The parable of the prodigal son is a wonderful story that begs us to listen at many, many levels, human and spiritual.
The most obvious interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son is of a father, joyful and grateful for the return of his errant, sinning, son; ready to celebrate that return. We can relate to that because we believe that God is a loving, forgiving God. But there is much more to this parable than that. Let’s look at it in its most human terms first.
Let’s think about the younger son. He must have hurt his father’s feelings horribly by wanting an early share of his inheritance and wanting to leave home. Why did he want to do that? Perhaps, although he got a share of what his father owned, the land went to the eldest son, and the eldest son would always be “lord of the manor” for lack of a better term. He did not want to play second fiddle. Perhaps the younger son really meant to take his money and go into business to make his fortune on his own. Like some young people today, when he got off on his own, his good intentions failed him. It may have been the first time in his life he had to manage money. He enjoyed entertaining people and having them look up to him, even if for the wrong reasons. Or, perhaps the younger son always tended to be a wastral. He did with his fortune what one might have expected. Whatever the younger son’s intentions, the result was the same. The poverty and degradation he suffered made him realize that waste and sin as a way of life was destructive and wrong; that even those people who worked for his father back home lived better than he was living now. One hopes that lesson survives his repentance and return home.
What does this make us think about the father with relation to his younger son? When the son wanted his share of the fortune, did his dad talk to him about what he wanted to do? Had the son been brought up with some actual practice of financial responsibility? Moral responsibility? If he wanted to go into business, could his dad have assisted him with letters of introduction or other help? Did his dad treat him enough like a real human being and not just talk down to him or issue orders, so that the son was likely to be receptive? Was the son so rebellious that he would not have listened, no matter what?
Let’s look at the older brother. Why is he upset? Why is he not equally joyful and grateful for the return of his brother? Why doesn’t he listen to his dad tell him that he knows that he has been with him all along and everything he has is his?
The hard working older brother could not have known when his younger brother got his share of the family fortune that he was going to waste it. He might well have supposed, or even hoped, that his younger brother might go off to a foreign land, and through hard work, turn it into a greater fortune. The older brother might not even have been told that his younger brother had wasted the fortune when he came in from the fields to discover the celebration that made he refused to join.
There are five obvious reasons why the older brother might have resented his younger brother’s welcome.
First, perhaps the brothers did not get along very well before the one wanting his share of the inheritance early left the hard working brother alone with the role he should have shared with him. If they did not like each other so much, that feeling probably festered after the younger brother left. The older brother just could not bring himself to be glad that his brother was back. He disliked, or even hated, his brother. And we should understand that hatred hurts more than just the older brother. It also hurts all the other people with whom he lives and works. The older brother, by virtue of the hatred eating at him, is not a whole, healthy person. He cannot offer those around him a full, meaningful, supportive relationship. That deprives all of us of a gift.
Second, maybe the brothers had gotten along. But, the older brother was told that his brother was coming home with nothing, after wasting his inheritance. The older brother probably was proud of himself for living a relatively hard working and dutiful life. He looked down on his brother’s sinful and wasteful behavior. He was self-righteous and judgmental. This is something every one of us does nearly every day, usually many times a day, without thinking. Don’t we all think that by and large we are fairly decent people, and don’t we all cringe when someone doesn’t measure up to our standards? Aren’t we all self-righteous and judgmental all too often?
Third, perhaps the older brother was afraid that his own inheritance would be diminished because his father would give more to the younger brother to replace what he wasted. The older brother was jealous and selfish.
Both of these second and third points, self-righteous, judgmental, jealous and selfish, involve the older brother thinking the treatment of his younger brother was unfair. But who are we, as humans looking only at the here and now, to know what is fair? What if the younger brother’s dissolute life left him with the long range effects of a dissolute life, sexually transmitted diseases, or damage to his body because of either over-living or the subsequent poverty? Would the older brother want to take on those same afflictions as the price of celebrating his brother’s return, or even replacing his wasted inheritance? None of us, when phrased in this way, really want the world to be fair. None of us wants to pay a price for what we think we deserve. We all need at least mercy, but more likely grace, for we usually deserve much less.
Fourth, the older brother may have been unwilling to participate in the welcome solely for the very reason he says – he worked hard and the father never acknowledged the work in an outward, tangible way. The older brother felt sorry for himself.
Finally, maybe it was not even one of those negative reasons – hatred, self-righteousness, jealously, selfishness and self-pity. Perhaps it was because the younger brother did not ask his older brother for forgiveness. Certainly the younger brother should have asked his father for forgiveness, but should he not also have asked his brother? Didn’t his brother suffer from his absence also? Doesn’t seeking forgiveness mean that we need to seek it from all the people we hurt? Not just the easy ones?
Which brings us back to the father. We applaud the welcome back of the prodigal son, but had the father dealt fairly with his older son? Over the years, even if he had not killed the fatted calf, had he told him he loved him? Had he ever just said thanks? Did he ever give him a hug? Or had he taken him for granted?
All of those things are worthy of thought and of our attention as human parents, brothers and sisters, and just plain people living in a world with other people. But let us look at the parable as an illustration of God’s wonderful grace.
The father went out and met his son and kissed him before he could even get a word out of his mouth. The father’s love and joy at the return of his son was unconditional.
The older son was more like the Pharisees that Jesus was in part talking to when he told this parable. He was proud of remaining home and working, and, in that pride, offered the illusion of a relationship with God, the Father, but not the substance of one. He had not learned unconditional love from his father, and, for that very reason, was incapable of feeling the joy of giving that love. He was incapable of understanding that when his father said, “everything I have is yours,” our Father always has everything we need – enough for everyone.
What this parable, what the prodigal son, truly reminds me of, is the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom.
If any have toiled from the first hour, let him receive his due reward. . . . And he that hath arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay for the Lord is gracious and receiveth the last even as the first. Yea, to this one, he giveth and upon that one, he bestoweth. He accepteth works, as he greeteth the endeavor. The deed he honoureth and the intention he commendeth.
And, that is a good observation at the beginning of this Lenten and Easter season.
-An anonymous parishioner of St. Andrew