Summary: In this message, part 4 in series Return of the Prodigal, Dave turns his attention from the younger son to the older son.
The Elder Son
The Return of the Prodigal, prt. 4
Wildwind Community Church
March 6, 2011
Part 4 today in our series called The Return of the Prodigal. We have spent the last three weeks looking at the younger son. Week 1 we focused on his leaving home. In weeks 2 and 3 we looked at his return. Today we’re going to shift focus and move to the older son. I want to pick up this week with the last part of last week’s text. The younger son has just returned home and made his big speech to the Father, admitting what a worm he is and asking to be made a hired hand.
Luke 15:22-32 (NIV)
22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31 "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
We’re using Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son to help us see as deeply as possible into the text in this series. The first thing you might notice in Rembrandt’s painting is that it shows the elder son standing there at the moment the father welcomes the son home. This is not strictly the way the story goes. In the text, by the time the elder son gets “into the picture,” the feast is already going on inside the house. But this artistic liberty is okay. Rembrandt painted one scene, not multiple scenes, so the elder son is present in this scene, and portrayed as Jesus described him. Stand-offish. He is literally looking down on both the father and the son. He is standing with his arms folded in front of him – a position of being closed off. This is in contrast to the man seated behind him, who appears to be holding himself – this tends to indicate grief or compassion. Where the father and the younger son are bathed in light, the elder son is receding into the shadows. There is some light on his face, but besides that the light on him is dim. Not as much as the characters in the background but of course they are not a focal point of the story.
Rembrandt himself had been both of those men. Early in his life he was the younger son. He partied hard. He had a lot of women. He was into hedonism. Later in life he abandoned these things, but he is known to have had a penchant for treating his loved ones with considerable cruelty. One biographer describes him as a “bitter, revengeful person who used all permissible and impermissible weapons to attack those who came in his way.”
By the time he painted The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt had spent time as both the rebellious younger son, and the hard-hearted and bitter elder son. So there they both are. Both needing healing and forgiveness. Both needing to come home. Both needing the embrace of a loving father. But from reading the story, as well as looking at the painting, it is easy for us to understand that, in Nouwen’s words, “the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.”
Now some people will relate better to the younger son. Some people have lived life on the edge. Some people have, at some point, gotten into drugs and alcohol and sex and partying. I know that for a fact because I have talked to you. If you are living that life, or if you are carrying shame right now because you think you’re the only one who has lived that life, trust me – you’re not alone. You are in very good company. Most people have a past, and there are burdens you carry when you have a past.