“He heard music and dancing.”
This line introduces the first main action of the “older brother” in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. The rest of the story culminates with what he doesn’t do.
Once There Was a Party
On his way home from the field, the older brother heard the commotion. “Music and dancing,” we’re told. And we’d expect, if there’s music and dancing, there’s laughter and cheers. This is a party. The father had ordered a celebration: “Let us eat and celebrate” (Luke 15:23). Which is what happened: “And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:24).
It doesn’t take us readers long to see that this is a big deal. The word for “celebration” is used four times in this parable, and it means merriment! It was the kind of rejoicing that if found in other contexts for different motives it would be wrong, which is the case when this word is used two other times in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 12:19; 16:19).
But the older brother wants no part in this party. He got mad when he found out the news behind this noise. Literally, “he did not desire to enter” (Luke 15:28). He refused to join the joy. So his father came out to him and entreated him. The father pleaded, implored, urged his eldest son to share in his pleasure. But the eldest son still refused. He complained, twisting what the father had graciously done for his brother to be about what he had not done for him. He recoiled at the display of mercy and no doubt exposed several signs of corruption deep inside. But his father’s response simply called out the obvious . . .
The older brother’s problem was that he was not glad when he should have been.
“It was fitting,” the father says, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
The Right Time to Rejoice
In the full picture of Luke’s Gospel this parable stands as an indictment against the unbelieving Jewish leaders. Jesus had launched a new day in redemptive history. The unfolding drama of God’s salvation was extending beyond the borders of ethnic Israel — even to “the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23). The wayward sons and daughters from afar were being gathered. This was a promised day, a long-awaited day in the history of Israel and the world. This was the day of salvation — a day to celebrate which continues to the present (2 Corinthians 6:2). But the Jewish leaders in the midst of this day were not glad, and they were wrong. And if we are not glad now, the same goes for us.
God commands us to be joyful: “Delight yourself in the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Psalm 37:4); Rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). The basis of this joy is God himself. He displays his manifold perfections and satisfies our deepest desire. “Come, everyone who thirsts!” he tells us (Isaiah 55:1). This alone is enough to necessitate our joy.
Now add to this the mighty works of God occurring at this particular epoch of human history. The Holy Spirit is on the move. The gospel is advancing to all nations. Jesus is building his church. It is fitting that we celebrate and be glad. And therefore, in a real sense, to the degree that we refuse to celebrate and be glad, we show ourselves to be out of touch with God’s triumph in this world. And if we are indifferent, if we prefer to huff and puff, we must be as clueless as the Pharisees.
The Real Rejoicing
To be clear, there is nothing shallow about this joy. The event that inspires this pleasure goes deeper than the superficial successes that tend to snag us. The point is not to celebrate and be glad because a reality TV show about Christians is topping the charts. Rather, this joy is a kind not of this world. It’s more like: our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are being killed, our buildings are being burned, our children are threatened, our witness marginalized, but the gates of hell will not prevail. Sinners are being saved.
The good news of Jesus, simultaneous to our sufferings, and often through them, is penetrating the darkest darkness all over this world. There is no depth his love cannot reach and no power that can stay his hand. Jesus is building his church. Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, this is cause to rejoice.
The time is right. It is fitting to celebrate and be glad.