The prodigal’s brother

By Dave McClow

The immensity and beauty of the Grand Canyon are an inexhaustible mystery for me. This natural wonder must be experienced from different vantage points to be fully appreciated. I have hiked along the rim and taken different trails into the canyon; I have flown over it in a plane. Each perspective reveals something different, but all inspire awe.

Journeying through this Year of Mercy, focusing on the motto, “Merciful like the Father,” I think the Prodigal Son story is a “Grand Canyon” to be experienced from several vantage points. The catechism encapsulates it this way, “Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of His Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of His mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.” — CCC 1439. I want to focus on the prodigal’s brother.

The Prodigal Son story asks and answers an essential question for men: “How do you approach God?” The Psalmist answers, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” — Ps 111:10. According to St. John Paul II, we can “fear the Lord” in two contrasting ways. One is as a slave, seeing God as a master to obey, fearing punishment — servile fear. The other is as a son, seeing God as our Abba, our Papa, who makes a covenant relationship with us — filial fear, understanding that nothing, not even sin, can stop God from loving us. The Prodigal Son story illustrates these two approaches.

We all know this story, but go and read it again (see Luke15:11-32). The short version: a father has two sons, and “all hell breaks loose” when the younger one insults the father by wishing him dead, collecting his part of the inheritance and squandering it on sin. Finding himself broke and competing with pigs for food, he “comes to his senses” and decides to return home as a hired hand. Then “all heaven breaks loose.” The father violates the social norms of his day by running out to meet his sinful son. Unexpectedly, the father fully restores his son’s status, and the celebration begins. The father rejoices that his “dead” son is alive and home. This son enters into his father’s mercy with filial trust.

This part of the story receives a lot of press and is exactly why the older brother grinds his teeth — he did all the right things, staying home and obeying his father. But “all hell breaks loose” again when he, too, refuses to come “home” to rejoice as his degenerate brother is treated like royalty. His father extends the same mercy to the older son by coming out to him. But the older son angrily whines, “You never gave me a party. It’s not fair!”

The father, unfazed, continues his mission of mercy. He answers with some of the most astonishing words of Scripture: “Son, everything I have is yours!” Bishop Robert Barron says, “I don’t know a pithier description of how God relates to us anywhere in the spiritual literature of the world.”

We have a battle of fathers here. St. John Paul II says, “original sin … attempts to abolish fatherhood.” Satan lies, convincing Adam and Eve that the Father was withholding something from them — “to be like Him.” But now Abba proclaims the truth: “Everything I have is yours.” He gives us the depths of His heart, His mercy, His love — His Son. Let that sink in.

While the two sons distort their relationship with their father differently, they both share the servile approach, acting as slaves, demanding much less than the father offers. The father only acts out of filial love, dispensing mercy based on their sonship, not their behavior.

This is the problem for many men: their image of the Father is distorted, and they act out of servile fear of the Lord, waiting for punishment. They see God as critical of their imperfections, believing their worth is based on their behavior. The catechism (2779) points out that our parental experiences are obstacles to knowing the Father. It encourages us to purify our hearts of our parental images, even to pull down these “idols” to experience our Abba as His Son has revealed him: an Abba offering an abyss of mercy. We must approach God as divinized sons with filial fear.

What does the older son teach us? First, as Pope Francis has recently said, “no one is excluded from the feast of mercy,” not even the religious elite! Second, as Bishop Barron suggests, this is an unfinished story — it is never revealed whether the older son enters the party. It is our invitation to enter the celebration.

Will we experience his “Grand Canyon of mercy?” Will we let “all heaven break loose” in our lives, coming home to the Father’s house with open hearts? Sometimes Confession is needed, but we are always his beloved sons. Barron continues, “When … we enter with abandon into the loop of grace — giving away in love what was given to us through love — then the celebration begins.” Are you holding up the celebration? Come home — Abba is always looking for you!

Posted on January 27, 2016, to: