Summary: This in-depth view of Prodigal Son parable focuses on the elder son and the bitterness and resentment he displayed upon his brother’s return and how we sometimes have the same inflated sense of goodness and faulty understanding of our Father’s grace.
The Parable of the Pouting Son
by David O. Dykes
Over the last three weeks we have been looking at what has been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this masterpiece, Jesus communicates several lessons. I believe the main point of this story is to show us what God is really like; He not some impersonal tyrant who is too busy to care about you. He is a loving Heavenly Father who has numbered the hairs on your head. He will forgive you when you return to Him. We also learn that if you wander away from God, you can repent and return to His open arms. Today, as we look at the older brother, we learn another important lesson.
Let’s review the first part of the parable. A man had two sons and the younger son demanded his inheritance and took the money and ran. He went away and wasted all the money on wild living. He ended up broke, hungry and miserable in the mud and mess of a hog pen. When he came to his senses, he confessed to God that he had sinned and he headed home. He wasn’t sure how his father would receive him, so he was prepared to take the job of a servant. But when the daddy saw him, he ran to meet him. The Father embraced his son and showered him with kisses. The father dressed his son in a new robe, gave him a family ring, put shoes on his feet and killed the fattened calf. They had a wonderful celebration. It would be nice if the story ended there, but Jesus had a message for the religious Pharisees who were listening. Let’s pick up with verse 25:
Meanwhile the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music [sun phone–from which we get our word “symphony”] and dancing. [choron–from which we get the word “choreography”] So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” He replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But this son of yours [he’s so mad he can’t even call him “my brother”] who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.”
There are a couple of famous pieces of art that portray this parable. The most famous is the one done by Rembrandt, but I personally prefer the one painted by the 17th Century Spanish artist, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Cindy and I saw the original oil this summer when it was part of a special Murillo exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. I stood before the picture and stared at it for a long time. You can immediately find the father and the prodigal son in the picture, but it’s the little details I love. The prodigal son is gaunt and filthy. His clothes are in tatters. His hands are clasped in prayer and he has a hopeful look on his face as if he is still wondering, “Will he take me back?” The Father is leaning over and embracing the son, oblivious to his dirt and smell. I love the little dog Murillo painted jumping at the son’s knee. Perhaps that was his puppy at one time. You can almost see the little tail wagging furiously as the pup welcomes home his friend.
Behind the father, two servants are bringing a tray with a fine robe and sandals for the boy. Another servant is holding a ring. To the left a young servant is leading the fattened calf, and a workman has an axe ready to kill the calf so the feast can begin.
It’s a joyous scene–except for one face. There to the right in the shadows Murillo painted the older brother. There is an unmistakable resemblance between the two sons. At the exhibit I got really close to study his expression in the original work. I was amazed to see Murillo painted a smirk on his face. In his eyes and on his lips you can see the resentment and sarcasm. The younger son is on his knees looking up at the father, but the older brother is the highest head in the painting–as if Murillo intended us to understand he was looking down on the whole scene with indignation and anger.