The Prodigal Son, the "good" son, and the father

I thought I knew the parable of the prodigal son, having heard the tale many times during Sunday readings. It only appears in Luke’s gospel, and it is the story of a father and his two sons.

The Story retold

The younger son requests his inheritance. The father divides his property between his two sons. The younger son then gathers his belongings and new-found wealth and beats it distant lands. He squanders his money on wild living. It’s his bad luck that the country hits on hard times. He gets a job feeding pigs and about the time he realizes the pigs are eating better than he is, he decides to go home. His father is ecstatic (filled with compassion) when he sees his young son returning. He runs to his son, throws his arms around him, and gives him a big kiss.

The son is humble, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father puts on a huge party, dressing his son in the best robes, putting a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. They kill the fatted calf and begin to celebrate.

Now the older son, who has been faithful and diligent in his service as a member of the family, returns from the field. Hearing the festivities he asks and is told that his brother’s return has prompted the celebration. He responds in anger and he refuses to join the party.

His father comes and the older son voices his objections, “Here I’ve been all of this time slaving for you. I’ve never disobeyed you, yet you have never given me any recognition. But when this son who squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”

The father responds in love, “My son, all that I have is yours. We are celebrating because your brother was dead, and now he is alive; he was lost and now is found.”

I was a prodigal child. Not necessarily taking any inheritance, but certainly marching off into the world to live my own life by my own rules. My oldest 2 were clearly on this path of staunch rebellion, disavowing their family for the sake of adventure in the land of greater opportunity. In the last year I have had to revisit this parable from the perspective of the other two central characters.

The “good” son

How did the older feel about the whole situation? Clearly he was peeved when the younger son came home and a big fuss was made. Why the production and obvious waste? I can imagine how put out he must of have been seeing the fruit of his labor spent on his good-for-nothing brother. I wonder if, when he was toiling away in his father’s field, he felt somewhat superior to his younger brother who had so foolishly left the security of home. He may even have well-imagined his brother’s suffering, in light of the country’s famine. I picture him toiling away, maybe a little smug about his position, knowing that he deserved to be in his father’s good graces. His commitment never waivering during the long, hot days of servitude.

Were his father’s words enough to quell his anger? “Your brother was dead, and now he is alive again; he was lost, but now is found.” Was he appeased by this? Or did he begin to plan his own escape?

The father

It is easy for me to imagine the father’s excitement when he realizes his son has returned. Having lost my children, one after the other, to their rebellious natures, I know that I am overjoyed when I hear from any one of them. When he saw his younger son coming down the road I am sure he was swept up in the moment, beside himself to see a child that he considered lost.

I have an image of the father and the oldest son spending long hours in the fields, each lost in thought. How the father must have mourned his loss. I know from the depth of my own despair how hard it is *not* to take our children’s decisions to heart as our personal failings. “Where did I go wrong?” “How could it have come to this?” It is so easy to berate ourselves and blame ourselves when our children go astray.

The meaning of it all

This weekend my husband is spending his time at a local prison, in a program (Kairos) intended to draw incarcerated criminals to Christ. I know the parable is representing the situation where God, our Father, rejoices as any of the men in the Kairos program return to God through our savior. My husband’s faith is not diminished, and his value in the Kingdom is not affected, by the joyous return to the fold by the men that are touched this weekend. That is what the parable is about. As wayward Christians return to God, the angels rejoice. My steadfast faith does not require celebration. I am already a member of the kingdom. In practice, I don’t hear the heavenly fanfare with each renewed commitment to Christ, so I am not chagrined. I get it…. As the “older son”, we steadfast Christians should not feel diminished.

In practice

But in the context of family, it is a tough story. I am reminded of a situation, years ago, when all four of our children were still at home. One semester we took the kids out to Red Lobster to celebrate, because it was the first time ever that everyone was passing all of their classes! It had been such a struggle with the oldest two to keep their grades up. For our oldest, especially. She repeated the 7th grade, almost out of apparent spite. I was so happy to not have to have any disciplinary discussions that semester.

Years later, our 3rd daughter informed us that this was a catalyst for her grades dropping. It seems that she internalized this message as “all you have to do is pass in order to be celebrated” and that anything above marginally passing was wasted effort. In hindsight I see that she considered herself (and actually claimed herself) to be “the good one”. She resented any celebration of accomplishments for the older two. Anything they received, she felt she deserved more of.

Did we do wrong? What could we have done to make sure our 3rd daughter understood the importance and value of her accomplishments?

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