The fatted calf
When the prodigal came home, they killed the fatted calf.
From the father, it was the most lavish gesture of reconciliation. He would publicly welcome, celebrate and eat with his lost son.
For the younger son, it was the most incredible token of the father’s forgiveness. The father from whom he had only taken, now expends even more.
For the village, it was an unforgettable party. Meat was a delicacy and this meat would have fed hundreds.
But there was one person who was not happy about this impromptu feast (and I’m not talking about the calf!) The older son. Notice how it is particularly the news of the calf that triggers his rage:
“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in.” (Luke 15:25-28)
The servant is more in tune with the father’s plans than this son. And when the son hears the father’s heart for the prodigal he is livid. He throws a very public and very embarrassing tantrum. The whole village has gathered to celebrate reconciliation. But now they witness a rift every bit as great as the prodigal’s first departure. When the younger son left home, he slipped away quietly. But on this day – the greatest of the father’s life – the elder boy shames him with an audience of hundreds.
The guests would be thinking, This father has the two worst sons in Israel. One shames the family in the pigsty, the other shames the family in the “back yard”.
But this father will again bear the shame of his sinful children. He had gone out to his younger son and now in verse 28 he goes out to the older son. He doesn’t play favourites. He hasn’t got a soft spot for the younger son’s “rebellious streak.” He loves them both equally. So he pleads with the older brother.
“Therefore came his father out, and entreated him.” (verse 28)
You could even translate verse 28, “he begged him.”
Which is extraordinary. Because, really, who wants the older brother at this banquet?! Would this feast go better with or without this party pooper? Who wants him at the feast? Answer: The father! He wants him there.
And Jesus wants slaves in heaven. His heart is for the sinners and the slaves. He would have them all if only they would come. So he begs him.
But the older son is having none of it:
“And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” (Luke 15:29-30)
Question: How does this son relate to his father? Answer: As a slave. A good slave, an obedient slave, but a slave.
And he can’t help comparing the fatted calf to a notionally withheld “kid.” What should we make of this?
Well we have already noted that, back in verse 12, the older brother also got his share of the inheritance. The father’s living was all “on tap” for the elder son. The father reminds him of this in verse 31, “all that I have is thine.” Not just a kid, not just a fatted calf, everything has always been the older son’s for the asking.
But there’s nothing that makes us think he ever asked for a kid. If he had, he would surely have heard his father say “all that I have is thine” (verse 32). But this older son is not the celebrating type. And he’s certainly not the asking type. He would rather scrimp and save and earn.
The madness of this older son is that he would rather be a good slave than a beloved son.
How far is this son from his father’s heart? The older son is also lost. He is as lost in the “back yard” as the younger son ever was in the pigsty. You see the issue is not the riotous living of the younger son, nor is it the faultless obedience of the older son. The issue is relationship with the father. One son prefers freedom and wild times. Another prefers earning and respect. But neither wanted the father. Both sought to use the father to get what they wanted. And that is our real sin.
So what about us?
Do we find ourselves living out an older brother kind of Christianity? Do we have subterranean anger, mostly dormant but liable to erupt when slighted? Do we find it difficult to celebrate? Do we harbour a judgemental spirit? Do we constantly feel superior? Are we always keeping score? Are we always pointing to our good performances? Are we always comparing ourselves? Always finding life unfair? Do we feel God to be distant? Do we think of Him more as slave-driver than Father? If so we need to remember how Jesus represents the father to us.
He is not a grudging paymaster. He is the generous host of a banquet of grace. He is not a harsh slave-driver. He is a running, hugging, kissing, robing, celebrating Reconciler. He “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” Therefore He refuses to deal with us on the basis of our moral record – whether good or bad.
So forget your riotous living and forget your faultless slaving. Jesus’ summons elder brothers everywhere, saying:
– Lay down the shovel, lay down the slaving. Come on home and join the joy.
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