“A man had two sons.” This is how the Gospel reading for the Sunday of the fourth week in Lent begins (Luke 15:1–3, 11–32). The reading is the parable of the Prodigal Son, and I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this title is not found in the text. It has been given to the story over centuries.
I suppose this name resonates because we see ourselves as the younger son who left the father’s house, ended up in a mess, and returned home humbled. Perhaps we feel — or want to feel — the welcome embrace of the father. We long for the celebration that the father has for the child who was once dead but is now alive.
It’s popular these days to call the story the parable of the Prodigal Father due to the father’s excessive — maybe even wasteful — love that he lavishes on both of his children. (An aside: I find it interesting that there is no mother in this story.) We might recognize the dad a permissive parent.
Consider how indulgent the father is. When his younger son asks for his inheritance, the father simply gives it. No arguing. No haggling. No bickering. We might expect the father to disown his son, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even say, ‘”Can’t you wait until I’m dead?” If I were the father, I’d probably tell the son to finish his homework or do some housework. Instead, the father in Jesus’ story divides up the property among the two sons and give the younger one his portion.
When his wasteful son returns, the father embarrasses himself by running out to meet the wayward child. He clothes his formerly (and possibly future) rebellious son in the finest clothes, gives him the family ring as a sign of authority, and throws a party in his honor.
No wonder the older son feels upset. In effect, the father has taken what rightfully belongs to the older son. The robe, ring, sandals, and fatted calf all theoretically belong to the older son. The younger one has already taken his share of the father’s wealth, but the father gives all of these belongings to the son who had already taken his share.
Talk about indulgent.
Then the father throws a party for his child who wished him dead. He has now returned and consumes more than his share of the inheritance. You can hear the indignation in the older son’s voice when arguing with his father. “But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf…”
This son of yours.
The older son refuses to acknowledge a fraternal relationship with his brother. He wants nothing to do with the young man. As far as he is concerned, his brother remains lost. (Another aside: I find it curious how he knew about how his younger sibling used the inheritance. Was he watching? Did he have friends keep tabs on him?)
The father assures the older son that “everything I have is yours.” He doesn’t need the father’s permission to celebrate with his friends any time he wants, but now is a special time. “Your brother was dead and has come to life again.” The father reaffirms the fraternal relationship between the brothers and invites the older one to join the celebration of reconciliation.
What will he do?
This is where the parable ends. And this, of course, is the main point of the story.
The entire incident begins when Jesus’ detractors complain that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” While most people relate to the younger son and feel gratitude for the father’s prodigious love, the story calls on us to identify with the older son and answer the open-ended question.
How will I respond to my “wasteful” sibling? Will I join the party, or will I remain outside — dutifully but resentfully fulfilling all of my responsibilities?
This story captivates me because the opening line seems so innocuous. “A man had two sons.” If there were one son, this would be so much easier. The younger son could have squandered everything, even after he had returned. The older son could have inherited the entire estate and do whatever he wanted with it because he would have had no brother to share the estate with.
But no. There are two sons. Two siblings.
In the Biblical tradition, two children in a family nearly always results in conflict. Can killed Abel. Abraham sent Ishmael away so Isaac could receive the inheritance. Jacob and Esau fought over the birthright. Jacob’s large family despised the favorite son Joseph, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery.
Cain sums up the sibling rivalry by asking the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The parable brings us to this point. What will we do when we realize that we’re not only children? How will we respond when others need our help? Will we feel self-righteous and look down upon our siblings? Will we complain that they have wasted their inheritance? Will we stay outside or go in and celebrate?
A look at our world today illustrates how tense our sibling relationships are. We build walls and detention camps to keep people out. We refuse to welcome refugees. We treat people with addictions as villains. People find themselves excluded because of race, gender, age, identity, religion, nationality, and physical abilities.
In his recent visit to Morocco, Pope Francis described himself as a pilgrim of peace and fraternity. In his homily at the sports arena in Rabat, the pontiff observed that the father’s joy would not be complete without the presence of his other son.”
But will our joy find fulfillment without our siblings? It seems like we would like to try.
The pope applied the parable to our context. “At the threshold of that home, we can see our own divisions and strife, the aggressiveness and conflicts that always lurk at the door of our high ideals, our efforts to build a society of fraternity, where each person can experience even now the dignity of being a son or daughter.”
As a sign of fraternal love, Pope Francis ended his homily with a call to mutual devotion. “May the Merciful and Compassionate One — as our Muslim brothers and sisters frequently invoke him — strengthen you and make your works of love ever more fruitful.”
Our brothers and sisters.
The irony in the parable is that the older brother who felt such animosity toward his rebellious brother finds himself on the brink of excluding himself from the family. Maybe the parable should be called the parable of the Stingy Brother.
So we’re left asking ourselves whether or not we, in our stinginess, will exclude ourselves from the rest of humanity and the ultimate family celebration.