Grace to you!
The parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. There are many layers to the story. Today, I would reflect on the attitude of the older brother of the prodigal son. I will use it as a case study for how not to live a virtuous life.
From Luke 15:1-3, we learn why Jesus told the stories of the three parables of forgiveness—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. It was in response to a group of Pharisees who murmured against him because he welcomed tax collectors and so-called sinners. So, the context tells us why the parable. It was to teach the holier-than-thou about God’s extravagant compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
The story (please read it in Luke 15:11-32) paints a clear picture of the character of the older brother of the prodigal son. He seems to have done all things right. He was not wasteful. He was hardworking. He was reliable, the fathers’ trusted companion.
By Jewish tradition, the older son has a lot of say in the father’s inheritance. I can relate pretty well to this story as an Igbo. Igbo people in the eastern part of Nigeria have a similar culture. In fact, it is the older brother who is expected to share the inheritance in case the father is no more. One could say, he is the natural heir to the throne of his father.
For some fathers, it is more painful if their older son isn’t living up to the expectation. It would mean they do not have a trusted heir to their family lineage. In this case, the older brother was always there, always active and always obedient. You may say, he was daddy’s boy.
The story gets interesting. The prodigal son had gone away with his own share of the father’s inheritance. This is an unusual generosity on the part of the father. For it is only at the death of the father could the sons inherit his property. This father was unusually generous. He gave the prodigal son his share anyway even when he wasn’t qualified for it. It is the quality of our heavenly Father to be extravagant in his gifts and grace to us. We don’t merit it. He gives it anyway.
So, the elder brother watched how, after squandering his share of the father’s inheritance, the younger brother came back home. The father threw a party for the prodigal son. The older brother may have expected their father to punish his younger brother, perhaps treat him as a loser. At least, there should have been a reprimand. The older brother believes in a carrot and stick kind of relationship with God. You do good and you earn the inheritance. You do bad and you forfeit it. It is that simply.
In other words, the emphasis is on what one could earn. For the older brother, he has claim to the property because he earned it. He worked hard for it. It isn’t a matter of the father’s generosity. Rather, it is a matter of his birthright and impeccable sense of responsibility.
Beneath all that was some dangerous vice which the older brother didn’t consider as direct contrast to the father’s generosity. It is a spirit of meanness and vengeance. It is a spirit of unforgiveness and resentment. It is the spirit that questions the mercy of God towards the sinner. It is the spirit of the accuser of our brothers and sisters, Satan, who as Scripture says, “accuses them day and night before the Lord” (Rev 12:10).
Such a spirit isn’t the mind of our heavenly Father. The spirit that rejoices when evil befalls the wicked isn’t a virtuous spirit. Rather, it is a spirit of vengeance. The spirit that applauses because sinners perish isn’t the heart of the heavenly Father. Rather, it is the spirit of the enemy of the Father. Scripture says, God does not take pleasure when the sinner perishes (Ez 18:23; 33:11).
We know how we are becoming more and more like God, the father of mercy and compassion, depending in part on how we feel when evil befalls the sinner. Do we plead for mercy? Do we show empathy? Do we banish them and applaud their pains? Are we like those Pharisees to whom Jesus told this story, who murmur at the Lord’s mercy to the sinner?
The Lord wants us to live as ministers, ambassadors of his reconciliation to wounded hearts and a wounded world (cf. 2 Cor 5:20). Isn’t this what is celebrated during the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
Not everyone needs to be a priest to share in the privilege of being active agents of divine reconciliation to the sinners in a sacramental way. But we could live the meaning of this message in our daily lives too.
Do we rejoice because sinners suffer? Or do we rejoice because the sinner found their way, no matter how imperfect, back to life of grace?
During this Lent, we pray that God would give us the grace to grow in the habit of empathy, compassion and mercy. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Sunday, Lent, Week 4: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32]
Father Maurice Emelu, Ph.D., provides a daily blog of reflections for the season of Lent your individual spiritual edification. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations. .