The Gospel this Sunday is about a man who had two sons, both of whom forsook him and refused to relive in relationship with him. Although the sons seem to have very different personalities (one outwardly rebellious, the other outwardly obedient), their internal struggles are similar. In effect, neither of them really wants a relationship with his father. Both prefer what their father has or can give them to their father himself.
In the end, one son repents and finds his way to the father’s heart. We don’t find out what happens to the second son. The parable didn’t tell us what happened to him because the story is really about us; it is we who must finish it. The question we must answer is this: What do I really want? Do I want the consolation of God, or the God of all consolation; the gifts of God, or the giver of every good and perfect gift?
Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.
Renegade Son – Most of us are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We tend to focus on the younger (and obviously sinful) son rather than the older one. This is interesting because the Lord Jesus seems to have His focus on the older son (the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who see themselves as obedient). Nevertheless, let’s observe three things about this renegade son, this prodigal son.
Corruption – This is an angry young man, alienated from his father. He wants what his father has yet wants nothing to do with him. In effect, he tells his father, “You’re not dying fast enough. I want to be done with you and get what’s coming to me right now.”
His effrontery is even more astonishing given where and when it happened. Today, reverence for parents and elders is sadly lacking, but if our times are extreme in the one direction, ancient times in the Middle East were so in the other. In telling this parable as He does, Jesus shocks His listeners, who lived in a culture where no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence! Even to this day, so-called “honor killings” still occur in parts of the Middle East. If a child brings dishonor to the family, it is not unheard of for the father to kill him or her. While most governments forbid these practices, in many cultures people will look the other way and the perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.
Yes, Jesus must have shocked His listeners with such a parable. Here was a son who did something so insolent, ungrateful, and daring as to be practically unthinkable.
Even more astonishing than the son’s behavior, however, is the fact that the father actually gives him his inheritance and allows him to leave.
This is Jesus’ veiled description of the patience and mercy of the Father, who endures even greater insolence from us, His often-ungrateful children. We demand His gifts and take them with ingratitude; we want what God gives us but do not want Him.
Consequences – The renegade son sets off to “a distant country.” It is always in a distant country that we dwell apart from God. The consequences of the son’s behavior are great indeed.
This parable does not make light of sin. The Lord Jesus describes well a young man who chooses to live apart from God and in sinful rebellion. The result is that this renegade son lives in anguish and depravity. When he runs out of money, he finds he has no friends, no family, and no experience of his father.
So awful is his state that he becomes hungry for the disgusting mash that pigs eat. Yes, he is lower than the most unclean animal Jews can imagine: a swine.
Sin debases the human person and if its effects are not avoided, it orients us increasingly toward depravity. What was once unthinkable becomes easier and easier.
St. Augustine wrote of sin’s hold on individuals in his Confessions: “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled” (Confessions, 8.5.10).
The renegade son is suffering the consequences of his sinful choices. He is debased, debauched, and nearly dead.
Conversion – In an almost miraculous turn of events, he comes to his senses. Too many, especially today, suffer a darkened intellect due to the debasing effects of their sin; it would seem that no matter how debased, confused, and even enslaved they become, they still do not come to their senses, for their senseless minds have become darkened (cf Romans 1:21).
Thanks be to God, the renegade son does come to his senses, thinking, I shall arise and go to my father. In this passage, the Greek text uses the word anistemi, here translated as “arise”—the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus. The young man’s father will later joyfully describe him as having been dead but then coming back to life.
St. Paul reminds us that we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive in Christ (cf Col 2:13). Thanks be to God for His mercy and for the conversion that He alone can effect in all of us, His renegade children, who ourselves have been debased and debauched and are dead in our sins. The conversion of this renegade son, we pray, is also our conversion, our rising and going back to the Father.
Rejoicing Father – The astonishing nature of this parable is only just beginning, for Jesus goes on to describe a father who is shockingly merciful. He does things that no ancient father would ever do. As Jesus describes this father, so filled with love and mercy that he sacrifices his personal dignity, we must remember that He is telling us that this is what His Father is like.
As the parable continues to unfold, we hear that the father sees the son while he is still a long way off. This tells us that he was looking for his son, praying and hoping for his return.
Such mercy is rare. Most people who are hurt and have their dignity scorned would be resentful, saying, “Never darken my door again!”
How shockingly different this father is, lovingly and longingly awaiting the day when his son will appear on the horizon.
Upon seeing his son, the father runs out to meet him, something no ancient nobleman would ever do. Running was a sign of being in flight or of being a slave out on an errand. Further, in order to run, the ancients (who wore long garments) had to bare their legs—a disgraceful thing for nobility. Only common workers and slaves had their legs exposed.
Yes, this is the portrait of a father willing to debase himself so that he can run and greet his returning son. When we take one step, God takes two or more; He comes running to us!
In the parable, the robe and the ring that the father puts on his son are signs of family belonging or restoration. This is the full restoration of a young man willing to live as a slave in his own father’s house. The father will have none of it. “You are my son whatever your sins. They are forgotten. You are my beloved son!”
What kind of father is this? No earthly father would behave this way. This is the heavenly Father. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like!”
Resentful Son – Now we turn our attention to the older brother. His sinfulness is more subtle. Outwardly, he follows his father’s rules; he does not sin overtly. Unlike his prodigal brother, he has never openly rejected his father; inwardly, though, he is not so different. Like his younger brother, the older son wants his father’s goods, not his father himself. To understand the subtlety of his struggle, let’s look at some of the details of the story. Notice the following fundamental issues with the resentful older son:
He is distant. It is interesting that the older son is the last person to find out about the feast. This is a son who is distant from his father, unaware of the happenings in his father’s life.
