Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Prodigal Spoiled Baby Brother

    Today's gospel reading at Mass included the much-loved parable of the Prodigal Son. A young man, a second son, is disinclined to stick around on the family farm, so he asks his father for the share of the inheritance that would come to him. Dad agrees, and the young man takes the money and leaves, wasting it all away on "a life of dissipation." When the money is gone, and he finds himself on hard times, he finally comes to his senses and heads home. He knows he's lost his right to be treated as family again, but figures he would be better off as a hired hand back home than the life he's living now. 

    So, he heads home, and his father runs out and welcomes him with open arms, laughs, cries, lavishes him with new clothes and jewelry, kills the fatted calf and throws a big party, because "this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again! He was lost, and has been found!" This is the part of the story we usually think about, when we think about the prodigal son. It represents God's infinite loving mercy for us, no matter how badly we have behaved in the past, as soon as we come to our senses and turn back from our "life of dissipation." 

    But that's not where the story begins, nor where it ends.

It begins with Jesus attracting and welcoming "tax collectors and sinners," and the Pharisees, dutiful, well-behaved, and self-righteous types, being scandalized by the company He keeps. The company of sinners, of unworthy people. 

    And it ends with the prodigal son's older brother, the good boy, the dutiful one, coming home hot and sweaty from working in the fields. He sees the servants running around, hears the commotion, and when he's told the good news about his brother, he is ... not overjoyed. He's not thrilled to see him. He's not relieved that the boy is safe and sound. No, he's angry. He's hurt, and jealous, and he feels that all his hard work and fidelity have been taken for granted. And here comes this brat, this irresponsible little brat, who has acted like an entitled little prince and now is being treated like returning royalty. The big brother is damned if he'll join the party. 

    So at Mass today, while the nice priest gave a very nice sermon on the prodigal son and God's mercy toward us sinners, the same sermon I've heard dozens of times before, my mind wandered away to the wounded big brother and the scandalized Pharisees. The dutiful ones, the faithful ones, the ones who think that they have deserved blessings, blessings that the notorious sinner has forfeited. 

    And I thought, yes, I have experienced the grace of reconciliation with a loving God, after notorious sins as well as the smaller, more hidden ones. I have definitely identified more with the prodigal son than with his brother. And maybe that has kept me from minding that other wicked people also receive undeserved blessings. But it doesn't keep me, sometimes, from taking for granted the quieter, less dramatic blessings that come from living a stable, faithful, life of everyday good intentions, of starting over every day at God's table. 

    The older son in the parable says to his father, "All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours...." And the father says, "my son, you are with me always and all I have is yours." 

    So for once, I'm going to take an alternative lesson from today's gospel reading: gratitude for the blessings in my life: not only the unearned blessing of God's loving compassion on me in my squalid brokenness, but also the little, undramatic, everyday blessings of peace of mind, and incremental learning and growth, that come as the result of my willingness to live more like the stable, faithful older son. 

    Today is also called "Laetare Sunday," from the Latin for "Rejoice." What a lovely opportunity to count our blessings! 



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