MY PROBLEM WITH THIS PARABLE

Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son
Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son

This homily is based on Luke 15:1-32.

Our Gospel reading today features what is arguably the best-known and best-loved of our Lord’s parables, The Parable of the Lost Son–more commonly known as the Prodigal Son.

We know the story: A wayward son prematurely asks his father for his share of the inheritance and spends it all in loose living. He predictably finds himself destitute and miserable, and just as predictably decides to go home in remorse. What is most unpredictable is that this good-for-nothing son is, much to his own surprise, greeted by his father’s embrace and is welcomed with a lavish homecoming party, complete with a roasted fattened calf.

This touching moment when son is reunited with father is poignantly captured by the painter Rembrandt in what must be one of his most famous paintings. The whole thing, in fact, is a touching parable of God’s boundless mercy–touching, that is, unless you happen to be the elder son.

If you’re here in church today instead of somewhere else doing something far more enjoyable, you’re probably more “elder son” than “younger son.” You know what I mean: While so many others are having a field day sinning left and right (and getting away with it!), you choose instead “all these years” to serve, trying your best not to disobey God’s orders, even if, as the elder son so bitterly puts it, you never get so much as a goat to feast with your friends.

So I have to confess: I have a problem with this parable. I get the elder brother; I can’t blame him for how he is feeling. The poor guy gets a lot of bad rap for being a party-pooper, but you have to concede that he has a point. He is probably not even against his father taking back his brother; there’s nothing in the text that clearly says he disapproves of that. I suspect that what really gets his goat is, yes, that fattened calf! I mean, accepting his younger brother back into their home is one thing; but must they also throw this big welcome party on his behalf? Isn’t their father getting a little too carried away?

To make matters worse, we’re not even sure if the younger brother is genuinely sorry for what he has done! Sure, he’s sorry–for himself, but what about the hurt he has caused his father? It seems to me that the primary reason for his change of heart is not any realization that he has wronged his father. Simply put, he has returned because he’s penniless and hungry!

Standing there surrounded by pigs, salivating after their feed, he realizes–upon his own admission–that he has hit rock bottom. He knows his father’s workers are better off than him. That is the reason why he has decided to go back: to apply as a worker in his father’s house. And that’s why he has made sure he’s ready with a carefully prepared speech, one that he has probably rehearsed again and again on his way back home, worried that his father will not hire him. It’s a great speech: “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 servants.”

But what happens? His father doesn’t even let him finish his speech. Never mind if his son might learn some much-needed humility even just by delivering the speech. Never mind if eating humble pie might in the long run actually be formative. The father is so overjoyed over his long-lost son’s return that he interrupts the speech. He doesn’t care about teaching him a lesson. Instead he calls for the finest robe, puts a ring on his son’s finger and sandals for his feet–and serves him prime ribs! And as if to add insult to injury, he wants the elder brother to join the party.

In case you haven’t noticed, the parable doesn’t really end. Its very last line has the father outside the house, still pleading for his elder son to join the celebration. We’re not told how the elder son eventually responds to his father’s plea. According to biblical scholars, the reason why there’s no ending is that we, his other audience–this present bunch of elder brothers and sisters gathered here–are supposed to provide the ending ourselves. And we do that by answering the following questions: Are we going to linger at the door, watching the celebration from a distance while nursing our cup of resentment? You know what they say about resentment: It’s like ourselves drinking poison in the hope that the other person dies!

Or are we going to swallow our self-righteousness and join the party, remembering that we too–all of us–have also once or twice in our lives been lost before being found?

The choice is ours. We get to pick the ending. In so doing, we also get to choose our ending.

You see, the Parable of the Lost Son reveals to us God’s unique brand of mercy. It’s a disconcerting kind of mercy because it is so unreasonably lavish. It defies–and violates–every human standard and condition. God’s mercy is served to all–whether you want His mercy for the right reason or for the wrong one, whether you’ve already learned your lesson from your mistakes and sins or you still haven’t. As Jesus says in another passage, the Father’s mercy is like the sun that shines on both the good and the wicked. What makes the difference is whether we accept it with open arms as the younger son does in the parable, though undeserved, or whether we hesitate like his elder brother.

Such is God’s mercy, unapologetically lavish and indiscriminate. And if we have a problem with that, then I think we’ve got a problem.

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27 thoughts on “MY PROBLEM WITH THIS PARABLE”

  1. I am new to Pins of Light through a friend.
    The common end of the reflections is God’s mind boggling love and mercy to ALL: deserving or not!
    Thank You Po God!

  2. If God is so lavishingly merciful… Wouldnt everyone want to be the younger son thinking God will accept them anyway no matter what?

