Saturday of the 2nd Week of Lent
Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
I think one of the reasons why today’s parable is such a masterpiece is that we see reflections of ourselves in its characters. Perhaps in our youth, we too have been reckless or impulsive, like the prodigal son; certainly all of us try to be faithful and hard-working like the older son. And perhaps many of us, like the father, know what it’s like to wait for someone we love to return to the path they have wandered away from.
While the crowd listening that day was surely no different, the gospel tells us that our Lord aimed the parable at one group in particular – the scribes and Pharisees, who had just complained that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. If these men were to see themselves as anyone in the parable, surely it was the older brother, for these were men zealous for the Law, dedicating themselves to it, urging everyone to imitate the piety and traditions of the priests and Levites.
To some degree, their zeal was understandable. The Pharisee party rose up in reaction to the brutal occupations Israel had suffered, most recently the Romans. They believed that these were God’s punishment for their infidelity; the idea was that, if they could show God that they were zealously and piously following his Law, He would deliver them from this oppression.
Unfortunately, when we let our passions rule, ideas can become obsessions and lead us into sin. We see this in the younger son in the parable: the deadly sins of greed, lust, and gluttony. But what about the older son? As we consider him, we also find three deadly sins: Anger, envy, and pride. There is anger in every word he says, envy of the rings, the robes, the fatted calf, and behind it all, the first sin, pride: he had earned these things, proven himself. It wasn’t about divine justice or his father’s feelings, it was about him and him alone.
In the end, the righteousness of the older brother was no more than self-righteousness. And what did it get him? Nothing but the chance to lose everything. As the theologian Hugh of St. Victor once said1, “Pride takes God away from a person; envy takes his neighbor from him; anger takes himself from him.” Blinded by pride, he lost his way to God; consumed by envy, he broke with his brother; overcome by anger, he lost sight of what should have been most important at that moment – mercy. Perhaps it should be called the parable of the unloving brothers, for as the prodigal son had come to measure love by having, he had come to measure it by earning.
This goes right to the heart of the lesson our Lord is teaching. True love isn’t about earning or having, it’s about being. Remember what the father said to his older son: Everything I have is yours (Luke 15:31). All those years of faithfulness, obedience, and good work were never going to earn his father’s love because it was never about that; it was about being his son. The same for the younger brother; it was never about having whatever and whoever he wanted, it was about being his father’s son.
Today, and every day, is a day to rejoice, for we too are children of our Heavenly Father, who, as the prophet Micah said, removes guilt and pardons sin (Micah 7:18). And he doesn’t discriminate; his love is beyond all our sinfulness, whether it’s the greed, gluttony, and lust of the one, or the anger, envy, and pride of the other. Perhaps, then, it should be called the parable of the Prodigal Father! Truly, God is prodigal, to love us with such overflowing, reckless abandon.
1On the Five Sevens. Available at https://scholarlyediting.org/2016/editions/de-quinque-septenis-trans.dunning.html.type=diplomatic.html
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