“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’
“If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
The father in the story did not love his son because he came home. His son could come home because his father loved him. Our Father does not give us grace if we believe, or repent, or trust. We can believe, and repent, and trust because he gives us grace.
The prodigal “came to himself,” then came home. Is there a Father waiting for you to do the same? Looking even now at your soul in the far country? Waiting, robe and ring and sandals in hand? Ready to give what you cannot earn or deserve? Ready to welcome you home?
Giving what we have received
But the story is not done. We know what happened to the younger brother. But what of the elder? He was “in the field” (v. 25a), hard at his job, doing work his younger brother had abandoned to him. Coming near the house “he heard music and dancing” (v. 25b). “Music” translates the Greek word sumphonos, from which we get “symphony.” The musicians were entertainers hired by the father for his son’s party.
And everyone danced to their music. Dancing was common at Jewish feasts (Judges 21.21), at times of triumph (Judges 11.34), and at times of joy (Psalm 30.11-12; Jeremiah 31.4, 13). But why? The older brother “called one of the servants and asked him what was going on” (v. 26). And he got his answer: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Note Jesus’ explicit words: “your brother, your father.”
But his brother “became angry” (v. 28a)—the words mean he “flew into a rage” (Robertson 212). Long resentment towards his wayward brother, coupled with work done to compensate for his failures, was combined with the public humiliation the prodigal has caused them all. Wanting no part of this celebration, he “refused to go in” (v. 28b).
So his father came to him, rushing out just as he had rushed earlier in the day to his younger brother. He “pleaded with him” (v. 28c), the tense indicating that he “kept on beseeching him” (Rienecker 188; Robertson 212). But the older would have none of it: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v. 29a). We wonder if his “slavery” indicates a secret desire to do what his younger brother had done. He “never” disobeyed—the tense means that he did not err even once (Rienecker 188).
“Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (v. 29b). To hear him tell the story, his life was nothing but drudgery and work, slaving for a father who was little more than an employer. We cannot believe that it was really so, or that it was the father’s fault if it was. No father could extend such marvelous grace to one son without offering it to the other.
Now we see into the older brother’s true soul: “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (v. 30). Not “my brother” but “this son of yours,” a Greek expression of great contempt (Rienecker 188; Barnes 106). No one mentioned prostitutes before he made his accusation, a charge for which he could have no support. Barclay may be right: “He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit” (206).
But the father showed his older son the same grace he has given to the younger: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). Despite his reproofs, his accusations, his charges, this man was still his son. The estate belonging to him was still his. Nothing had changed. Though the father had the right to reprove and reject such a malicious and slanderous boy, he refused.
Instead he explained: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 32). “We had to celebrate”—there is urgency here, for whenever a child comes home, his family must celebrate. The Greek says “to be merry”—deep-seated joy, hilarity beyond words (Robertson 213). “This brother of yours”—the father’s point is clear. The father’s son, and his son’s brother, was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
The older brother offers us two lessons. The first: keep working in the fields. But not as a slave but a son. Motivated not by obligation to our Master but by gratitude for his grace.
Legends always grow up around famous people. Here is one of my favorite Paderewski stories. A mother took her young son to hear the famous pianist, so as to encourage him in his own progress on the piano. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and went to greet her. This was her son’s chance. He bolted for the curtains obscuring the stage from the crowd. The house lights dimmed, the concert was about to begin, and the mother found her son missing. In the next moment the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the Steinway on the stage gleaming with polish.