Prodigal Son is a parable we can relate to, especially the first part. It’s one of the most famous stories in the Bible, and repeated time and time again. As we look at it, there are details we can miss, that’s how rich and powerful it is.
The parable is an answer to criticism. Jesus is being criticized for having public sinners like tax collectors over to his place for dinner. At that time, people only ate with the social equals, and for a leading rabbi to host tax collectors was a huge public scandal. It made Jesus just as questionable a character as his guests were. You can’t hang out with the wrong people, can you? Jesus answers the criticism with a parable, and one designed to provoke his audience in almost every detail.
In that culture, the younger son was saying he wished his father dead. That would have earned a beating out of most fathers, but not this one. When he unexpectedly got his inheritance early, he left town and wasted it. He only came back because he had to, because he wasn’t willing to starve to death in a foreign land. The Father’s acceptance of his return was grace beyond belief: his Father would have been within his rights to kill him. Instead he made his prodigal son welcome and gave him back life.
The older son was jealous of Father’s love, and just as much a prodigal as his brother. He made no move to help the situation, shirking his role to try to keep his brother from leaving that his culture dictated. When his brother came back and there was a celebration with the whole town at his house, the older brother chose to shame his family by going into open revolt. The Father would have been within his rights to kill the older son as well for publicly embarrassing the family. But instead the Father came outside, tried to reason with his son, reassured him that everything was his (which it was because his brother had spent everything he had), and asked him to embrace the reconciliation offered.
What did the older son do eventually? Did he stand there fuming, not coming inside, continuing his rebellion until his father shook his head and walked away? Did he enter the party, take up his expected role as second host, make sure everything went well and the guests were enjoying themselves?
The younger son accepted the grace, gave up his ego and became part of a new reality. What did the older son do? Did he set aside his selfishness and come into the feast?
We are called to be people of reconciliation, we called to come back to God. We are called to forgive the people who’ve walked out of our lives and make space for them when they return. Is it easy? No. But God’s love isn’t limited. Forgiveness of others doesn’t affect our place in Jesus’ heart, as St. Augustine said: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Forgiveness of others is something we do for ourselves, so we can take up our proper place in God’s Kingdom, so we can be vessels of love and reconciliation with a clean heart.
It’s something we have to do for ourselves, or we can fall into a trap that will devour us in flames of jealousy. We can stand on the outside, grumbling about those who don’t belong, or we can come inside to the feast. We don’t know what the older son does: we have to answer that question for ourselves. What will we do? Will we throw ourselves on a funeral pyre of our own pride and jealousy? Or will we come into the feast Christ offers all of us?