A Tale of Two Brothers: Reflecting on the Prodigal and His Brother
One’s a sinner. Another’s a saint. So it seems. The dynamic and the illusion are real. The father celebrated his “sinner” son’s return and repentance. The “saint” became angry. Jesus said, “He became angry,” and “he refused to enter his father’s house.” That’s an examination of heart. Is it growing cold? How could someone so faithful be so bitter? It’s fidelity without love.
Some people might identify with the prodigal son, conveniently. “Leave me in my sins. I’ll change later.” Some might use the tale to push back those who call them out. “Don’t judge me. If you do, you’re the older brother.” Of course, we like plugging into narratives. We love assigning roles. But it’s simplistic to say that “me” or “he” or “she” is one or the other. The “Author’s Note” of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited cautioned the novel’s readers against this: “I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.” However, we must be perceptive enough – which is not the same as being judgmental or role assigning – to recognize the parable’s applicability. As for the “prodigal son” and the “older son,” they need not be two people. There can be a bit of both in each of us. So before diagnosing or assigning roles – in ourselves and others – let’s examine the parable. The two brothers, like us, are more complex than we might suppose.
Point one. The prodigal son makes no excuses. He doesn’t defend his actions. Neither before nor while committing sins. He has no plans to repent. He doesn’t explain himself. He’s not political. In short, he is who he is – a restless young man. A son of Adam. He plunges full-throttle into escapades. We’re not told why. The parable leaves it at that. It goes to reason. “Whys” are rarely, if ever, answered in real life. But what is told is that the wayward son confronts his life’s vacuity. The primrose path was a garish pipedream. It’s notable that Jesus didn’t include a passage in the tale about the young man stewing in his illusions. That omission says something about what God thinks of our lingering in nonsense. It’s not worth a dishonorable mention. But God favored the prodigal son this way: God allowed him to fail miserably. That’s a gift of providence. There are worse things than failure. Like success. Enter the older brother. Success that conceals sin can be an insidious misfortune. Spiritual masters have long reckoned much earthy success – and many accolades – to be a sign of God’s rejection. We should have a healthy skepticism when a person, an event, or an idea gets too popular.
Point two. The prodigal son is open to grace. Not for obvious reasons. Why? He’s wrong. But so what? His brother is right. Being right is not a sign of God’s grace any more than being wrong. In this tale – which was concocted by the Son of God – the guy who is wrong is open to grace and the guy who is right isn’t. Wrongness can bring us to our knees. Rightness can make us stand erect, in pride. The bad son is indeed bad, but he is neither calculating nor duplicitous. He’s a complex character, like us. At the outset, he tells his father exactly what he plans to do: take his money and run. No justifications. No pious explanations. No nonsense about needing to “find himself.” No righteous whining about “don’t judge me.” He just did it. (Walker Percy said every big southern family has a cousin or two who headed for NYC or Frisco and was never heard from again … how true). So, Ferry Cross the Mersey! The prodigal follows his misguided heart, bursting with aimless vitality, right down to the pigsty. What a man! It was the same honest drive through which, like a “twitch upon a thread,” grace drew his heart back to his father. A wounded heart discovered what it really wanted: to be in his father’s house. Mysteriously, the prodigal son’s return echoes the boy Jesus’ words to Mary and Joseph when they found him in the Temple: “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Jesus and the prodigal share something in common. They both left their father’s house. Jesus was sent. The prodigal ran away. They both returned. In both cases, their deepest desire was to be in their father’s house. That says something about us. Grace works through a desire that we usually don’t detect and that we’re inept to explain. It’s the grace of Baptism.
What about the older son, the father’s faithful servant? Scripture says, “Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It might as well have said, “God looks into the desire.” What did God see in the older son? Not a servant. But someone else. But who? His fidelity wasn’t a labor of love. It was a self-righteous obedience, like a “model student” or a “good citizen.” Intelligent. Diligent. Ruled and measured. Conscientious. Consistent. Committed. Observant of laws. Apparently virtuous. A good man by the standards of time.
Something’s missing. He was a persona without a man. A mask without a character. He refused to enter his Father’s house. Why? The older son explains himself: he never got a prize for good behavior, but there’s a member of his Father’s house who is sinful and who blew his inheritance on, which he points out, prostitutes. The elder is scandalized. He doesn’t go in. He rejects his ancestral heritage. He pointedly points out the speck in the eye of the past, while ignoring the plank in the eye of the present. He can’t forgive.
It’s a loveless diligence. He follows not his heart, neither in right nor in wrong. It’s not about his heart at all. He’s a man without a chest, to use C.S. Lewis’ metaphor. Because he doesn’t know his heart, he can’t know anyone else’s. He prefers modern intelligence: cold calculation and career planning. He likes things to be unfamiliar. Repentance and conversion are of no interest. He’s open to neither illusions nor truths. He’s so afraid to be wrong that he can’t be right. He never gives himself the chance to be right about life’s most important things: repentance, confession of sins, and growing in love.
Life’s a troublesome adventure. Life contains within itself, ironically, both the principles of death and new life. Life kills. And life gives life. The latter happens in crucibles of suffering and prayer. Life is a misadventure passing through tangles of conflicting desires, impressions, suggestions, illusions, facts, truths, myths and ideas – a shattered psychology known as “knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). The journey will confront us with conflicting options and desires – some that lead to life and some that lead to death. Which is which is rarely clear. But only by passing through that tangle, with the help of grace, can we find Truth that comes from the Holy Spirit, who draws us to know God and to know ourselves as God knows us. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The prodigal son is a complex character who misreads his heart yet refuses despair. He re-reads his heart. He looks more deeply into himself – peering through layers of illusion right down to Truth. The parable describes that moment: “But when he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17). Yes, he came to “himself.” He found within “himself” the humility to return to himself and, thereby, to his father. “Father,” he said, “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as a slave.” Humility. Repentance. Begging mercy. Those are the only places where we can “come to ourselves.” And to God. That’s the gift of Baptism.
Saints have long said that the Holy Spirit wounds you with his love. That is, he wants to break down “the wall” or “the remnants of walls” in your heart so he can enter and transform you into “yourself.” That’s what “contrition” means: “to puncture the heart.” The heart is broken by God, so it can be healed by God. “For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal” (Job 15:18).
“I tell you…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7). What are we willing to endure or persevere through in order to bring about such joy in heaven? What repentance are we willing to render? What prayers are we willing to offer? What sacrifices are we willing to make? What are we willing to endure? It comes to a question: How much will you allow the Holy Spirit to possess you without your feeling it? Are you faithful without love, or faithful to love? (Not to be confused with sentimentality). Most people are both. The prodigal son and the older brother need not be two people. Together, they are the inner battle of a soul.
Fidelity to love is not a sentimental thing. Flannery O’Connor said, “Charity is hard and it endures.” Contrary to what may seem so, the older brother is the real sentimentalist, not the younger. The prodigal is the realist. The faithful brother is stewing in illusions, not the prodigal. When Jesus tells this story, he’s playing games with you. He’s messing with your mind. His parables do that. They shake up your assumptions, your presuppositions, your prejudices, your platitudes and your illusions. In so doing, Truth’s light pierces your prejudiced mind and your hard heart, like a sword, and it punctures you with a wound of love.
“See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down,
to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant." (The Prophecy of Jeremiah)
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor