from the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of Reflections magazine. For more from that issue, go here.
by the Rev. Jay George
Nobody invites him to the party. The other brother, the older one.
Nobody invites him in. No phone call, no text, no e-vite. He doesn’t even know what’s going on. He has to ask one of the servants. From what little we see of him in Luke’s gospel (15:11-32), the older brother comes off as kind of a jerk. He’s one of those guys who gets mad if you bring too many items into the 15-item check-out line, but thinks his 17 items are no big deal because, well, he is somehow entitled. Listen to his self-righteous little speech:
“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 kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30 ESV).
You see what he does to his dad there? “These many years I’ve served you.” Not loved you. Not worked with you. Not learned from you. Served you. “And I never disobeyed your command.” He wants his own fattened calf, but look who he wants to celebrate with, his friends! Not his family. Presumably not his father; certainly not his brother.
And why not? Because “that son of yours,” that good-for-nothing, that guttersnipe, that wastrel, that . . . that . . . that PRODIGAL has thrown away all the money you gave him, our inheritance, not just the interest but the capital, gone, wasted, thrown away on cheap wine and fast living.
Which is just what prodigal means, really. Prodigal doesn’t mean underdog, or returning, or someone who finally gets it right. We use it that way all the time, “he came back from injury to lead his team to the win; the prodigal son returns.” Wrong. That’s not what prodigal means at all. Prodigal means wasteful and immoderate, particularly as relates to money; spendthrift. The prodigal is not the one who gets it right in the end. The prodigal is the one who gets it wrong.
Just like the older brother.
That’s right, the older brother. We’ve long called this passage from Luke the parable of prodigal son, in direct reference to the younger son who squandered his inheritance. And lately it has become fashionable to refer to the prodigal father as it relates to the father’s recklessly generous nature. Yet the elder son is no less prodigal than either of them.
He worked on the family land for years, day in and day out. Did he learn nothing from his father?
This is more than a parable of the prodigal son. This is a parable of the prodigal sons. Sure, the younger son wastes his money. But the older brother wastes his time. He wastes his experience. He wastes his opportunity to learn from the father. The younger son is separated from the father’s abundance, but the older brother is separated in the midst of the father’s abundance.
When the younger son returns, the father throws discretion to the wind and runs to meet him. Yet when the older brother hears the celebration, he refuses to enter the house, forcing his father to come out to him. Has he learned nothing of grace?
When the younger son returns, the father cuts short his apology, immediately pulling him back into the family. He doesn’t make him beg, he doesn’t even let him finish. He calls for the best robe, shoes for his feet, a ring for his hand. The father dresses him as a son, not a servant. But later, when the father leaves the party because the older brother won’t come in, he makes his father beg. His father entreats and pleads with him, to no avail. Has he learned nothing of mercy?
When the younger son returns, the father doesn’t keep him at arms length. He hugs him and kisses him and showers him with abundance. The younger son is prepared to accept the place of a servant, but his father welcomes him as a son. And his brother? His brother won’t even name him as such. “This son of yours,” he calls him, because “he is no brother of mine.” Has the older son learned nothing of community, of forgiveness, of inclusion, acceptance and love?
So who’s the real prodigal here? At least the younger son comes to his senses. The older brother lives in the midst of the father’s abundance, yet he acts from a place of scarcity. He is just as lost as his brother, just as alienated from the father. He, too, has run off to a far country.
Pray the day comes when he longs for what his father has already given him, that he opens his eyes and sees the invitation has been his all along.
The Rev. Jay George is vicar of Grace Church, San Antonio. Reach him at
Questions for Study and Reflection
1. Some of us can tell the story of being the younger brother: alcoholism, addiction, being the outcast. But perhaps all of us can better tell the story of being the older son, living the midst of God’s abundance and failing to see it. When have you refused to see and accept God’s grace, mercy, inclusion, acceptance, and love.
2. Read the entire scripture passage again: Luke 15: 11-32. Where do you see yourself in it?
3. When have you resented another person’s good fortune while seeing only what you lack?