So the unanswered question of the parable is, “Did the elder brother go into the banquet or not?” This is the question we should be asking ourselves, because the Bible says nothing on the matter. But we don’t, because the problem lies in the fact that we have got caught up with a beautiful parable, turned it into an allegory and lost the plot!
The parable of what has come to be known as the ‘prodigal son’ is not about the younger son or about this amazingly forgiving father’. It’s all about this elder son, equally lost and horribly hate filled. Incidentally, the word “prodigal” is an adjective that means wasteful or spendthrift. Luke doesn’t actually call his character the “prodigal son”. It’s a modern title, that’ all.
A parable is starkly different from an allegory. In an allegory, we assign meaning to each of the characters and compare them to the spiritual categories in our head, where the ideas in the story are symbolized as people. So you can have as many ‘ideas’ as you can have characters. For example, the father stands for God; the younger son is wayward humanity and so on. A parable on the other hand, is designed to present a moral with a single point agenda; in this case the agenda is the Pharisees. It is to them that the parable is spoken in verse 2, for their angst against Jesus is splattered all over the gospel pages.
So what’s the background to all of this? The cause of ‘the grumbling’ of the Pharisees is plain; Jesus is ‘hanging out with the wrong crowd’ (5:29-32; 7:37-39; 19:7). But Jesus has never changed His agenda! He repeatedly insists that He has come precisely for such “sinners”, as well as other social outcasts, who are coming out in droves to listen to His teaching (15:1-2). To this moral outrage of eating with sinners, the Pharisees found themselves at the receiving end of, not one, but three parables in Luke 15. So what did they do so wrong?
Surely, if you do away with the sentimental romanticism of the parables and the lost son, you would come to a common sense agreement that the elder boy had done no ‘technical wrong’. Like the Jewish leaders, this elder son has been faithful and never disobeyed his father (15:19), and yet there has been no demand for an extravagant celebration for his years of service. On the contrary the father has clearly betrayed his preferential love for the younger boy; an accusation that perhaps was always thrown at him. And what’s to know for certain that this younger son is not merely a manipulative scoundrel? Why should we believe him just because he “came to himself”.
Look carefully and you will find the story now becoming alarmingly familiar. Yes you’re right, we are the elder brother! And why should we not be angry, angry enough like the elder son, to not address God as “Father” and speak to Him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” After all what wrong have we done? We have been faithful, conservative, honest and thrifty and yet God shows His favour of rings on fingers, new robes, sandals and the prime beef steaks for my wasteful brother? What ever happened to my dry-aged, sous vide, torched and seared bone-in rib eyes? Surely it is the father who is wasteful, the father who is prodigal, the father who is unfair and we have every right to be mad.
But here in lies the answer. God’s mercy does not run according to the standards of our conventions of human justice. The heavenly standard of ‘fairness’ seems ‘grossly’ unfair in our eyes; yet that’s God’s standard. His mercy is for latecomers, there is a place at the table of grace; steal heaven while dying besides Jesus. The list has no end. And yes it seems so unfair!
How do I resolve this? Take a step back and allow yourself to hear the words of the Father to us, “All that is mine is yours” (Verse 31). That’s a blessing no one can give you. Heaven is also ours! Our reluctance to accept these wayward ‘brothers’ in our lives, is also reflected in the reluctance of the Pharisees. They who kept every command of God, were now being asked to sit at the same table with a sinner.
Do you want to know how the story ends? Do you want to know if the elder brother joined the party and danced in gay abandonment? Do you want to know if he called his brother by name rather than “this son of yours”? If you want to, then look into your heart. The story ends with us, we write the last lines, we close the chapter, we close the book. The way we pen the last lines will reveal to us if we are still lost, or lost the plot.
Fr Warner D’Souz
Dedicated to my mother who celebrates her birthday today. Happy birthday mum
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