We are so familiar with the parable of the prodigal son that we forget part of the message, and that is the response of the elder brother. As I read and reread scripture it seems evident that God is far more loving than we are, and far more forgiving. We do not want God to forgive our enemies, but scripture teaches us that all God wants is for us to repent, to say, "I'm sorry, father. Forgive me," as the prodigal son does when he comes to himself and recognizes the extent of his folly and wrongdoing. And the father rejoices in his return.
Then there's the elder brother. We don't like to recognize ourselves in the elder brother who goes off and sulks because the father, so delighted at the return of the younger brother, prepares a great feast. Punishment? A party! Because the younger brother has learned the lesson he has, in a sense, already punished himself. But, like the elder brother, we're apt to think the father much too lenient.
"The Prodigal Son," a ballet by George BalanchineThere was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me." So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything.
Rembrandt's The Prodigal SonI am spent, O my Christ, Breath of my life. Perpetual stress and surge, in league together, make long, O long, this life, this business of living. Grappling with foes within and foes without, my soul hast lost its beauty, blurred your image. Friendship has bowed and illness wasted me. Stones for my welcome, not a flower I've had. The folk the Spirit gave to me is gone: this child I've had to leave, this left me, that cares naught for me. Heavy the father's heart.
Gregory of Nazianzus
The reason I have told you this parable of the prodigal son is so that you will understand that even sins committed after baptism can be forgiven if we face up to them. I do not say this to encourage indolence but to save you from despair.
When the younger son came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'" So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" And they began to celebrate.
The prodigal returns,
cast in bronze,
as he kneels
before that Love
which wrenches him
from the dust.
He is weak,
slight of frame,
stripped of pride
after repeated fall
Now, his arms reach up,
his head tilts back,
clasped by the one
to whom he clings,
the strong one
whose massive form
in sculpted security
Auguste Rodin, "The Prodigal Son"
Now the man's elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound." Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!" Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
God is on the side even of the unworthy poor. . .Readers may object that the prodigal son returned penitent to his father's house. But who knows, he might have gone out and squandered money on the next Saturday night; he might have refused to help with the farm work and asked to be sent to finish his education instead, thereby further incurring his brother's righteous wrath, and the war between the worker and the intellectual, or the conservative and the radical, would be on. Jesus has another answer to that one: to forgive one's brother seventy times seven. There are always answers, although they are not always calculated to soothe.
Most but not all quotes taken from the compilation A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days, ed. by J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler and Peter Mazar. Liturgy Training Publication, 1990.