On Sunday at Mass, if your parish read the long form of the Gospel, you heard the parable of the prodigal son. I’ve written about this parable before, meditated on the Father who searches the horizon for the first sign that His prodigal children are on their way home to Him. He doesn’t even wait until we’re all the way home, but He races out to meet us, embrace us, forgive us.
I remember a long time ago, a priest explained to us who the Pharisees were. During the exile, many of the Israelites had turned away from the One, True God to worship idols. They were far from home, there was no Temple, and they were surrounded by a culture that pulled them away from their faith. The Hebrew faith might have been lost if not for the Pharisees, who kept the Law carefully, worked to admonish those straying from it, and then helped re-establish it again upon returning to the Promised Land. The Pharisees were heroes of the faith, not bad guys. And it is to these men that Jesus is addressing the parable of the prodigal son.
The part of the parable that struck me this weekend was this part:
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘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. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
The older son is the pharisees. He has done all his father asked of him. He has kept the family farm going, even in the absence of his younger brother – a brother whose help was needed at times during those years of partying. He has loved his father, obeyed him happily, and worked without complaint. He’s done this, not for some reward when his father dies, but because it’s his duty; and yet he embraces this duty without question. It’s not a burden to him, because when you love someone it’s not burdensome to serve them.
One day he comes in from working all day, even more tired than in the days when his brother left, for his father is older and no longer works alongside him. Maybe the family farm isn’t doing as well after having to hire people to take the place of the brother and the father. Maybe it’s tougher for them to make ends meet; but again, the older brother does what’s necessary, and he doesn’t complain. It’s just how things are, and he’s just happy to have his father with him. He’s happy just to be in his father’s company.
But there he is, approaching the house, and there’s some kind of party going on. And when he learns what it is, he is hurt. He can’t bring himself to go inside.
How can he celebrate that stupid kid? How can he be happy to have him home after his horrible behavior? Isn’t he happy I’ve been here? He hasn’t ever done this for me, and I have loved him so much! I’ve done everything for him, taken care of him, found people to work our land when my brother took off with his money… Wasn’t that good enough for him? Wasn’t *I* good enough for him?
This must be how the Pharisees felt, looking at Jesus forgiving prostitutes, enlisting tax collectors as disciples, making fishermen high-ranking Aspotles, having dinner at the homes of people with very public sins.
We did everything we could to serve God. We have loved Him above all else. This Jesus says He is the Son of God! If that’s true, how could God possibly put these people above us after we’ve done everything we could to do God’s will!? We’ve sacrificed to follow the Law, even when others were turning away from it.
And Jesus knows this. Notice that the father of the story doesn’t tell his older son that what he did wasn’t good enough, or that he cannot come into the house. Instead, he begs the man to come inside with him. And this is exactly what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees.
They are not less worthy of Heaven. They are not unwelcome there. In fact, all they have done is pleasing to God! If not for them, there would be nowhere for repentant sinners to go!
And with this parable, Jesus lets the Pharisees know that He loves them, He wants them to enter the Kingdom, and they are more than welcome there.
But it is their own stubbornness that is preventing them from doing so. All they have to do to gain Heaven is forgive their brothers, who have sinned and repented. Let go of your anger and pride, he tells them, and welcome them back. Be happy for them! Be glad that their eyes were opened before it was too late!
And then come inside and celebrate with us all. The only thing keeping you from Me is you.