The Elder Son and His Refusal to Die

The music is playing. Singing and riotous laughter can be heard for miles. Gaiety abounds. The aroma of roast veal fills the house. Finally (dum, dum, dum, dum-da dum, dum-da dum) the elder son arrives.

But his older son was in a field; and as he came and drew near the house he heard music and dancing, And calling one of the servants over he asked what all this might be. And he told him that ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has got him back in good health.’ But in his response he was indignant and did not wish to go in; and his father came out and pleaded with him. But in reply he said to the father, ‘Look, for so many years I am slaving for you, and I have never disobeyed a command of yours, and you never gave me a goat so that I could make merry with my friends, But when this son of yours came, he who has devoured your livelihood with whores, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and all my things are yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and came to life, and was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:25-32)

So far the parable has been a festival of death, but now the “only live character” of the story, as Capon puts it, appears on the stage. “The Elder Brother. Mr. Respectability. Herr Buchhalter. Monsieur Comptabilité. The man with volumes and volumes of the records he has kept on himself and everyone else” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 299). What is the meaning of all this merriment and tomfoolery?

He makes a stagey contrapposto: nostrils flared, eyes closed, back of right hand placed against his forehead. He gasps: Music! Dancing! Levity! Expense! And on a working day, yet! “And he called one of the servants, and asked him what these things meant.” He is not happy: Why this frivolity? What about the shipments that our customers wanted yesterday? Who’s minding the store? “And he [the servant] said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.” He rants: The fatted calf! Doesn’t the old fool know I’ve been saving that for next week’s sales promotion when we show our new line of turnips? How am I supposed to run a business when he blows the enter­tain­ment budget on that loser of a son? “And he was angry, and would not go in.” Finally, therefore, he makes a proclamation: I will not dignify this waste with my presence! Someone has to exercise a little responsibility around here! (p. 299)

Talk about a killjoy . . . but even worse, talk about a self-righteous prig. “I’m going to stay right here and stew in my anger.” We can imagine the miserable man silently reviewing his long list of unspoken grievances. “Dad has never acknowledged all the hard work I have put into the farm over the years nor shown one sign of appreciation of my loyalty to him. I’ve always obeyed his commands. I’ve never brought shame upon our family. My behavior has always been impeccable. And now he throws a goddamn party for that profligate, irrespon­sible, wastrel of a son of his. What the hell is going on here? I’ll die first before joining the party.”

Upon hearing that his eldest is refusing to join the festivities, the father goes out to him and entreats him to come inside. The son launches into his screed: “Look, for so many years I am slaving for you . . .”

The words of the father’s reply are well known to us, but what of its tone? “The temptation—since the father has been grace personified to the prodigal,” Capon remarks, “—is to read his reply to the elder brother’s next words as more of the same tender concern” (p. 299). Tender concern. Yep, that’s the tone I have always imagined. But Capon suggests that we should instead hear the father’s reply as a rebuke, with a bit of irritation behind it. “Grace works only on the dead,” and that is the elder son’s problem—“he refuses to be dead” (p. 299). He’s a moralist who believes that life is gained by following the rules. His worldview has no place for life through death. It is ruled by legalism and merit. A word of judgment is therefore in order.

Here’s Capon’s hilarious translation of the father’s response. I tried to cut it down, but it really needs to be read in its entirety:

You little creep! his father says. What do you mean, my living? I’ve been dead since the beginning of this parable! What your brother wasted was his, not mine. And what you’ve been so smug about not wasting has actually been yours all along. Don’t bellyache to me. You’re in charge here; so cut out the phoney-baloney. If you were really dying for veal, you could have killed the fatted calf for yourself any day of the week. And if you really wanted to be ready to entertain customers at all hours of the day and night, you would have kept a dozen fatted calves on hand, not just a single measly one you have to have a fit over every time it gets cooked. And as far as your brother’s sexual behavior is concerned, listen, Mr. Immaculate Twinkletoes, you’ve got a lot to learn. I have no idea how much fun he had getting himself laid, drunk, and strung out, but even if it was only marginal, it was probably more than you’ve had sitting here thinking.

But see? the father continues, you even get me off the track. The only thing that matters is that fun or no fun, your brother finally died to all that and now he’s alive again—whereas you, unfortunately, were hardly alive even the first time around. Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here and we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You own this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rules about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and every­body else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink. (pp. 300-301)

After being subjected to this rebuke, I think I’d need a drink too. But we would be missing the point if we were to take the paternal rebuke as merely wise counsel to lighten up and have some fun. As with all the parables, Capon is interpreting the story of the father and his two sons through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is only one way to life with God. We must join the living dead:

The classic parable of grace, therefore, turns out by anticipation to be a classic parable of judgment as well. It proclaims clearly that grace operates only by raising the dead: those who think they can make their lives the basis of their acceptance by God need not apply. But it proclaims just as clearly that the judgment finally pronounced will be based only on our acceptance or rejection of our resurrection from the dead. The last judgment will vindicate everybody, for the simple reason that everybody will have passed the only test God has, namely, that they are all dead and risen in Jesus. Nobody will be kicked out for having a rotten life, because nobody there will have any life but the life of Jesus. God will say to everybody, “You were dead and are alive again; you were lost and are found: put on a funny hat and step inside.” (p. 301)

In the end we all end up dead and are therefore already dead. The only question is whether we will allow the risen Jesus to inhabit our death. “For you have died and your life has been hidden in the Anointed in God” (Col. 3:3).

