The story of the Prodigal Son is so familiar that it is like the email forward that lands in our inbox for the hundredth time, yet we love it every time we hear it. It is actually the third parable Jesus tells as a response to the Pharisees who criticized him for welcoming tax collectors and sinners among those who had come to hear him teach, and for eating and drinking with them.
All three parables, but particularly this one, are about unmerited, boundless love and forgiveness, illustrating that no one is outside the limits of God’s mercy, no matter how despicable. Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees understand his association with the lost of Israel, those the righteous shun.
Let’s back up and take a look at the other two parables, because they set the stage. The first parable is about the shepherd who, upon discovering that one of his 100 sheep has strayed from the herd, leaves the 99 to go and find the one that was lost. The second parable is about the woman who had ten silver coins. When she finds that one is missing, she sweeps the house diligently, looking under every rug and piece of furniture until she finds it.
In each case, when that which was lost is found, great rejoicing and thankfulness are expressed, and the person throws a party. But this third parable is a bit more complex. We hear the story of a rebellious younger son who asks for his inheritance early, so that he can leave home and do what he wishes. To make such a request would have shown such terrible disrespect for his father that he might as well have said, “I wish you were dead so that I could take my inheritance and bolt.”
I honestly can’t imagine why the father gave in to this young rogue. But, then again, anyone who has been a parent probably asks himself or herself that same question several times a week, “Why did I give in to Megan when she was acting like such a spoiled brat?” Parents in biblical times obviously had to deal with the same stresses with which parents have to deal today.
So, the younger son leaves home, his land, and his father, and has a ball, living high on the hog, and he blows his entire inheritance on raucous living. But sooner or later, he hits on hard times and if that is not bad enough, a famine strikes the land in which he is living. He winds up hiring himself out to be a keeper of swine, or pigs, and heaven forbid, working for a Gentile, no less!
Jesus really has a way of telling a story that weaves in ever-increasing degrees of intensity, using a Middle Eastern rhetorical devise called hyperbole. He knows that swine or pigs are an abomination to Jews and how his Jewish audience would react to this disgusting situation. Then, to make the situation worse, he has the son working for a Gentile. Oi vey! In other words, Jesus is pressing the point that the son has sunken as low as he can. He is feeding these disgusting (unclean) pigs carob pods, and then having to eat the pods himself. The son finally comes to his senses, or “comes to himself,” as the passage reads, and he decides to return to his father, admit his wrongdoing, and give himself over to his father as if he was only a hired hand and not his son.
Three steps were necessary for his deliverance: first, he comes to himself; second, he arises from and leaves his situation, returning to his father, and third, he repents. He comes to himself. Sometimes the hardest part is admitting we were wrong and doing what we need to do to make a situation right. And, it is really too bad, too, because until we come to ourselves, we are quite often in great agony of spirit. A kind of internal battle is taking place. I think that is the Holy Spirit nudging us to do the right thing, admit our wrongdoing, and ask forgiveness.
Well, the son returns to his father, his waiting father. No other image has come closer to describing the character of God than the waiting father, peering down the road longing for the son’s return, then springing to his feet and running to meet him. In ancient Palestine it was regarded as unbecoming—a loss of dignity—for a mature man to run. Yet, the father sets aside his concern for dignity, and moved with compassion, he runs to his son with open arms. He grabs his son in an impassioned embrace and kisses him, expressing his forgiveness.
The son starts his rehearsed speech, but before he can say everything on his mind, his father starts issuing orders to the servants. He calls for his best robe, and a ring, and sandals for his son’s feet.
This is not only to show welcome to the son, but also it is a sign to the rest of the household and the village that the boy is to be treated as his son again. The killing of the fatted calf for a feast shows that the son’s return was an occasion for a huge celebration.
The father sums up the significance of the homecoming: “This son of mine was dead to me but now he’s alive again. He was lost and is found!” He was dead because he had broken his relationship with the family, dishonoring his father, leaving his home and his land to live the wild life. Like the sheep and the coin in Jesus’ earlier two parables, the son was lost but has been found. Time to celebrate!
