The older son is at his place in the fields, perhaps not so much to work as to manage the laborers. When he returns to the house, this feast has reached its height in gaiety. As he walks up the steps, he hears the music, the songs, and so questions one of the workers why was he not notified of this feast? The servant banters: It is your brother, sir and your father, adding with a bit of spite in his tone that the father is happy, and again but not quite truthfully, your father has found him in good condition! Actually, the poor boy was in a wretched state.
The elder son has no knowledge of the dire circumstances that his young brother presented himself earlier, and the misery he had endured. More importantly, he does not realize it was repentance that brought him back to his father, although he may suspect this young vagabond has come back demanding more money.
We must view this situation in the elder son's eyes if we are to completely understand and sympathize with him and the attitude he has toward his brother and his father.
Let us look at their father. He is a man of greatness, a striking figure of a generous and magnanimous human being, from which springs the fury of the elder son who is not kind on this day and certainly is harsh toward his young brother.
Let us now look at the eldest son, loyal to the homestead, having faithfully remained with his father, but is wanting in tenderness. He expresses openly to his father that despite being a dutiful son, it seemed that he was not appreciated nor compensated for his loyalty, nor was he given a taste of joy like his younger brother.
The father, now seeing how very hurt his older son is by the gesture of this celebration, explains with much diplomacy that their sharing of everything is worth more than these festivities of one day. He adds, tactfully, we must have this feast for his return because it is a resurrection. You have to understand, son, your brother was dead, and now he is beginning to live.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
We will examine how this parable deeply inspired Rembrandt.