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).