Now we get into the second part of this parable. Coming in from the fields, the elder son hears the music and sees the dancing. He asks a servant what is going on and finds out that his brother has returned, and to celebrate Dad is throwing a bash. Well, the elder son is angry, and he refuses to go in and join the festivities. Just as his younger brother had been alienated from his father, now the elder brother is distanced from his father. And again the father comes out, to greet his other son, but this time he has to plead with this son to return. Yet the elder son cannot see how much his father loves him.
We often feel sorry for the elder son, do we not? After all, he did everything to please his father. How many of you are the oldest among your siblings? Me, too. Those of us who are the oldest can understand his frustration. Let’s face it—the younger brothers and sisters always seem to get away with murder. All the while, we are the responsible ones, are more obedient, get higher grades in school, have to take care of the younger kids in the family, and don’t get any credit. We understand how the older brother feels.
At least the younger son addressed the old man as father, to show respect. The older son, however, refuses to even acknowledge his relationship to either his father or his brother. First, he abruptly says, “Listen!” rather than “Father.” Then he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” Sort of reminds me of the mother who tells her husband when he returns home from work, “These kids of yours did such and such today!” It is a way of distancing oneself from the one who has become reprehensible, and it places the blame for one’s behavior on the other person.
In his self-righteous, hurt, self-justification, the older son reminds his father of what a rogue his younger brother has been. “After all these years,” he says, “you never once threw a party for me.”
The father’s first word is “Son…” in which he restores the relationship. “You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” Then the father works at restoring right relationship between the brothers, as he starts out saying, “This brother of yours…”
We don’t know if the older brother put away his anger and jealousy and went in to the party. Did he come to himself, and go in to the party and welcome his brother home, or did he stay outside pouting,
feeling wronged, stewing in his juices until he was so angry he could chew nails? Jesus doesn’t tell us. The parable ends there because this is a decision each one of us must make at times. Situations come our way when we have to decide if we can follow Jesus’ example of unmerited, nonjudgmental, go-the-extra-mile love and mercy, for all alike, or if we give ourselves over to self-righteous anger, removing ourselves from God’s grace.
The older brother syndrome: It is not just a biblical parable. It is a human reaction that is alive and well, and is a potential reaction inside each and every one of us—women and men alike.
Henry Nouwen, in his wonderful book, “The Return of the Prodigal,” says that at different times in our lives all of us are one of all three of the characters in this parable. At times we are rebellious and disregard God’s love and provision and waste our bodies and souls. At other times we do well and work hard to live righteous lives, but become self-righteous or judging and resemble the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the older son, forgetting our own sins.
But, Nouwen suggests that we are called to grow in spiritual maturity and love, to the point where we are able to take the position of the Father in the story. We are to reach out to those who are lost, or to those we deem to be sinful, or to those who are on the fringes of society, or to those who are being mistreated or treated less than God’s beloved child—the people who are often shunned by others, rejected by society—and rather, welcome them into our fellowship with dignity, love, and equality.
And not just responding when they fall into our laps, but actually seeking them out. To be diligently seeking the one lost sheep…to be searching and sweeping under the carpets for the lost coin…to be ready and waiting, running down the road with open arms, as does the Father.
Who knows that maybe one who was spiritually dead just might be redeemed back to God by our actions? All of this adds up to a new way of life, a “new creation,” as Paul proclaims in his second letter to the Corinthians that Jamison read for us.
Personally, I like to think that the elder son does go in to the party after he’s had time to think things through. God’s love and redemption, and even the party, are for him, as well. But make no mistake: if he or we go in to the party and rejoice over the one who is found, we, too, accept grace and mercy and total love as the Father’s rule for life in the family, and we are called to live into it.
Together, as one, men and women alike, in the Holy Sacraments of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, we should rejoice, and eat and drink from the table that the Father has set for us in the Eucharistic Feast.
But we must do it worthily, with repentant hearts and minds. The elder son was right not to enter the feast until he got his head on straight. Otherwise he would have been eating and drinking unworthily.
The same goes for us. God has thrown us a party! But our hearts and minds must be pure if we are to receive the sacraments. After all, the sacrifice is more, so much more, than a fatted calf. Amen.