The Dutiful Son

He worked all day in the fields, starting when the dew shimmered on the cool grass and pausing only to drink a little water in the high heat of the midday sun.  Great, dark circles of sweat, dried now, stain his cloak and the blisters on his hands are open, oozing.  He’s spent, exhausted and under the exhaustion simmers a low-level frustration at all that remains to be done.  Looking up, he notices that slowly, one by one, the servants are dropping their tools and heading toward the house. 

Soon he’s alone in the field, the only one left. 

He finishes his row then stops to tidy up the poorly finished work of a hired hand.  Mumbling to himself, he thinks how nice it would be if they could hire someone as diligent, as neat in their work as him.  Someone who shows up on time and doesn’t quit til the job’s done and maybe even works an extra hour or two.  He smiles a wry smile, imagining a whole field full of workers, carbon copies of himself moving in lock-step to get the job done the right way. 

The image is quickly followed by the thought that just two of him would be enough and his smile fades as the memory of his brother returns.  With the memory comes a surge of anger that swells from somewhere deep in his gut, rising like bile before he quickly and automatically swallows it back down. 

He has a headache that’s made worse by the glare of the late setting sun and his shoulders are tight and stiff.  With a sigh, he turns toward the house. 

He walks slowly, dreading the quiet dinner with his father who too often sits staring into the distance.  When he’s not staring he talks longingly about old days when the two boys bustled through the house and fields together, tumbling along after their father like puppies, eager and excited.  Though shaded with joy and laughter, the stories are too familiar and from a past too distant to feel real and the most the older brother can muster in response is a sullen and sulky silence.  Every time he launches into his own story about a detail of the day's work he's haunted by the uneasy feeling that his father's isn't really listening.  Loosing confidence, he slows and lets the story hang unfinished over the table, like a question that has no answer. 

Climbing the small slope toward the house, he senses a hum of energy in the air, something like the pause before a long-awaited storm.  In the distance, the servants appear to bustle with excitement.  One runs past shouting and another runs in the opposite direction wearing a look of surprise and astonishment. 

With the excitement comes music, loud and cheerful, that gets louder with every step and grates on his already aching head.  The music is pierced with shouting and singing as though a party were in full swing. 

Grabbing the sleeve of a servant running by, he demands to know what’s going on. 

The startled servant’s look of joy vanishes as she stares into the older brother’s questioning eyes.  The feeling that she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t is immediate, but she pushes it down, trying to regain her cheer.  Breathlessly, she explains, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”

Her words don’t make sense. 

He stares at her, not comprehending. 

Taking advantage of the moment, the young girl runs off, back toward the house, visibly shrugging off the older brother’s dark look as she draws closer to the music and dancing.

Scraps of the servant’s words, “Your brother.”  “Your father.”  “The fatted calf.”  echo inside his head as he tries to make sense. 

When it finally dawns on him his back stiffens and he draws back, pulling himself up to full height as he looks toward the house.  His heart that was already brittle, stiff and sore turns to stone and sits heavy in his chest. 

“Your brother.”  “Your father.”  “The fatted calf.” 

The duty, the devotion that carried him through the long, aching day, gives way without warning to a deep rage.  He turns and strides off into the quickly falling darkness like a lost soul.  

He paces behind the house.  He can’t go home, yet he doesn’t know where else to go, so he broods like a storm cloud on the horizon. 

Then his father is there, his face full of apology and understanding and unspeakable joy at the younger brother’s return.  Had his father commanded him to join the party, he would have obeyed, but it’s the old man’s pleading, his unwillingness to just leave him alone in the cool darkness that forces open the cloud of furry that’s been growing older brother’s chest.  

His false motivations and his deep sense of being unloved come pouring out in a torrent of rage.  A deep complaint wells up from within his heart, “Listen!” he barks, raising his calloused hand, commanding the attention that's already his, “I’ve been working like a slave for you.”  His voice is high, sharp and piercing and spittle flies with his emphasis. 

His tirade continues, each sentence flying at the old man who stands with watery eyes, his hands hanging at his sides, palms up, as if in preparation for an embrace.  

The party continues, the music rising and dropping in the background as the son spews the anger and hurt that has been his companion in the years since his brother abandoned them both.   

Finally, embarrassed and sweating, he's done and stands, breathing heavily, eyes averted.  He's told his version of the story and waits empty-handed for his father to confirm or deny it. 

"I'll leave," he thinks, in the pause that comes after the fading of his words.  Desolate, he lifts his head briefly as if in challenge before turning his muscled body toward the night. 

Light as a feather, his father's wrinkled hand shoots out and catches his sleeve, holding it tight with the fierce strength of love as he speaks the only word he knows can break the darkness, "Son," the old man said, "son."   

This post is linked with Playdates with God and Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday.


  1. You have brought the story of the prodigal son to life through the eyes of the older brother. Beautifully done! I was your neighbor at Playdates.

  2. One of my favorites, Kelly. You capture it well. Have you read Nouwen's book on this one? Wonderful, wonderful stuff. :)