So—where did you find yourself in the story? Many of you have heard this story a hundred times. What stories from your own life came to mind as you heard the parable?
Maybe a few of us are honest enough to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the younger son: careless, wasteful–selfish. I’m guessing there’s at least a chance that many of us identify with the older son. The older son, after all, is hard-working, dutiful, responsible, loyal and willing to sacrifice. In other words, he represents what our society values—what we value.
We might even feel sorry for the older son! The stories that come to mind might run something like this: I remember when I sacrificed time, money, energy for my kids. And what did I get in return? Or, maybe your story isn’t that of a parent. Look how much I sacrificed for my…and then fill in the blank: spouse, country, church, employer.
Service and sacrifice are high ideals. They can bring out the best in us. In fact, they are at the heart of what it means to be Christian.
But what starts out as sacrifice and service, as the older son shows, can over time deteriorate into a spirit of entitlement in which we expect to be rewarded for our sacrifice and service! And that expectation is likely to lead in one of several unhappy directions. It may lead to fear that we won’t get, or won’t get to keep, what we believe to be ours. Or, it may lead to anger, resentment, stubbornness, defiance, complaining and self-pity, all of which we find in the older son. It may lead to grumbling–which is what led Jesus to tell this story in the first place! But none of these things are of God.
father should at least scold the younger son. It’s not fair!
This story for centuries has been called The Prodigal (“recklessly extravagant”) Son. But a better title for this story might be the Two Rotten Kids. If that sounds too harsh at least we can say it’s the story of the Two Ungrateful Kids. That’s one of the big surprises in this story. One son is as bad as the other. They are equally ungrateful. They feel equally entitled. The older son’s ingratitude was carefully disguised by his hard work, loyalty and sacrifice but eventually his underlying motives were exposed. He expected to get something in return for his efforts. He thought he was entitled to power and reward. It’s how the world works!
It’s how the world works. But is that how the Kingdom of God works? Is that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
For a model of the Christian life we look not to either the older son or the younger son…but the father. Because that’s what this story is about:
not fairness, not entitlement, but the unconditional love and generosity of the father. It is his spirit that throws a glaring spotlight on the self-interest of his sons: “I’ve worked hard. I’ve been faithful. I want…I deserve…I’m entitled.” Notice what the subject is in each of those statements: I.
It is the father in the story who has the greatest reason to be angry, hurt, resentful, and even vengeful. It is he who has the greatest reason to demand respect and obedience and fairness. And yet, he turns his back on all these temptations and practices something else entirely: joy and gratitude.
These are what our Father calls us to! These are marks of discipleship. None of us in this lifetime is likely to practice the perfect love that we find in the father…but it is our goal!
Notice that this story, like most of Jesus’ parables, isn’t wrapped up in a neat bow. It’s not “…and they all lived happily ever after.” We know how the father responded to his two ungrateful sons. What we don’t know is how the ungrateful sons responded to their father’s unconditional love.
For example, we don’t know the younger son’s motives. The story tells us that he came to himself and returned home. But look: He rehearses his speech. He knows the right things to say. But is he really repentant, or is it just more self-interest? And even if he’s sincere, how long does it last? Think about it: He returns home after squandering his father’s wealth and his dad greets him with expensive clothes, expensive jewelry and the finest homecoming party that money can buy. The younger son might end up thinking, “This is great! I can do whatever I want and still my dad will welcome me home. I think I’ll go off and squander some more!”
And how about the older son? The father pleads with him, saying, “Everything that is mine has always been yours!” How did the older son respond? Maybe he said, “Dad, you’re right. What was I thinking? I’m sorry!” Maybe he did end up following his father’s example and welcoming home his younger brother. But–maybe not. Maybe the older son said, “No! It’s not fair. I refuse to be grateful for my brother’s return. I refuse to be grateful for your generosity.”
We don’t know the ending to this story because as in most stories Jesus told we complete the ending with the story of our own lives. Do we choose joy and gratitude? Or, do we choose entitlement, resentment and self-pity? It is a choice. And, it is one or the other. We cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time. We cannot have a servant heart and expect to be rewarded at the same time. We cannot be joyful and angry at the same time. Every waking minute of every day…we choose.
We are well into the season of Lent and Lent, as we know, is all about repentance. Repentance, unfortunately, gets a bad rap. We’re in the habit of thinking it’s about how bad we are. Truth be told, we have a hard time doing that because we’re also in the habit of thinking of ourselves as sincere, loyal, well-intentioned, hard-working–so confessing sins sometimes doesn’t get a lot of traction. Like the older brother in the story, we’d rather focus on other people’s faults and why they’re so much more in need of repentance than we are.
But what if we were to set aside comparing ourselves with others? What if we spent less time in justifying ourselves and defending who we are and what we believe? What if we began to see repentance not as “What a bad boy/girl am I?” What if we instead began to experience repentance as a choice for joy and gratitude–no matter what!
I say “no matter what” because this is at the very heart of our faith.
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:18). Notice that we are not told to give thanks for all things but to give thanks in all things. I know many of your stories and so I know that there are some who have been intentional about making this your choice. Even in your deepest grief and in the midst of deep disappointment you are able to manage a spirit of gratitude and even joy as an example for us all!
All of us find ourselves regularly tempted toward the spirit of the Two Rotten Kids in this story. And sometimes we give in to our resentment. Sometime we do get angry. Sometimes we feel entitled and serve with the expectation of special treatment or at least some reward or recognition. Sometimes we care about fairness more than anything.
But—this spirit can become a persistent habit. It is possible to organize an entire life according to the spirit of the Two Rotten Kids. So it is vitally important that wherever we see it bubbling up in our own lives that we root it out. Because resentment and a spirit of entitlement can devour the soul just as surely as an aggressive disease can devour the body.
To the extent that we choose gratitude and joy, we become what God intended us to be: Light to the world. It is what St. Paul describes in today’s second reading: From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see?–everything has become new! All this is from God.
God is not in the business of fairness. God is in the forgiveness business, the love business, the compassion business, the mercy business. As long as we have breath in this life, God has called us to be this “new creation.” But whichever path we choose—resentment and entitlement on the one hand, or gratitude and joy on the other—nothing can change this one thing: We are God’s Own Beloved!