The Prodigal Brothers

What the Prodigal Son and the Golden Calf teach us about sin

I think that most of us are familiar with the Prodigal Son parable. It is one of the longest and most memorable of all of Jesus’ stories. It is filled with vivid detail and heartfelt emotion. And yet, as many times as I have heard or read this tale, it was not until I read Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on it that I realized I was missing a big part of the story.

The word “prodigal” means “wasteful.” The younger son takes his share of the inheritance from his loving father, essentially telling him “I wish you were dead.” He wants to be free of his father and his father’s rules. Many of us have gone through this stage, not only with our own parents, but with God himself. We want to be free of His burdensome commandments and find happiness in the exercise of freedom without limits. We see this often as our children go off to college and embrace a licentious view of freedom that takes as good anything that rebels against the old order. This is the mindset of this prodigal son.

This son then wastes all of his money on things like prostitutes. And it is only when he is at the end of his rope and on the brink of starvation that he returns to the father. He plans to tell the father three things:

1.I have sinned against heaven and against you.
2.I no longer deserve to be called your son.
3.Let me be your servant.

The prodigal son believes that he has forfeited the right to be a member of the family. What kind of a son would take half of the father’s wealth and squander it? The most that he hopes for is some kind of base employment. He hopes that the father will tolerate his miserable presence enough to hire him out for labor. But there is no hope for the affection from of old.

When the younger son returns, the father runs to him. The son is able to tell him:

1.I have sinned against heaven and against you.
2.I no longer deserve to be called your son.

But he never gets a chance to say the third thing to his father. Instead, the father cuts him off and orders three things brought to his son immediately:

1.A robe
2. A ring
3. Sandals.

Each of these are significant. In the Bible, when you cloth someone, you are placing a share of your power and authority on them, as when Elijah covered Elisha with his cape. The ring would have been the family ring that was used as a signet. This ring could be used to prove to someone in a business transaction that you had access to the family wealth. This would be the equivalent of giving the son the family credit card. And finally, in the ancient world, one of the ways you distinguished between who was a slave and who was not was that slaves would walk around barefoot. By placing sandals on his feet, this son is fully restored as a son. The father will not let him be reduced to a servant. And so they kill the fattened calf and have a party.

The older brother, upon finding out what has happened, becomes very jealous. He refuses to go in. The father pleads for the older brother to return. But the older brother cannot understand why such expense and extravagance is being spent on someone so wasteful. The older brother never was given such material rewards even though he has been faithful from the beginning.

I always thought that Jesus was simply making a point about jealousy with the older brother. But Pope Benedict XVI looks deeper than I did. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1., Pope Benedict examines the older brother and sees so much of the prodigal son in him.

“The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations and wanderings experience by the younger brother, of his journey into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1, pp 208-209)

How many of us look to the yoke of Christ as a burden? I’m sure no one of us would admit that out loud. But for many, there is a little part of us that envies the freedoms of those who have cast off burden of Christian morality. Peter Kreeft once wrote that we would have a lot more Christians if we got rid of the sixth commandment. If we look at obedience to God as a burden, then Pope Benedict is correct: we will become bitter. That is because we have missed out on the real joy that is being offered.

There are those who look at their marriage vows with bitterness because they desire to have the freedom to have romantic affairs with someone other than their spouse. There are some celibate priests who look at their commitment to chastity as a constraint against their freedom to marry and have children. In both of these cases, these people are thinking like the older brother. And they are being just as wasteful.

The older brother and the younger brother make the same mistake. They think that the only reward the father can give is some kind of monetary gain: one seeks it through demands, the other through obedience. But they both missed the point. The real reward of being with the father is being with the father.

The reward of having a committed lifelong partner is having a committed lifelong partner. The reward of a celibate life is the freedom to give your life away as Christ did. And yet, when we look at the obedience to God as a burden, we waste so much of our thoughts, our time, and our lives being blind to the joy that is staring us in the face.

Both sons wasted so much of themselves instead of entering into the joy of union with the father. We should not follow that example. We should not hesitate to enter into the presence of God and find the joy that He is offering to us right now.

There is no time to waste

Copyright 2019, WL Grayson

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W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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