swing. The father would go to nearly any length to welcome them both.
Both sons got to hear the father’s view of their relationship: the younger son was not allowed to demote himself to hired hand. He was a son, and he would always remain so. The older brother got to hear these exquisite words, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Apparently the father never thought in terms of “inheritance.” He had always viewed everything as belonging to his boys.
If I had the chance to change popular perception of the parable, I would rename it "The Father’s Love," because there’s is no identity apart from the Father. Separation from the Father means darkness for all who choose to distance themselves. The Father’s love breaks every barrier. Best of all, the Father’s heart determines who we are even if we don’t have it quite right.