The first half of the parable focuses on the younger son. He asks for his portion of the family inheritance, goes on a spending spree, meets with famine and finally resorts to becoming a famished swineherd. Put into today's context, the son typifies those who have backslid. These were brought into the fold and tasted the goodness of being in the Father's house. Somehow, in a moment of weakness, they fell into the temptations of the world. It is not difficult. This world, like the faraway country the prodigal son went to, simply has far too many attractions. We need plenty of faith, self-control and reliance on God's help to resist. Often a second glance at those attractions is enough to make us surrender to the snares of this world. Farther and farther we wander away from the Father's house. Spiritually, we know we are starved, for apart from the Lord, there is no goodness to speak of (Ps 16:2).
Many of us may not be as far gone. But there are times when we feel like a prodigal son. There are times when we find ourselves doing something we know that we should not do. Scores of sermons we have heard tell us it is wrong. Perhaps we can even quote the very Bible verse stating the commandment we have transgressed, or the Christian virtue we have failed to uphold. We wish so much to undo what we have done. We wish so much to turn back the clock.
I am not suggesting that we treat our transgressions lightly or think nothing of it. We must, however, beware, for the guilt-ridden pressure we place upon ourselves can turn us away from God. We blame ourselves so much that we veil ourselves from the forgiveness of God. Naturally, we feel that God is far away.
Although we find ourselves prodigal sons, many of us fail to take the right course of action that will reconcile us with our Lord. This is unlike the prodigal son who sought to be reconciled with his father. "When he came to himself, he said, 'I will arise and go to my Father...' And he rose and came to his father." After realizing that his father was the ultimate source of goodness there was no more hesitation. He picked himself up and headed home. That was the turning point of his life. If only more of us today were like this prodigal son! Instead, many of us simply choose to wallow in our weakness. When concerned brothers and sisters ask about us, we put up our defenses, refusing to interpret it as a call from the Father. Unconsciously, we indulge ourselves in feelings of guilt and sell-condemnation when the right thing to do is simply to brace up and turn back.
On one occasion, a sinful woman was brought before our Lord. Instead of condemning her, Jesus told her to "go and sin no more" (Jn 8:3-11). This should be the message to keep in mind. Our Lord is not a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses. We should come boldly before His throne of grace (Heb 4:16). As long as we have not committed sins leading to death, we trust that our Lord is faithful and just, and He will forgive us (1 Jn 1:9).
Within the outer narrative frame of the prodigal son's return, there is an episode revolving around the older brother. He was the ever-faithful son. For years, he obeyed his father in all things. He served his father without complaint and had never thought he deserved any special favor. He was the direct opposite of his brother.
While the prodigal son typifies the members who have wandered off, his older brother typifies the unapproachable judges many of us are towards the weaker ones. We fail to give them the much-needed little nudge or support to help others come back to the fold. Haven't there been times when we assure ourselves that we are not like the weak ones? We do not want to be like the weak ones. We will attend church services regularly. We are not enticed by the world. We will continue to faithfully serve in our Father's house; there is so much in the Father's house that has been entrusted to our care. Far too often, we are so engrossed with our noble spiritual aspirations that we forget our brother is away. Where is the prodigal brother? Like the elder brother, we do not go in search of him. We may even assume that our Father has given up on the wanton son.
Many times, we are even stricter than God. In the biblical incident where an adulterous woman was brought before the Lord, it is easy for us to visualize the gleeful looks of expectation on the faces of the onlookers. They had gathered merely to await Jesus' judgment. Are we of their kind? Do we realize that while everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God, neither does one who goes beyond it? (2 Jn 9) Have we, knowingly or otherwise, made the course of coming back to the fold a difficult path?
When the brother returned, the older brother did not even know, for he was busy in the fields. When he heard that a feast was prepared, he became angry. How could Father still love the prodigal son? Has Father forgotten that he squandered away the money? For years, I have been working and have never even requested a young goat. Now, a fatted calf has been killed to welcome him! He simply could not comprehend it. No, he would not join in the feasting.
The older brother's sentiment is characteristic of our nearsighted view of love. The abundance of God's love is hard to fathom. How could a prodigal son warrant so much fuss and attention? He went away of his own accord; he no longer deserved the love which he had earlier rejected. Often, we do not see that such a great love is precisely the reason why our Lord is to be praised. It is because of this love that we are all still living. Our Lord God is merciful and gracious. He is slow to anger. He will not keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins (Ps 103:8-10). Man's love is almost always conditional. Man's love is given to whom he deems fit, and as much as he thinks is deserved. But God is different and that is why there is still so much about love that we, as Christians, as God's children and as recipients of His love, have to learn.
In the parable, the father watched the prodigal son return from a great distance. He ran towards the son to receive him (Lk 15:20). Towards the older son, he was the same loving father who took the initiative. When the elder son, with his self-righteous indignation, refused to enter the banquet hall, the father came out to plead with him.
Jesus spoke this parable in response to queries about His association with sinners. Whether we are the prodigal son or the older brother, let us look to the love of Christ. For the gift of love is the greatest of all.