"Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling out one of the servants, he asked what it was all about. The servant told him 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we have been fattening because he has got back to him safe and sound.' He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property - he and his loose women - you kill the calf we had been fattening."
We are all familiar with the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son: The brother that remained with his father when his younger brother took half of the estate and left town. We know of his response: when confronted with the return of his younger brother, he is angrily mystified at his father's response and sulks outside, refusing to join in the festivities.
In Rembrandt's interpretation of the The Prodigal Son, he takes a liberty that the story does not specify: he has The Elder Brother appear at the moment of the Younger Brother's return. He is, as Henri Nouwen points out, the main observer of the Young Brother's return: the Father is consumed with the Younger Brother, the Younger Brother with his father. The Elder Brother dominates one side of the painting, sanding above both, looking down with hands folded:
"But what a painful difference between the two (father and son)! The father bends over his returning son. The elder son stands stiffly erect, a posture accentuated by the long staff reaching from his hand to the floor. The father's mantle is wide and welcoming; the son's hangs flat over his body. The father's hands are spread out and touch the homecomer in a gestures of blessing; the son's are clasped together and held close to his chest. There is light on both faces, but the light from the father's face flows through his whole body - especially his hands - and engulfs the younger son in a great halo of luminous warmth; whereas the light on the face of the elder son is cold and constricted. His figure remains in the dark, and his clasped hands remain in the shadows.
The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called "The Parable of the Lost Sons", suggests Nouwen. Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree."
We can prone, suggests Nouwen, to looking at those who engage in behaviors and secretly wish we could engage in them. We remain dutiful and obedient, but unhappy: our obedience and duty can become "characterized by judgement and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealously". And we can at some level understand the Younger Son who, having rebelled and found nothing but misery, decides to return home and ask for forgiveness.
But the Elder Brother... when confronted with his younger brother's return and his father's joy "a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years."
"Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment? There is so much resentment among the "just" and the "righteous". There is so much judgement, condemnation, and prejudice among the 'saints'. There is so much frozen anger among people who are so concerned about avoiding 'sin'...The lostness of the resentful 'saint' is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous."
I stand condemned in this statement. I identify with Nouwen - I have come to complain "from a heart that never feels like it has gotten what it was due....It is a complaint that cries out: 'I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others get so easily. Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and casually?"
Thus the Elder Brother's rejection of his brother's return. The resentment he felt all this years has boiled over. His complaining at his brother's actions - perhaps only to himself - became self-perpetuating and thus counterproductive. The more he complained, the more he resented him and the more he resented him, the more he became unapproachable. Were one to ask the associates or friends of the Elder Brother, one would likely hear that he himself was not the model he perceived himself to be: always in the back of his mind he would have the example of his brother. He was at war with someone that was not even there, and had fought battles for years within his own mind.
Nouwen ends: "Here, I am faced with my own true poverty. I am totally unable to root out my resentments. They are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction. How to weed out these resentments without uprooting the virtues as well?.....Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen. I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights...I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down."