The Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Older Brother

In my teenage years as a dutiful only child, I identified with the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] He remained at home working on the farm while his younger brother was dissipating his advance inheritance in a far country. Yet their father throws a big party for the younger brother when he returns home.  Like the older son, I just could not understand the totally unjustified favorable treatment of the wayward younger son. Like the older son, I was angry with the father and the younger brother over this injustice.

Many years later, however, I could see myself as the younger son in the Parable. As a college freshman I began rebelling against organized religion and the spiritual life. During my subsequent 24 years in a distant country, I clung “to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink . . . . It’s almost as if I want[ed] to prove to myself . . . that I did not need God’s love, that I could make a life on my own, that I want[ed]to be fully independent. Beneath it all was the great rebellion, the radical ‘No’ to the Father’s love . . . .”[2]

When I came to my senses and returned home, my rebellion and other sins were forgiven by God, who was waiting, saw me when I was still a long way off and ran to welcome me home. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”[3]

Each of us often experiences life as a succession of unrelated events. Such events, however, are the raw material of our spiritual pilgrimage. Discernment of the spiritual significance of these events requires us to pause to reflect on how God appears in our lives. We can aid this task by putting ourselves into the stories of the Bible and by allowing the words of great hymns to speak to us.


[2] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son at 38-39 (1992).

[3]  John Newton, Amazing Grace Lyrics, http://www.constitution.org/col/amazing_grace.htm.

My Christian Faith

Jesus was a human being who had a special, if not unique, relationship with God the Creator.

By his life and by his death, Jesus demonstrated to the people of his time and to all people of all time how we as His brothers and sisters should live our lives.

The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.

The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, “The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].” Jesus then said, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 29-37)

Parenthetically as a lawyer myself I have to say that the lawyer in this passage was clever, but not clever enough. The really clever lawyer would not have let Jesus refuse to answer the question. Instead the lawyer would say something like “I am not here to answer questions. My job is to ask the questions. Yours is to answer my questions.” And if this encounter were in a courtroom, the lawyer would ask the judge to instruct the witness to answer the question.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the second foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2015&version=NIV.  As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

The meaning of these two stories for me is captured by the third foundation of my Christian faith, the following statement by my personal saint, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero:

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”

“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is            another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”

“No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings        wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”

“That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”