Robert Capon – Parable of the Lost (Older) Son

Tonight we are reading through the Parable of the Lost Son/Prodigal Son/Loving Father found in Luke 15:11-32. (We have previously studied this parable in Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.) Please read the second half of chapter 13 “The Party Parables” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter (about the older son) is here (from which I have borrowed heavily).

The Context:

As we have read through the Parables of Grace over the last several weeks, Capon’s theme is that grace only comes to the dead because only the dead can experience resurrection. As we saw in the person of the Unforgiving Servant, or those outside of the Locked Door, or the excused guests at the Great Banquet, those who refuse to die, refuse the grace of God. Each of these people chooses to remain in their own self-centered, self-righteous, bookkeeping world and have walled themselves off from God and his wholly unmerited, unwarranted, and unjustified grace. This theme reaches its climax in the older brother tonight.

The Parable:

A certain man had two sons. . . .  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).

The Elder Son’s Entrance:

Capon takes us through a wonderful, imaginative entrance of the older son into the parable: 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

The older son’s response is his attempt to hold onto his own life. His dead brother has returned from the dead and he cannot help but point out to his father that he is the good obedient son and that their father is being an over-indulgent pushover by celebrating the return of the prodigal. To quote the King James (as does Capon): 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. vv. 29-30. The older son is all about legalism and merit. Life is a bookkeeping entry of credits and debits.

The Father’s Response:

According to Capon, the father’s response appears to be grace, but that grace is only the surface whereas the substance is pure judgment. The father says: Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. vv.31-32. In other words, 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. . . . 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. p.300.

As we have seen in the prior parables, the door to the celebration is open to the older son. But the older son simply cannot bring himself to enter. Although the father opens the door wide, for the older son it is too narrow to enter. To the living, grace becomes judgment. 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. p.301

In reading Capon’s commentary on the older brother, I could not help but think of Jennifer Gray in Ferris Bueler’s Day Off. See if you agree:


10/25: The Unjust Judge and The Pharisee and the Publican (Grace 17-18)
11/1: The Two Sons and The Wicked Tenants (Judgment 8)
11/8: The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Talents (Judgment 12-13)
11/15: The Sheep and the Goats (Judgment 13)

11/22:  Thanksgiving Celebration – RSVP Required

Advent: We are reading through The Carols of Christmas by Alan Vermilye. This book is daily advent devotion on “O Holy Night,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We will walk through three of the four. If you have a preference, please let me know.

12/20:  Study Group Christmas Party – RSVP Preferred

Epiphany and Lent: We are reading through Prayer in the Night by Rev. Tish Harrison Warren. Rev. Warren writes a weekly column for the Sunday New York Times and is a contributor to Christianity Today. The book is a meditation on the final prayer of Compline which begins “Keep watch, dear Lord.” 1979 BCP 134.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Bolognese. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.

Luke 9:22-23

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *