For converts like me, the story of the prodigal son evokes a tsunami of emotion: gratitude, relief, sorrow and recognition are only a few. But upon reflecting on the well-known parable that Jesus tells the complaining Pharisees and scribes, I began to think about the older brother with an entirely different lens. Rather than my usual judgement about the his selfishness and cheerlessness upon the return of his lost brother, I wondered if the point of Christ’s story was that older brother. And I had completely missed it in all the years of my identification with the rebellious and stupid prodigal son.
Luke’s Gospel chapter 15 tells us that Jesus is addressing a large crowd- composed mostly of tax collectors and sinners [you and me], the Pharisees and scribes are listening but they stay outside the crowd. Christ tells three parables in that chapter. All practical but tender images of the love that God the father has for us. The first, the lost sheep. One out of a hundred sheep goes missing.
Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
And then the woman who finds the lost coin. She loses one of ten silver coins.
Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now, we are told by Luke, the Pharisees and scribes draw closer. They want to hear what Jesus is saying. As they do so they mumble and complain. “This man talks to tax collectors and sinners.” I have italicized the phrase because it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to fill in the nouns with a group or groups of people whom don’t fit into our norms of behavior. Or who we see as less than. Or offensive.
And then he tells the parable of the lost son.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Only now have I understood this story. After twenty years, I have become comfortable with my faith and its rules, the obedience demanded by Catholicism and the peace felt with even those aspects with which I disagree. Now I see that the point of the story is the older brother whom I have become. The one who did everything right. Obeyed all of his father’s wishes. Followed all the rules without question, day after day, year after year. But he lacks the most important quality of all: Love.