|Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1669, via Web Gallery of Art|
The parable of the prodigal son is my very favorite parable.
I know I'm not alone in this. It is one of those with so many layers of meaning and also one to which we all can relate, whether it is with the prodigal or elder son.
I'd bet, though, a lot of parishes heard homilies about the prodigal son, while the elder son wasn't even mentioned. That's what happened to us. It is easy to understand why. We love the father's forgiveness, kindness, and mercy. Many people relate to the prodigal son so that makes his reunion with the father even more poignant.
What gets forgotten is the context that made Jesus tell the parable in the first place.
It is not really equally about the two sons. The struggles of both are important but Jesus is telling this parable to the Pharisees in response to their complaints about the time he spends with sinners. He's trying to get them to understand the prodigal son's journey, the father's joyful love, and the problems with the elder son's response.
The whole point of this parable is the complaints of the elder son and the father's pleading with him.
Sadly, it took me a very long time to even understand what the problem was with the elder son's complaints. They seemed pretty reasonable to me. Which says a lot about my basic personality. But once I did, it put a whole new cast on the story, one that stuck with me.
I wonder if many of us don't have a lot more in common with the elder son than we'd like to think. How many times have I issued internal judgment on those around me? How many times have I patted myself on the back for how good I am and, therefore, how much better? How many times have I craved praise while deploring the "less worthy" who received it instead?
And that is part of the point too. Just as our fellow Christians are equally sons, we are equally sinners ... just maybe not in as public a way as those we judge. Reading the parable, we notice that Jesus leaves it open-ended. We don't know what the elder son does. Is there a conversion of heart? Not all Pharisees were hostile to Jesus. Was it partially because they reflected on parables like this one?
Our priest drew a final conclusion about the prodigal son that we shouldn't love God just for the things he can give us, that we need to seek out a personal relationship with Him. That is insightful and can be applied equally to the elder son. He talks to his father as if he were an employer, not someone he loves. As in the Rembrandt painting above, he stands in judgment of his father's mercy and forgiveness. There is nothing personal or loving in him.
Here is the parable, having removed the parables of the sheep and coin that Jesus tells first to make His point. Those have value and do add to the meaning of the main parable, but I thought I'd put the streamlined version here to make it easy to look at the family's journey.
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So to them he addressed this parable.
Then he said, "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.'
But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, 'Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, 'Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.'
He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"