The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming – Part 2: The Elder Son

Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property -he and his loose women- you kill the calf we had been fattening.” (Luke 15:25-30)

The elder son leaves

The main observer, watching the father embracing his returning son, appears very withdrawn.

This parable might well be called “The Parable of the Lost Sons.: Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.

This is not something unique. There are many elder sons and elder daughters who are lost while still at home.

The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.

There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding “sin”.

Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?

Whenever I express my complaints in the hope of evoking pity and receiving the satisfaction I so much desire, the result is always the opposite of what I tried. A complainer is hard to live with, and very few people know how to respond to the complaints made by a self-rejecting person. The tragedy is that, often, the complaint, once expressed, leads to that which is most feared: further rejection.

The story says: “Calling one of the servants, he asked what it was all about.” There is the fear that I am excluded again, that someone didn’t tell me what was going on, that I was kept out of things. The complaint resurges immediately: “Why was I not informed, what is this all about?” The unsuspecting servant, full of excitement and eager to share the good news, explains: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” But this shout of joy cannot be received. Instead of relief and gratitude, the servant’s joy summons up the opposite: “He was angry then and refused to go in.” Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.

Is the elder brother willing to acknowledge that he is not better than his brother?

It leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love.

Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs.

The elder son’s return

The Father’s love does not force itself on the beloved. Although he wants to heal us of all our inner darkness, we are still free to make our own choice to stay in the darkness or to step into the light of God’s love. God is there. God’s light is there. God’s forgiveness is there. God’s boundless love is there. What is so clear is that God is always there, always ready to give and forgive, absolutely independent of our response. God’s love does not depend on our repentance or our inner or outer changes.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the elder son are not met with words of judgement. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behaviour.

God is urging me to come home, to enter into his light, and to discover there that, in God, all people are uniquely and completely loved.

It is not surprising that, in his anger, the elder son complains to the father: “…you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property -he and his loose women- you kill the calf we had been fattening.” These words reveal how deeply hurt this man must feel. His self-esteem is painfully wounded by his father’s joy, and his own anger prevents him from accepting this returning scoundrel as his brother. With the words “this son of yours” he distances himself from his brother as well as from his father.

Here I see how lost the elder son is. He has become a foreigner in his own house. True communion is gone. Every relationship is pervaded by the darkness.

I know the pain of this predicament. In it, everything loses its spontaneity. Everything becomes suspect, self-conscious, calculated, and full of second-guessing. There is no longer any trust. Each little move calls for a countermove; each little remark begs for analysis; the smallest gesture has to be evaluated. This is the pathology of the darkness.

The words of the father in the parable: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours” express the true relationship of God the Father with Jesus his Son.

 

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