The problem with the older brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is that he’s just as ‘prodigal’, just as wasteful of his relationship with his father, as his younger brother is.
His one valid complaint, the one we secretly sympathise with while turning our noses up at him, is that the rebel son got the fatted calf. He, the faithful older son, didn’t even get a goat for a party with his friends. He might be nasty, he might be vindictive, but this does seem unfair.
There are two things to consider regarding the fatted calf and the absent goat. The first lies in the nature of the older brother; what he says should be taken with a pinch of salt. He is, after all, the complaining type. He’s a stickler for protocol, for the way things should be done; for rightness rather than relationship. He’s the sort (and you find him everywhere—there is a bit of him in most of us), he’s the sort who will make sure that everything is done just right, no matter what it takes, or how many people are hurt, put down, or trampled on in the process. Complaining comes naturally because he has taught himself to look for what is wrong (and to point it out of course) rather than to celebrate what is right. The older brother won’t celebrate until everything is right.
We are inclined to believe the older brother when he (or she) is in full swing, even when he is chastising us for what we have failed to do, or we have not done correctly, and we feel the guilt. But the father Jesus tells us about in this story is fair. That’s the point. This is no bumbling old man playing favourites. His delight is not in the younger brother alone, but in the family. He is just as concerned for the older brother to draw close as he was for the younger brother. That’s what his comment means: “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). While longing for the return of his younger son, the father has given himself to the older brother in love and appreciation.
Do you want a fatted calf, or do you want an on-going relationship in which you can grow and learn and be safe? Most of us want a fatted calf every now and again, I guess, just like the prodigal longed for freedom and perceived thrills. But the relationship is the real deal. Of course the older brother would never ‘get’ that. He can only see what he hasn’t got, and misses entirely, everything he does have.
The second thing to consider about the fatted calf is what it symbolises. Some of you will remember (ok, you don’t have to own up), others may have heard about, the 70’s song by Tony Orlando and Dawn called “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.” The singer is an ex con, just out of prison; he doesn’t know if his wife (or lover) wants him back. He asks her to tie a yellow ribbon round the oak tree that he would see from the bus on the way home, if she wants him back. And, if he didn’t see one, he would just “stay on the bus/Forget about us/Put the blame on me….” When he arrives he can’t bear to look but the other passengers cry out and he sees “a hundred yellow ribbons round the old oak tree.” Corny perhaps, and maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, or perhaps it speaks too closely to my own life, but that song still chokes me up.
The fatted calf was the father’s oak tree filled with yellow ribbons. “How do I demonstrate forgiveness, welcome, reconciliation that goes way beyond a family putting up with a recalcitrant son because ‘it’s the right thing to do’? What can I do so that next month, next year, when doubts begin to plague his mind, this son of mine will know for certain that he was not simply allowed home, he was welcomed and wanted?” That’s what the fatted calf does. And the father, shedding his dignity, running down the road, does it too; far better than any words could ever have done.
The older brother would miss all that because he has trained himself to see what is not there, what is wrong, what hasn’t been done; and to ignore and even despise, the glory that is.
To be brutally honest, the older brother is what we who are inside the church tend to be. The challenge for us is to shed the comfort of our negativity and to practice looking beyond the façade, to the good and the kind and the beautiful within. Because that is how Jesus most often touches our lives and we discover his generous, extravagant love, through our neighbours, our parents (with or without a fatted calf), and, dare I say it, even through that brat of a younger (or older) brother.