Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well known of all the stories Jesus told, even though in only appears in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15:11-32. Often the story is explained from the view of the younger son, who’s the title character, the Prodigal Son. But Jesus didn’t title the story after him, that title came much later. Often the story is told with focus on the father, as he represents God the Father. This is important as it helps us understand the infinite love and mercy of Our Father in Heaven. However, the people Jesus was speaking to are represented by a third character: the elder son.
Jesus begins chapter 15 of Luke in the company of known sinners. Then we hear “the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus replies with several short parables of rejoicing over finding something that was lost, seemingly getting them prepared to hear Him tell the story of the two sons. The Pharisees and the scribes are blinded to the work of Jesus which draws new people into His Church and welcomes them. Not by accepting or excusing their sins, but by loving, forgiving, teaching and instructing them to sin no more.
The root of the Pharisees and scribes difficulty is not the relationship the sinners have with Jesus, but with the relationship they don’t have with Jesus. The sinners were drawn to Jesus by His love for them, which awakened their love for Him. The Pharisees and scribes in this event don’t have that same love for God. They follow their rules and think they are justified because of this. Their rule following is not the problem, it is the fact that they do it with expectations of reward, not out of love.
At the end of the parable, when the elder brother returns from “following the rules” by working in the field he finds out about the celebration for his recently returned younger brother. He refuses to go in and celebrate with everyone else. His father comes out and pleads with him to come in and celebrate. The elder son answers,
“‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’”
The elder son states that he has “served” the father for many years. Another translation states that he “slaved” for the father. The elder son does not see his relationship with his father as one of unconditional love, but as a sort of contract. Otherwise he would have rejoiced as well.
When God brings new and different people into the Church, into your parish, how do you react? Do you ask why this newbie gets all the benefits you have? After all, you have been in the parish and given to the parish for so long. Do you rejoice and welcome them or act standoffish because they are new and different?
Do we serve the Lord and our parish as a sort of contract? Do we do it because we expect something in return… or is it out of love? We know God will give us grace upon grace through the sacraments and through many other means. And we should be thankful for that, because we need His grace to go to Heaven. We want to go to Heaven… and we should want that! But why?
The elder son didn’t stay on the farm out of love for his father, but because he wanted his reward.
If we seek Heaven as just a reward we seek happiness without pain or sorrow – complete joy forever. If we seek Heaven more out of love it is so we can be united to, love, serve and worship God forever.
See the difference?