February 29, 2016,
Dear Friends and Family of the Diocese of Eau Claire,
This coming Sunday’s Gospel is the parable of the Prodigal Son. For me, the intriguing part of this story is the crying out of the angry older brother. In learning that the father has embraced the wayward, younger son, the older brother is exasperated. He says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” The father replies, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Jesus teaches with parables because they are meant to be open ended. He calls us to be imaginative. A standard interpretation of the story is that the prodigal represents the “Sinners”—those Jews who didn’t observe and even scoffed at the Jewish law. The early Church extended this group to include Gentiles—people outside Judaism who lived oblivious to the law. The elder brother represents the upright Jewish people. The father is God. The main point in this setting is that the Sinners (and later the Gentiles) have come into God’s presence and asked for forgiveness. God in his love embraces them with joy and celebrates with a party.
Now, let’s extend this interpretation and focus on the elder brother. The elder brother has a legitimate grievance. He has obeyed every command. He has worked like a slave. How has the father responded? He never recognizes his sacrifice. The prodigal gets a fatted calf for doing nothing but returning. The father can’t even offer a goat for the elder brother to celebrate with his friends! In effect, Jesus is defending the Jews who observe the law every day. He may even ask, what kind of father would take such a dutiful people for granted?
The implications of this are profound. I find myself wondering, how does Jesus as God the Son relate to God the Father? Is there backtalk in the heavenly family? What a joy it is to work with this parable! By the way, who in the story is most disappointed? The answer is the fatted calf! With my love and best wishes I am,
Your brother in Christ,