After prepping my son Benedict for his first confession by citing the parable of the prodigal son, emphasizing the tireless mercy of the Father (which I hope he has glimpsed in me), and after watching his first confession from afar, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, the kids and I went to Saturday Mass at Saint Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center.
Of course, the Gospel reading was the parable of the prodigal son. And we received one of the finest homilies I have ever heard—so good, the fact that the priest was a former student couldn’t add to the excitement of the thing. Father Michael Warren, of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary (one of the treasures of Boston), started from a fact I had never noticed before. The prodigal son says “father” over and over again: in the mode of rebellion, from within his memory, in the dialogue of his anguished interiority. The subjectivity of the prodigal son is paternally saturated.
In radical contrast, the older brother does not once say “father”: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends” (Luke 15:29).
He has been dutiful, but he been so only out of a do ut des mentality, the religiosity of superstition in which we do certain mechanical things and expect reward (prosperity, success, comfort) in return. The older brother does not serve his father because he loves his father, which would make the very fact of serving its own reward, privilege, and honor; rather, he serves out of secret fear of a parsimonious power who keeps score and plays gotcha, out of a calculation to make good on his investment of being uptight and punctilious, out of spiritual anal retentiveness.
This all fosters a sense of entitlement radically incompatible with the economy of grace. The older brother is a pharisee. (And he is a unitarian—a topic for another time, but as Father Mike pointed out, how often do we address God as Father?)
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them Jesus addressed this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). What follows are the parables of the lost sheep and of the prodigal son.
It looks like obedience, but the older brother’s service camouflages raw self-assertion, so that when the father enacts gratuitous mercy, the older brother says, No. As did the Pharisees, when the Father revealed His plans to universalize Israel through a suffering Messiah and through the suffering faith of the elect in that Messiah. As do we Catholics, when the Father, or His vicar, persists in privileging the lost sheep by exposing the faithful to danger and discomfort and distress so that every prodigal may be recovered.
If we are authentic sons and daughters of the Father, true disciples of Jesus, it’s not about us and any supposed prerogatives we are supposed to have racked up because we haven’t had as much fun as the rest of the world. It’s about our gratitude for the crucified Son and the merciful Father and the Spirit of Their incomprehensible passion for us. Intimacy with the Father, through the suffering Son, in the Holy Spirit of love, is the only true happiness and is its own reward.
There is no greater joy than to be a sinner who has fallen into the hands of the gracious God, the Father of lights, the Father of mercy, the Father of every good thing, the Father Who wastes His substance so that no person need remain lost and confused in a far country, the Father of every missionary and ambassador of reconciling love.