(Go to “The Unjust Judge”)

This entry was posted in Bible, Robert Farrar Capon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Elder Son and His Refusal to Die

  1. At the words, ‘Drop dead…..’let alone, ‘…..have a drink,’ had me laughing out loud! As for the He had probably more sex than his brother, are classics….I do like Capon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Reviewing a Long List of Unspoken Grievances | Christianity 201

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I do think that there are rather too many dead people in Capon’s reading of these parables, but one thing which I had never seen before which Capon points out is the absurdity of the older brother’s complaint. He is the elder brother and now sole heir but he says he has (literally) “slaved” for his father for years, and his father has never presented him with “even a goat”: the elder son, in fact, owns every goat there and it is for his own benefit and inheritance he has been working. His complaint about the younger brother also is entirely untrue as the younger brother has eaten up his own living, not anyone else’s, which the brother was going to receive anyway.
    The elder brother calls his brother “your son” not “my brother” and is corrected by the father, and I think we are supposed to understand that the elder brother as much irrationally resents his family as the younger did, taking no joy in their presence and “slaving” away and, a bit like the rich man in the parable who dies before he can build a bigger barn for his harvest, refusing to take any benefit from the property that is his.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Calvin, with which son do you identify and why?


    • Calvin says:

      Some of both.


    • Calvin says:

      Both. I can identify with the younger son, feeling overcome with remorse for what I did and yearning to return to my former estate. I can also identify with the older son, feeling unappreciated and wondering what the hell the point of not just doing whatever I feel like whenever I feel like it is. Why should I, for instance, feed a hungry man instead of punching him out and taking the last few dollars from his pocket because I can? Some hungry people are irksome, and I died to the rules about being compassionate even when I don’t feel like it (never mind what Jesus or Paul say about being judged by your works).

      But seriously, when do we start treating traffic laws like it’s a real life game of Grand Theft Auto? Getting places would be much easier if I could just use the sidewalks to skirt around traffic jams.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am disappointed that no one so far has identified the music for the elder son: dum, dum, dum, dum-da dum, dum-da dum. Even my wife couldn’t figure it out.


  6. I don’t like Capon’s version. I think Jesus’s version is better.

    And priggishness aside, I actually mean that. The father is supposed to be a kind loving person. That’s the point and if the elder son can’t see that then that is his problem. Capon’s version of the father is a scolding jerk who responds to the elder son in the mean spirited way of the elder son’s complaint. It might be deserved, but the point of the parable is that Jesus wants to give us more than we deserve.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Donald. Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy and thanks for your comments on Capon’s exegesis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You write: “The father is supposed to be a kind loving person.” I suspect that Capon might want to engage you on this point. I think it’s true that the father is presented to us as the personifiction of grace in the way that he welcomes his younger son back into the family. But does this love exclude the rebuke that, by Capon’s interpretation, the father gives his eldest son? I see no good reason why it should–and for two reasons: (1) the God of the Bible is famous for his harsh rebukes, and (2) sometimes a harsh paternal rebuke can pierce a self-righteous conscience in the way that a soft and gentle entreaty cannot. Sometimes. Recall Capon’s sentence “Grace works only on the dead.” As Martin Luther and his fellow reformers would have insisted, we preach the law to convict of sin; or in Capon’s language, to reveal to a person they are dead!

      Let’s face it, the elder son really deserved his father’s rebuke (assuming that Capon’s interpretation is plausible). He is acting like a “creep” (though personally I would have used the word “jerk” instead). He cannot see beyond his self-righteousness and anger. So how might even a very good and loving father respond to this kind of behavior? By pleading with him? Hmm, maybe not. Remember the household’s response to all the guests who chose not to join his party.

      So I don’t think that Capon’s construal of the father’s response to the elder son is implausible. I too had a similar reaction as you did when I his chapter on this parable; but then I remembered that Jesus is constantly invoking imperfect and sinful people as models of God. So even if Jesus intended us to see that the father did lose his cool with his son (and this is not Capon’s reading), it’s not a big deal. But that being said, I am very sympathetic to your concern.

      Anyway, it’s a parable. We weren’t there when Jesus told it and therefore do not have access to all the non-verbal signals we use to communicate meaning, such as tone of voice. So we are all speculating, and we all may be wrong in our interpretations not only of this parable but all of them. That’s the power of a story, isn’t it? So many levels of meaning, so many possible interpretations.


Comments are closed.