Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Prodigal, Pride, and Perseverence

At Mass in the morning, we should be hearing the story of the Prodigal Son. I have to admit that when I was younger I thought this story was awfully hard on the poor older son. There he was, working and slaving away on what remained of the estate after the younger brother had 'cashed out' his share, never asking for acknowledgment or appreciation, content just to be there and to be doing the father's will. All of a sudden, the younger brother returns, destitute, ragged, a beggar. Here was a situation just crying out for tough love, right? And that's what the older brother confidently expects his father to give his younger son.

Instead, to the older brother's hurt surprise and disgust, the kid gets a party! Fine robes are thrown over him; he's wearing the ring from the old man's hand, a sign of authority and power! The father can't hide his joy; but the older son can't hide his anger, and so he goes out and, to put it bluntly, sulks.

When the father realizes his older son is missing, he goes out to him. I needn't repeat their conversation. What's funny is that though the older brother's position has a lot of justice in it, the actual words hint at pride, at jealousy, at selfishness, at the kind of deadly sibling tendency to measure everything from the price of a toy to the size of a slice of cake, which every good mother tries to stomp out before the child reaches adulthood. The part I like here is when the older brother finishes complaining that, after all, he's never asked for anything--and the father reminds him that he never has to, as all the father has is his.

What a beautiful statement, that cuts through all the petty selfishness and envy. The older brother knows this; he may even have thought of the acres he worked on as property that would all be his someday. His dutiful work on the father's behalf has always supposed a just reward, and the father reminds him that the reward is sure.

But the father also reminds him of how much they both have lost, by losing the younger son. "Your brother was dead, but is now alive," he says, his eyes filled with the light of joy. More important than the acres that will one day belong to his son is the brother his son has known since infancy, the brother with whom the older son shares a relationship closer than any of the friendships the older brother mentions. It is more important to celebrate the younger brother's victory over sin and return to the family than to brood about what he has cost them.

Every human being alive on earth today is our brother. (Sorry; I don't do inclusive language.) Many of them are lost; none are beyond finding. If we count the cost of trying to bring them back to God's family, of having to run down the road to meet them, and provide them with clothing and food and shelter before they will even listen to our words of faith, then we will never take the first step. But what rejoicing will there be in Heaven when we see that people counted as lost on earth managed to persevere to the end--and what joy if we are there, too, at the Father's side to rejoice, not hiding and sulking about the fact that people who (we think) never worked as hard as we sometime kid ourselves into thinking we're working for the Kingdom of Heaven managed to make it there after all.

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