The parable of the Prodigal Son is arguably one of the most well-known parables, and it is easy to see why. Despite its short length, the story is packed with drama. We can feel all the familiar emotions in it. We understand the rebellion of the younger son and his need to cut loose and go wild, and we know the pain of the father as he watches him go, relinquishing his inheritance so it can be squandered by his wayward son. We can recognize the turning point, the squalor of the pigs and the abandonment of the friends. We’re humbled by the mercy of the father who opens his arms to welcome the prodigal home, a welcome that goes beyond the son’s wildest dreams.
But I’ll bet that despite our familiarity with this story, it is not always the Prodigal Son who we identify with.
Perhaps we feel the most affinity with the shadowy figure of the Elder Son, whose story we sometimes read as a tacked-on post-script, the lesser part bringing up the rear of the more exciting main event. Oh yes, we say, and there was also the Elder Son, the party-pooper, who came in from the fields and didn’t want to dance. A bitter sting to an otherwise beautiful tale of redemption.
Except. I have found myself identifying more and more with the Elder Son, particularly as I have got older. I have gone from hearing the Parable in my teens and thinking “what an idiot” in reference to the Elder Son, to now positively identifying with him and wanting to say to him: “I get it. I completely understand you.” His pain is apparent in his anger. In his own way, he has as much as a return journey to make as the younger son. He just doesn’t know it yet.
There have certainly been several times in my life when I have identified with the Prodigal. Those occasional 5am-moments-of-reckoning when I have realized with a sinking feeling that the narrative of my life is slipping away from where it was called to be. A return journey must be made, an anxious one, not confident of the grace that might be granted, but hopeful all the same. These moments stand out because they are so clearly definable. They are black-and-white, before-and-after, misery-to-forgiveness. They are like signposts through my teens and twenties; here, they say, you turned back, and you were forgiven. They demand gratitude because gratitude springs so naturally because you know you were forgiven much.
But if I’m honest with myself, most of the time I don’t identify with the Prodigal Son.
Because I can roll out a litany of Things I Didn’t Do in my mind. The temptations that I didn’t give into, because actually, they were quite easy not to. The other sacrifices that I made that really, really hurt but I still wonder at the point of them. The times I did the right thing and life was boring because of it. The times I said to God, I have done everything right, given you everything I could, sweated and toiled for You, and for what?! You still treat me like this?!
I am the Elder Son.
“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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
The Elder Son is perhaps the daily life of the committed Christian, the cradle-Catholic, the post-conversion-convert, the daily grind of the person who never left the Father’s home or returned a long time ago, long enough for the sheer-miracle of the return to have faded away.
Which is why it is harder to recognize that there is absolutely no difference to how the Father treats His Prodigal Son and His Elder Son. The Elder Son cannot see that. Look carefully at what he says to His father. Look at his anger. He is wrapped up in bitterness. He is preoccupied with right and wrong, obedience and disobedience. He says he has “slaved” for his father.
So what do we do if we realize we are the Elder Son?
It is interesting that while the Prodigal Son gets a resolution to his story the Elder Son does not. We do not know whether the Elder Son puts his anger to one side, joins the party, and embraces his brother in a welcome home. The Elder Brother doesn’t get a resolution to his story because he does not make that same turn of repentance that is required of both brothers. The Elder Brother does not think that repentance is required of him. We don’t know what he does next, where his heart turns- in on itself, or outwards toward his father’s love.
Whether we ourselves can leave behind the cages of bitterness and pride and find the warmth of a home we have never left depends entirely on how far we are willing to cooperate with God’s grace. God never gives up on inviting us into greater union with Him.
In Part Two of this article, we will address how we can make our own return journey from the place of the Elder Son to recognizing the home that is in the Father’s loving heart.
Part Two of this article will be published soon!