        1. I agree with you. That’s why the title of the blog is “My PROBLEM with this Parable.” The only point of continuing to play the elder son that I can think of is, of course, love. You give more even if you get only as much as those who give less only because you love the father. :)

          1. I knew it would all still come down to love. That was the answer at the back of my mind but wanted to believe there is more than love but then again love is already the greatest form in its essence isnt it? Thank you father J

  3. Sometimes all the facts tells you that your are correct, just like the older brother,he did everything right. But still it does not add up. Life is not fair. The Lord’s mercy is illogical with our way of thinking. It is only with grace that we can understand it. By lingering at the door with a resentful heart, we waste precious time in this fleeting life. Let’s jump in and join the party and share the sun with the good and evil. Knowing in our hearts that we don’t get less sunlight just because someone else shares it with us. Let’s just be thankful with what we have and worry less of what we don’t have.

    Thank you for this reflection.

  4. The older I become the more I realize that I do not deserve anything except through
    God’s loving mercy. So if He prefers to be lavish to others I am no longer upset nor
    jealous because I am just too grateful for the gifts He has given me even though I
    dont deserve them.

    I pray for the grace of compassion and understanding as I grow old.

  5. SCARY … but MUST forever be etched in my mind …. “resentment: It’s like ourselves drinking poison in the hope that the other person dies!”
    Thank you, Fr J, for this!

  6. In the end, i think, wanting recognition of the “good deeds” we do, is also a kind of selfishness that we are all prone to do. And that we must do good things, not for the reward, or recognition, or the promise of a good life, but simply it is good. Possibly, this is the crux of the lessons we’re here to learn, before we enter God’s kingdom.

  7. “Unreasonably lavish” What a gorgeous way to describe God’s mercy.

    The older I get, the more I realize that God’s mercy is a mystery too. It’s so vast that we can scarcely take it in, much less have our feeble minds grasp its magnitude. It just doesn’t compute!

    There is nothing left to do but bask in His mercy and love. Loving us is God being God because that is who He is and all She asks is that we know it in our bones and sinews that we are His beloved – prodigals and elder sons alike.

  8. What you missed out is that the elder brother is also a sinner. We all are. Sin is sin, big or small, mortal or venial. They are all offensive to God. The wages of sin is death. This is the real problem. And if we have a problem in recognizing that we are all sinners (whether we are the elder brother or the younger brother) deserving of death, and that it is not in our good works but only ithrough God’s grace are we saved from eternal damnation, then we have a real problem.

    1. I agree completely; that’s why I wrote in the blog: “Or are we going to swallow our self-righteousness and join the party, remembering that we too–all of us–have also once or twice in our lives been lost before being found?”

  9. Do we not have loved ones that we pray for in the hopes that they repent and join the Lord even if it be at deaths door? If we really love them then we rejoice at their being forgiven at the last hour. It gives us consolation that recalcitrant loved ones get to confession before their final rest. It even gives us joy. The challenge is to expand that love to encompass all our brothers and sisters in life. We hope all our brothers and sisters are praying for us too. Spread the love ????

  10. Finally, a reflection that focuses not on the party, not on the two brothers, not on the unfairness, not on the dirt of worldly pleasures. But on our forgiving and merciful God. Thank you, Father J.

  11. Yes, poignant and soul searching.
    Am i first born or the young one?
    Join the fun or sulk?
    I will have to think well but thank you Fr. J for showing us how great is our God of mercy.
    Thank you Lord for your unending forgiveness.

  12. Very onsightful…..My dilemna is on forgiveness as a Christian way of proceeding and the the obligation to right the wrong done…Was this implied in the parable thru the merciful act of the father implying that by his actions the son will right the wrong he has committed?

  13. Beautiful interpretation!
    Just like you I have a problem with this parable.
    Because if I were the elder son, I’d also feel betrayed and angry at the warm welcome given to my wayward brother. Probably I’d even turn green and furious like the Incredible Hulk.

    Yes, we’d never know the ending to this lovely parable. It’s anyone’s guess.
    But as we all know a parent’s unconditional love could be mind-blowing.
    It reminded me of Pope Francis’ message – “We cannot live without forgiving one another, or at least we cannot live well, especially in the family.”
    ” … that the family is a great training ground of gift and of mutual forgiveness, without which no love can last for long.”

    Thank you and have a nice Sunday!

  14. The homily in my mass was about how both
    sons just focused on inheritance more than the gift
    of being with the Father; while all the while the Father
    is loving them because they are both his sons. In my hierarchy
    of those who have given me much, it’s God then my parents,
    and in my life it’s them I’ve also taken for granted the most.
    If this was called the parable of the selfish children, it would be a good name
    and it totally relates to me too.

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