Sunday, March 06, 2016

In defense of the older son

At Mass this Sunday we had the parable of the prodigal son, and I suddenly felt a lot of compassion and empathy for the older son. He always seems to get a raw deal from preachers. He takes the blame because he got angry that his father welcomed the younger son with a great feast. The older son makes a great scapegoat because he seems self-righteous, angry, and self-centered.

When he says to his father, "You never gave me even so much as a kid goat..." I felt bad for him because it's not that he cared about a goat, but he was asking for the love of his father. And for whatever reason, he didn't feel the father's love. He couldn't receive it, so he felt unloved.
The father seems to have been very loving toward both his sons--or was he? Maybe he took the older son's devotion and hard work for granted. The older son was dutiful, responsible, knew how to manage the estate, and did all the hidden dirty work. If he felt angry that his spendthrift brother had run away with his share of the inheritance and squandered it all, I don't blame him. I would feel angry too.
The irony though is that in their own ways, each son was acting like a hired hand and not a son. The younger son was irresponsible with his sense of entitlement: "Give me what's coming to me! It's mine and I want it now!" When he came to his senses he said "I will tell my father to treat me like one of the hired hands."
But the older son had in effect been acting like a hired hand, thinking that he had to earn his father's love by being dutiful and responsible. He even said to his father, "For years I have slaved for you..."
Jesus starts the parable by saying, "A man had two sons..." And while the prodigal gets most of the attention, in reality the message of the older son is just as important. Both were sons. Their sonship was a reality. The younger escaped sonship by being irresponsible, while the older escaped it by being overly responsible. The father did love both of them, shown by his going out to the older son when he was upset and inviting him in to the feast.
In the end, being a son (or a daughter) is not so much about responsibility but about love. If the younger son realized that, he wouldn't have insulted his father by demanding his inheritance even before the father was dead. If the older son realized that, he wouldn't have thought that he could have his father's love only by being dutiful and responsible.
So it is in our own relationship with God. When we realize God's love for us, we won't even want to sin because we won't want to do anything to run away from that love. And we will not think that God loves us because of the good we do, but that we can do good because God loves us first. To God we are not hired hands, but beloved sons and daughters.

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