The elder brother to the ‘prodigal son’ also had his problems

I’m a repeat reader; if I like a novel, I’ll read it five times. If I really like it, I’ll get around to reading it 10 times. If it’s among my favorite novels, I never stop re-reading it. One of the payoffs of repeat reading is catching character or plot insights, or finally recognizing — on reading number seven — a plot device. That happened to me today as I was repeat reading Stephen King’s “It.” I finally noticed that one of the survivors of the fire at The Black Spot in Derry, Maine (set by racists) was a young black cook named “Hallorann.” In fact, Hallorann was pretty much a hero in that scene. Of course, as my brain had missed the previous six readings, Hallorann is a main character in “The Shining” and is also in the sequel “Doctor Sleep.”

Repeat reading is common in religion; in the LDS church, we’re urged to read and re-read the Scriptures, including “The Bible” and “The Book of Mormon,” particularly the latter. I’m sure that most other churches urge their members to read “The Bible” more than once.

The reason for this post is that I was thinking about repeat reading, wondering if a “lightbulb” moment could come to me as I was repeat reading the LDS scriptures. In other words, it was a test. I was to read scriptures in the manner I am accustomed, sometimes focusing, often not, but trying to keep focused.

I was in Luke, chapter 15, in the New Testament, reading The Prodigal Son parable when the dim bulb brightened, and that was kind of cool. The story is familiar and even iconic. Dad has built a good farm. He has two sons; the elder works hard, the younger takes his inheritance, goes off and blows his money in riotous living. Destitute, now humble, he goes home and asks his father if he can be a mere servant, so he can eat. His dad embraces him, and they have a celebration, killing the “fatted calf.” Meanwhile, the eldest son, working in the fields, hears of the celebration for the younger son. He’s angry, and refuses to attend, reminding his dad of his hard work and his brother’s sloth. His dad tells him that all he has is still his, but that they should rejoice that the son, once lost, has returned.

I’ve read this parable probably a 100-plus times, lots of Sunday Schools, Institutes and seminary lessons, and the principles of “sorrow,” “regret,” “contriteness,” “humility,” “forgiveness,” “love,” “reclamation,” “joy,” “happiness” have all registered. Until a few days ago, though, I had never thought much of the elder son. He seemed to have some justifiable outrage but was pacified by dad in the end.

But does the elder son represent a sinner, also? Was Christ using the mechanically faithful son to illustrate someone who does good for the wrong reasons, elevating themselves in order to put down others, losing humility in the process? I’m no expert in theology, so I went to, of course, books, to see if my thoughts had any weight.

Because I love old, pre-Correlation LDS texts, I grabbed the 1938, approved by LDS President Heber J. Grant, “The New Testament Speaks,” a 680-page LDS Sunday School guide, overseen by John A. Widstoe, LDS Commissioner of Education. I bought this tome for $1 at Deseret Industries a month ago, and it has sat by the bed, waiting to be read. On page 379, analyzing the parable, it reads:

Then there was also the son who was lost even though his father saw his face every day. He was the selfish, loveless one, with his contempt for those who had strayed away. Although he never left home, he was far away from his father in spirit. He had no love for his father in his heart, or he would have been glad to see his father rejoice. His years of labor had been done in a hard mechanical way, with the thought that some day all would belong to him. St. Augustine said that the stay-at-home son was looking toward getting something rather than giving.

The author prefers the title of “The Two Lost Sons” to “The Prodigal Son.” That was a harsher assessment than I had for the elder son, but it got me wondering if the eldest son’s role in the parable was representative of a faction in Christ’s era. Was Christ reproving someone or something? So, I went to an older, but still popular and contemporary LDS text, James E. Talmage’s “Jesus The Christ,” looking for an answer.

Talmage’s assessment of the elder son is also pointed. He writes: “There is significance in the elder one’s designation of the penitent as ‘this thy son,’ rather than ‘my brother.’ The elder son, deafened by selfish anger, refused to hear aright the affectionate assurance; “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine,” and with heart hardened by unbrotherly resentment he stood unmoved by the emotional and loving outburst, ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’”

And Talmage draws a parallel to the eldest son’s self-righteous anger. He writes: “Pharisees and scribes, to whom this masterpiece of illustrative incident was delivered, must have taken to themselves its personal application. They were typified by the elder son, laboriously attentive to routine, methodically plodding by rule and rote in the multifarious labors of the field, without interest except that of self, and all unwilling to welcome a repentant publican or a returned sinner. From all such they were estranged; such a one might be to the indulgent and forgiving Father, ‘this thy son,’ but never to them, a brother. They cared not who or how many were lost, so long as they were undisturbed in heirship and possession by the return of penitent prodigals. …”

I guess the point of all this, or at least what I finally learned after my 150th reading of the parable, is that I don’t have to be the one who sins away comfort and security to be in peril. It was an interesting — and suitable — defense for the practice of repeat reading, secular or non-secular.


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8 Responses to The elder brother to the ‘prodigal son’ also had his problems

  1. Asa says:

    Excellent post Doug. I bet rewatcing old tv shows offer great insight. :)

  2. Jim W says:

    Great insights, Doug. Thanks.

  3. rls says:

    – doug — thanks, especially for the quotations from earlier lds works — excellent insight, thanks for the posting — rick

  4. Daniel Jividen says:

    To my mind this is a too unsympathetic reading of the elder son’s position. He did his duty, was loyal and faithful, tended the soil and husbanded the livestock. His younger brother disrespected all that, gave himself over to debauched living, and squandered half their father’s estate. It is human nature — and entirely forgivable — that the elder son should look askance upon the younger son’s sin and folly. If the elder son is the villain of the parable, if his loyalty and steadfastness is to be deprecated as merely Pharisee-like, then it is a much shallower parable than it appears on its surface.

  5. Zen Wordsmith says:

    Malachi 04:06-{transliterated LDS KJV-1611}
    … And I shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children {sons}
    and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I [come] and
    smite the earth with a curse…

    [Zions] prodigal son’s are the vision of prophets and sages.
    May I say the “doubting [Thomas]” in all who care to heed an
    adjustment in attitude, to search, ponder and pray.

  6. Brother Florence says:

    Much can be said on the on-going latter day brotherly conflict
    when the “living monetary endowment” is depleted.
    Though I left the “parent trap” at 17 years of age, I have
    always throughout my 55 years of life, been in contact and
    remembered birthdays, baptisms and reunions, and the like.
    As a former [Utahson], I formed solid relationships that
    underwent an 180 degree turn {circa’ 1995}, after an sojourn
    to a Zen Buddhist Ashram in central [India].
    My family was very supporting, and they knew that I wasn’t
    there prodigal son/brother. Always on the Lords errand.
    Dad even recommended that I buy “round trip passage”, so as
    not to get stranded in primitive [Book of Mormon] lands.

    Thank you Doug, for a trip through the “book nook”.

    Happy Father’s Day, Dad

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