Some time ago I wrote Part One of this article and then promised a Part Two. I stalled on writing the second part, and for that I’m sorry. I hope this follow up has been worth the wait. Identifying with the Elder Son in the parable of the Prodigal Son is a very real struggle of mine, and it took me some time to come back to the subject and continue on with it.
Here’s a reminder of who the Elder Son is. He’s never left his father’s home. He’s never rebelled, messed up, squandered his father’s money, betrayed his family or disgraced himself. He’s never told his father that he can’t wait for him to die and could he have his inheritance money now please thank you very much.
So when his father throws his wayward brother a welcome home party, the Elder Son refuses to enter and join in the celebrations. He explains bitterly that he has never put a foot wrong, he’s worked hard for his father, and yet he’s never once been thrown a party in his own honor.
I’m quoting myself in Part One of this article when I say that I’m bitter about “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?!”
If you, like me, feel you’ve done everything right, sacrificed so much for God and got nothing in return, what should you do? Maybe you know the faith you have right now isn’t quite as it should be. You don’t feel joyful or happy. Instead you feel weighed down by the burden of maintaining your perfect record, your stain-free report card. The burden of life feels heavy even though you know it shouldn’t. I’ve been reflecting and praying about this for months now and in the following points I’ll share with you what you can do to move on from the figure of the bitter ‘Elder Son’ to the son who knows his father’s arms are open wide for him too.
If you’re serious about moving on from the place of the Elder Son then I highly recommend this article on Mature Discipleship. In it Fr Ron Rolheiser writes that “to be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less”. Gratitude is not a weak thing. It is not wishy washy. It is not restricted only to gratitude journals and Pinterest boards, though by all means use those if they are helpful. Gratitude is strong and sometimes painful but always transformative. Properly practiced, gratitude will not leave you the same person. I call it extreme gratitude because sometimes you feel as though you have nothing to be thankful for and it takes enormous effort to be grateful. But there is always something to be grateful for. Start with being grateful for the most basic of things. Build it into a daily habit. You will find it will change how you feel about your life. It will show you the crucial truth; that the Father gave you just as much as the Prodigal Son received on his return home.
Practicing daily gratitude helps you make peace with your daily life; with the parts of it that you find boring, repetitive, irritating. As humans, we want want want the miracles and the dramatic and the novelty and excitement, but there has to be a point when we are asked to go quietly back to our ordinary lives and live out what we have experienced. This is not to negate the reality of miracles or the wonder of amazing conversion stories. These are evidence of God’s glory. They are not to be dismissed. But neither should we ignore the daily miracles. The fact that we are alive and breathing. The fact that we did not create ourselves. The Eucharist, quietly celebrated in Daily Mass to minuscule congregations around the world in parishes tucked far away from big cities. The miracle of the Eucharist itself. The ordinary miracles that remind us of the Incarnation; that God became a tiny helpless baby in order to meet His beloved people in the most realist of ways possible.
We can’t join the party of the Prodigal Son if we’re obsessed with being at the center of it. If we feel short-changed by God, maybe it’s because we don’t want to acknowledge what He has done for us, the sins He has forgiven us, the times when He has welcomed us back like the Prodigal (we are, after all, all the people in this parable at different times in our lives). When we are self-absorbed, concerned with only being perfect, we forget that God wants to have a loving relationship WITH us, and that relationship can take us on the most exciting of adventures, even in our day-to-day lives. Pope Benedict XVI said “with God, your lives will never be boring”. Just because the party isn’t being thrown for you, doesn’t mean you can’t rejoice in and enjoy it too; all the brothers in your life who were lost, but now are found. This is an invitation for all of us; to rejoice in what God has done for the whole world.
We all have to make the same walk home that the Prodigal makes. Just because our journey of repentance doesn’t look the same as others’ doesn’t make us any better or more perfect a person. If we think we don’t have to make that journey ourselves than perhaps we haven’t figured out that our pride is crippling us, and pride can kill and blind and maim just as badly (if not worse) as the sins we might think we’re so good for not committing. When we ask God for the grace to remove our pride, we can sink into the trust that reassures us that God’s arms are open wide for us too, even if we think we’re already living perfectly without the pigsties, dirt and poverty that we decide other Prodigals must be living in.
It is crucial that we address the fact that the Elder Son says that he has “slaved” for his Father. From a purely legalistic point of view, you can understand why the lowly human, in gratitude for being created, believes that to slave for the Creator is the only appropriate response to being created. But God did not create us for indignity. He created us to know Him, to love Him and lastly, and within the context of the first two, to serve Him. We do not slave for Him. Christ says in John 15:15 that “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” In the parable, the Father speaks only with tenderness to his confused and bitter son. He reminds him that they have a relationship of blood, not a monetary exchange of skills and wages. We do not exist to give God a timesheet of hours worked and wages taken. We exist because He takes delight in us, and wishes to know us like a Father would his son.
Eleven words that are so beautiful, so merciful, and so redemptive; the Father’s reply to the Elder Son is just as incredible as his welcome home to the Prodigal. He responds to the bitterness of the man who stands in the shadows and refuses to come into the warmth by saying:
“‘My son,’… ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Competition is to be found everywhere in our world, but there is no competition with the Father. What He celebrates with the Prodigal, He shares with the rest of His children. He holds nothing back. And if you feel you have given God more than you can cope with parting with, remember the words of Christ when He says:
“In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land — and persecutions too — now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
I extend the invitation to you now to delve into the depths of the Father’s reply, to meditate on it, to pray with it, to ask God to show you what He has shared with you in your life, and to leave the bitterness of the Elder Son behind, and to rejoice with childlike innocence in the welcome home reception offered to each one of us.
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