Lent for the Older Brother/Sister
of the Prodigal Son/Daughter
We’ve heard Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son so many times. It is a frequent gospel for Reconciliation Services. It presents a wonderful image of a loving father who doesn’t give up on his wayward younger son. We draw comfort from hearing Jesus remind us that our heavenly Father must be like this father who is positioned out by the road longing for his son to return. This father doesn’t even wait to hear the forlorn son’s practiced examination of conscience, deep contrition and apology. This father is ready to celebrate his son’s return.
Sometimes, because of this wonderful image of God’s love, we can miss the real point of the story. Jesus tells this story in a concrete situation. Very devout religious people are quite uncomfortable with, actually quite upset with, Jesus’ partying with former sinners. These religious people don’t seem to care that these people are “former” sinners and that Jesus is celebrating with them because their heavenly Father is rejoicing at their return. These religious folks can’t get past the fact that these people are “sinners” and what truly religious people ought to do is condemn sinners, isolate them and have nothing to do with them. They should be made an example of. In fact, to “blur” the fact that they are sinners with such lavish partying is to blur the difference between them and truly religious people, who never sinned in the first place - or at least not the way these people sinned.
This is the context for the three parables of mercy Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 15. We can picture this dinner party in a relatively small home with open windows on a warm evening. Everyone outside can hear all the fun that is going on inside. These people are really having a good time. We can picture these religious critics standing at the doorway, announcing their challenge to Jesus’ way of behaving.
It is at this scene that Jesus quiets the party to tell his three teaching stories. We can picture everyone inside nodding, and perhaps even applauding as he tells the stories of a single lost sheep being sought and found, and the ensuing celebrating. We can imagine the same reaction grow, and perhaps some genuine laughter added, with the second story about a woman turning her house upside down to find a lost coin and then telling her neighbors to celebrate with her.
Finally, Jesus gets to his best story. We can picture him telling it with a little more volume, so that the religious folks can be sure to hear him. Everyone gets quiet and the scene is very solemn as Jesus tells about the terrible sin of the younger son. Imagine asking for and then squandering half your father’s assets. Every former sinner in the room must have gotten very quiet as the young son practices his confession speech. Then, the room warms as Jesus completes the story with the father’s welcome of the son and Jesus’ dramatic telling of the details: a robe, sandals, a ring, a big banquet with the fattened calf.
But, when Jesus starts to tell the rest of the story, the room must have gotten quiet. The religious critics must have already begun to get the point that this story was for their benefit. The older son, like them, won't join in the celebration. Of course, as Jesus tells the story, it is as though God the Father is pleading with these righteous elder sons to lighten up and come in and join in the celebration. God is inviting them to be merciful, to not judge, to celebrate the power of God's mercy. Showing them the obvious obstinacy of the older son in the parable, Jesus hopes to soften the heart of his religious opponents. Unfortunately, we know the rest of this story, too. Some among them sought to kill him, to eliminate this message of love and forgiveness
For us in Lent's journey, we can take this story to prayer and let ourselves be in the sandals of the older son, to see how it relates to our impatience with others who fail, with our judgments of those around us who don't practice their faith as we do, those people we know who have made other choices than the ones we have made. Are we out on the road, praying for them, longing for them to know the Lord's love for them, desirous of being an agent of their experiencing the Lord's love? Or are we wanting them to grovel a bit, to apologize, to restore what they did wrong first? Are there parts of this elder son or daughter in us?
This is the season to ask for the grace to say, "Father, thank you for your love and mercy, toward me and toward all of us who stand together beneath the Cross of your Son. Of course, I want to enter in with you in the celebration of healing mercy. Let the partying begin with the transformation of my heart. Give me greater freedom to see and experience my solidarity with all sinners before your love."
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