Off on some far-flung part of the property, he is going about his duties, which he seems to fulfill adequately. However, we get the feeling that there is a sense of distance between father and son.
Why doesn’t he know that his father, worried about his younger brother, has been looking for him each day? Even the slaves in the household are drawn into the preparations for this celebratory feast; the older son is the only one who knows nothing about it. Even more telling is that he is unaware of his father’s joy at his brother’s return.
Yes, the resentful son is distant, miles away from the heart of his father.
He is disaffected. When the older son learns of the feast and the reason for it, he becomes sullen, angry, and resentful. He is disaffected. He stays away from the feast, refusing to enter.
So bitter is he that his father hears of it and comes out to plead with him.
Do not be too quick to scorn him, however, for we are too like him. We die the death of a thousand cuts as we see other sinners finding mercy. We become envious when others are blessed.
He is disconsolate. The father emerges from the feast to plead with his older son to come in. Again, such a thing would be unheard of in the ancient world! Any father in those days would have commanded his son to come in to the feast, expecting immediate obedience.
This father is different, for he represents the heavenly Father, rooted in love more than in prerogatives and privileges. He has already demonstrated his love for his renegade son and now does so for his resentful older son.
The fact is, he loves both of his sons. Yes, the heavenly Father loves each one of us.
Tragically, the resentful son is unmoved by this demonstration of love. He remains disconsolate and must be confronted in his resentful anger.
He is disrespectful. Now we see the ugly side of the apparently obedient son. He doesn’t truly love or respect his father; he doesn’t really know him at all. He disrespects his father to his face. He speaks of him as if he is a slave master, saying, I have slaved for you … I have never disobeyed any one of your orders.
Orders? I have slaved for you? Where is his love for his father? He does not see himself as a son but rather as an unwilling slave, one who follows orders only because he must. In effect, he calls his father a slave master, a despot.
Further, he accuses his father of injustice. He views the mercy his father has shown to his brother as evidence of a lack of due mercy shown to himself. He considers his father unreasonable, unjust—even despicable. How dare his father show mercy to someone that he, the “obedient” son, does not think deserves it!
In calling his father an unjust slave owner and taskmaster, the son disrespects him to his face. The father stays in the conversation, though, pleading with his son to reconsider.
He is disordered. Among the older son’s complaints is that his father never gave him so much as a kid goat so that he could celebrate with his friends. Our goal in life is not to celebrate with friends; it is to celebrate with the heavenly Father.
Note how similar the two sons actually are. Previously, the renegade son saw his father only in terms of what his father could give him; his father was only valuable in terms of the “stuff” he could provide. Despite his outward obedience, the older son has the same problem, seeming to value only what his father can give him. It is not his father he really loves or even knows. He is interested only in what his father can give him.
In this way, the resentful son is disordered. He misses the whole point, which is not the “things” his father can give him but their relationship. The goal in life is to live with the Father forever in a relationship of love.
Again, be careful before you condemn the resentful son. It is so easy for us to want the good things of God but not God Himself, to want God’s blessings and benefits but not His beloved self, to want the gifts of God but not Him who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.
Yes, the disorder of this resentful son is too easily our disorder. There is something about our flesh that wants God to rain down blessings, yet once we have received them, we want to keep our distance from God. Relationships are complicated and dynamic. Our flesh prefers trinkets. We prefer to receive gifts on our own terms. Our flesh says, “Give me the priceless pearls, but begone with the powerful person who gives them!”
Response – The father is outside pleading with his resentful son to enter the feast. At this point, Jesus abruptly ends the parable. Yes, the story ends! Does the resentful son enter the feast or not? Why is the story left unfinished?
Simply put, it is because we must finish the story, for we are so easily the resentful son.
Right now, the heavenly Father is pleading with us to enter the feast. Too easily we brood and say that we have our reasons for not wanting to go. After all, that renegade son is in there, our enemy is in there. If Heaven involves meeting our enemies and celebrating with them, we don’t want anything to do with it.
Here is the great drama: will we enter the real Heaven? The real Heaven is not of our own making, defined by our own parameters.
Are we willing to enter on God’s terms, or will we stand outside resentfully, demanding that Heaven be on our own terms? Further, do we see Heaven as being with the Father, or do we just view it as a place where we get the things we want?
The heart of Heaven is to be with the Father, with the Holy Trinity. The danger, even for the religiously observant, is becoming the resentful son. The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast, to set aside our prejudices and notions of exclusivity.
To the resentful son the father says, your brother was lost and is found, was dead, and has come back to life.
The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast—not some made-up feast where we choose the attendees—but the real, actual feast of Heaven, where some surprising people may be in attendance.
This parable is unfinished; you and I must finish it. Will you enter the feast? The Father is pleading with you, saying, “Come in before it’s too late.” What is your response to His plea? Answer Him!
Just for fun, here is a retelling of the parable in the “key” of F:
Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings and flew to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.
Fleeced by his fellows, fallen by fornication, and facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments. “Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare finer,” the frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I’ve flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor!”
The farsighted father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch a fatling from the flock and fix a feast.
The fugitive’s fault-finding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness of former folderol. But the faithful father figured, “Filial fidelity is fine, but the fugitive is found! What forbids fervent festivity? Let flags be unfurled. Let fanfares flare.”
And the father’s forgiveness formed the foundation for the former fugitive’s future faith and fortitude.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons