There are three major characters in the story of the prodigal son. The first is the son who took his inheritance early and went off and spent all the money that he had. The second is the father and the third is the elder son who stayed at home and acted responsibly.
Who was the one who was upset? Discussion with Children
It was of course the older son who was angry when his brother returned and got a loving welcome.
Although one can indulge in too much allegorical reading of these stories there is clearly some allegory here. There have been attempts to equate the older son with Israel, although St Cyril of Alexandria was dismissive of such a reading on the basis that Israel was not blameless and indeed was prone to rebel against God. Likewise, he dismisses the idea of the older son being a type for the angels while the younger son represented mankind, wasting the gifts God gives us. He takes this view on the basis that the angels rejoice at the repentance of sinners rather than resent their forgiveness. (St Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on St Luke sermon 107).
The point of the parable is repentance and since it is a story told by Christ we can expect it to illustrate something of the relationship between God and mankind. Indeed it comes in St Luke’s Gospel just after the Pharisees had been complaining about Christ: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’.”(Luke 15:1f). Christ responds by saying that a shepherd will search for a lost sheep, and a woman with ten coins will search her house for a missing one (Luke 15:3 f). In just the same way He says: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:10). It is clear the father is God Himself. He showers gifts on us and allows us to use them as we will. Thus the younger son takes what he sees as his by right and wastes what is his inheritance. The other brother stays and does what he is told to do. So far, there is a good case for the older brother being virtuous.
What happens when the wastrel repents? With which brother do we identify? Are we angry when wrong-doers are admitted to the blessings of God? Do indeed we see ourselves as in need of forgiveness?
Last week we heard how the tax collector (who could be expected to take his share of the money under a corrupt system) was compared with someone who followed the rules, the Pharisee, just like the elder brother. It was the tax collector’s prayer for mercy that was heard by God. This week we have another illustration of this principle. The younger son sinned. No excuse can be given. He took what he had and wasted it. He got to the lowest position possible, hungry and struggling, in a despised job and then realised the gravity of his situation. His repentance is described in this way: “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.” (Luke 15: 17f). Firstly he came to his senses; he saw himself as being in a bad condition. He also realised he would be better working for his father than staying where he was, and on that basis he decided to go back. He was not demanding any special treatment: far from it. He just accepted to be treated as a hired servant.
This might be a way for us to see how repentance sometimes comes about. First comes the realisation that we have sinned. The younger son did not at first realise that this was the case. He was perhaps only concerned to get himself out of his mess. In order to do that, he did not attempt to bargain, but rather prepared himself to receive a lower position in order to be accepted. Perhaps his true repentance when he realised the depth of his sin came later. At this point, however, he certainly misjudged his father. His repentance may have been incomplete and he did not even get chance to argue for a lowly position. Instead, his father accepted him back simply on the basis of his return, ignoring any possible mixed motives. The father’s reaction is clearly an indication of God’s acceptance of reformed wrong-doers even if the repentance is a work of honesty that has only just begun. The older son is resentful. We can sympathise with that. When we see people getting treated well we may also be resentful. It is worse if they have treated us badly. The older son is upset: this wastrel brother is received with honour and feasting while he never even got a small animal to eat for a party with his friends. It seems so unfair to him.
The older brother is acting like the Pharisee in last week’s Gospel reading. Just as the Pharisee obeyed all the rules as to his religious duties, so this older brother did all the father required. Yet, while it is tempting to feel that we have done the right thing, none of us is sinless. Why, then, should we resent it when another person has repented and enters into the joy of a relationship with God? We have received blessings, should we resent it when others do so as well? In the same way, it is easy to take the life of the Church for granted and even think that we have a first claim on God’s mercy. If we say that someone who has behaved badly is not entitled to know God, then we make a harsh judgement, and end up only damning ourselves. This is so, even if we have been harmed or treated badly by the other person. If repentance is real, then we cannot stand in the way of that person being reconciled to God and being a co-inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. We all need to draw closer to God. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”.
We may feel we are dutiful followers of God, yet we are all sinners, and need to go to God in the words of St John Chrysostom: “Having then such great examples, let us not continue in evil, nor despair of reconciliation, but let us say also ourselves ’I will go to my Father,’ and let us draw nigh to God. For He Himself never turns away from us, but it is we who put ourselves far off.” St. John Chrysostom’s Exhortation to Theodore after His Fall: Letter 1
We shall shortly be arriving at the start of Great Lent, we shall be asking each other for forgiveness. We must put aside any feelings of self-justification or resentments. May our repentance be real and our relationship with God become ever closer.