Father Ron Rolheiser, at a conference I was attending the past few days, spoke of this passage in relation to the perceived battle that exists between the secular world and religion. He said we have to look at what we call the secular world as the younger brother in this story. That right away forces us to look at it from a relational point of view rather than as an enemy. We can understand the younger son. He’s off doing crazy things, doesn’t believe in God, not a care or responsibility in the world, much like we describe the secular world. He went onto say that the challenge is to whom the passage is directed. It’s directed to the scribes and pharisees, the church leaders, who have become the older son and who should really be the father; and the thing about the older son is, none of us ever want to admit that we are him. What is it about the older son…he thinks he knows better than the father, he’s bitter, angry, jealous. He compares himself and judges his brother, who, of course has done everything wrong, where he, “obedient” his entire life. All too often we confuse the older son, thinking he’s the father in the story because he’s done everything he was supposed to do.
Again, keep in mind who Jesus is addressing in this “lost and found” section of Luke’s Gospel. The stories get crazier and crazier as they go…the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and then the culmination of the two lost brothers who the father loves equally. You can only imagine by the time Jesus finishes the story that the blood is boiling in them because he wasn’t hiding the fact that they, the religious zealots, were just as much sinners as the younger brother, but it was hidden within them. As the story culminates, things begin to surface…the anger, jealousy, resentment, all the stuff none of us ever want to admit about ourselves.
The crazy part of the story is the fact that the father loves both of them and wants a relationship with both of them, the one who has treated him like he is dead and squanders all he’s got and the one who holds his sin within him. The moral of the story is the love of the father for both of them, regardless of who they are or what they have done, it’s how we get back to the father. It drives us crazy because we want to see the younger son as undeserving of the love, we become resentful and all the rest, only to find out that it has been us all along that have not been open to the love of the father. It has been us that have been enslaved by our sin.
As we enter into these final weeks of the Lenten season, we are given a great challenge in the story of the prodigal. Yeah, we probably have all done crazy things like the younger son, but do we have the courage to put ourselves in the place of the older son and recognize what lies beneath. We are called to become the father and we only do that by going deeper, beyond the surface level of our sin and see what lies underneath. Sometimes the greatest penance for any of us is to accept the fact that we are all loved by the Father. This great story invites us to go deeper to not only experience that love, but to become that love and to become the father who loves all equally.