This reflection is based on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Luke 15:1-32.
The 2017 McCann study called “Truth about the Youth” surveyed over 30,000 respondents all over the world, and found that one out of two young people today feel worse about themselves whenever they see the posts of their friends on social media. This rising phenomenon has been called “social media envy.”
In today’s Sunday Gospel reading, which is the familiar and much-loved “Parable of the Lost Son,” we see some kind of precursor to social media envy in the elder brother, the one who, at the end of the parable, keeps his distance from his brother’s homecoming party. Today it would be equivalent to him checking his Instagram at the end of a day’s work–only to see a selfie of his younger brother’ posting showing off his brand new ring and robe, and feasting on that fattened calf!
If you look at Rembrandt’s famous painting of the parable, you will find the elder brother right there in the center of the scene, but hiding in the shadows, looking on with disappointment and resentment.
I couldn’t help noticing the stark differences between him and his elder brother. The elder son is everything his returning brother isn’t. He is obedient, responsible, and hardworking, while his younger brother is simply “none of the above.” He sounds like the person who is hard on himself, while the younger brother goes notoriously easy on himself, making decisions based on his every whim and pleasure.
I have to say that I so get the elder brother. I don’t blame him for being disappointed and even resentful he learns about the party thrown in his long-lost brother’s honor. What for? Why reward someone who has done nothing but indulge himself, spending away their father’s inheritance? Why give that son the ring and the robe, and why kill that fattened calf just to welcome him home? Where’s the logic or the justice there?
But his father patiently tries to explain 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.”
We don’t know what the elder brother actually does because the parable ends with the father’s plea. Does he decide to continue with his tantrum–or does he allow his father’s words to convince him to join the celebration?
The parable does not offer an ending because Jesus intends the entire parable as a question or an invitation to the Pharisees and Scribes who have been critical of the “sinful” company that Jesus keeps. They are the elder brothers who need to make a decision whether to continue nursing their resentments or to let that go and share in God’s joy in the sinners’ repentance.
I remember what Fr. Benny Calpotura, one of my novice masters, said about the elder brother many years ago. The problem with the elder son, he told us novices, is that he is looking at things from the lens of duty and entitlement. Even if he is a son, he still thinks like a slave. Everything his father has is already his–and his younger brother’s, a gratuitous gift given to both of them, regardless of how their merit or their sins. There is no reason for envy or resentment. Yet it’s a difficult pill to swallow for those who are striving to behave properly and to perform their duty.
For me, the message of the Gospel is: Will I choose to think and act like a slave, and calculate things according to what I think I deserve? Or will I try to respond to God’s invitation to think and act like His child, who receives everything as an undeserved gift and who cannot but allow his Father to be just as lavish on anyone else, whether they deserve it or not.
We are invited to make that shift; it’s a shift that the Pharisees and Scribes failed to make. What about us?