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home : opinion : perspectives

3/17/2016 9:00:00 AM
REFLECTIONS ON MERCY
Parable of the prodigal son, Part III: the older son
BY REV. ANTHONY BARRATT


In the last of our three reflections on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-32) and Rembrandt's magnificent and powerful painting of that parable, let us focus our attention on the older son.

Many of us may find him the most puzzling character in the parable and perhaps identify most readily with him in our own family or other situation. After all, he has been the dutiful son and stayed home to do what was expected of him.

He even seems unappreciated in a way, as we hear in his words: "Look, all these years I have 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."

Yet, he seems to be the bad guy in the story -- the fall guy, as compared to the warmth of the father's love and mercy, or the younger son's appealing repentance and new life.

The older son certainly has a strong sense of duty and commitment and seems to do all the right things. He also still has his freedom and status as the older son, and he will indeed inherit everything: "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours."

Yet something has gone sadly wrong. Perhaps something has died within him, within his very heart and soul. There is a nagging sense or even irony that this older son also has journeyed or drifted away from his father and, indeed, from his true humanity.

He seems to be a son in terms of biology or the laws of inheritance, but not a son in fact or in love. He will indeed have everything that materially belongs to the father, but he does not seem to inherit his father's love, compassion and mercy. Like the younger son, we might say that he has lost his true status and has taken an inner journey away from his father.

Rembrandt indicates much of this by the way that the older son seems to stand aloof from the scene. It is almost as though we could split the picture in half: the father and the younger son on one side and then the older son on the other, and between them is a large dark space or gulf.

Notice, too, how the older son is so tall. In fact, he is standing on a platform -- perhaps, we might think, looking down from the moral high ground on the scene below him. He stands tall, stiff, aloof; even the stick that Rembrandt puts clasped rigidly in his hands symbolizes this attitude. Notice how his hands are tightly closed and firmly holding the stick. They are not open like the father's. Body language is so important here! The younger son kneels and buries his head in the father's lap; the father stoops down and embraces, but the older stand stands tall and proud -- and alone.

We might also say that the older son has lost his freedom, peace and joy, just like the younger son, though in a different and perhaps darker way. Rembrandt shows this in that the older son receives some of that warm light from the father, yet he is also disappearing into the shadows and darkness. He seems to be imprisoned in anger, jealousy and bitterness.

It all explodes as he refuses to come in and celebrate with the family. As the Gospel narrates, he pours out a litany of anger and recrimination that may have been building up for many years, maybe even before the younger son left and squandered his inheritance.

In this tirade, the older son also disrespects and hurts his father. He also does so by forcing the father to leave the celebration -- and, we might also say, leave his dignity - to come out to plead with his older son to join the celebration.

The younger son insulted and hurt his father by asking for his inheritance now (a way of saying, "I wish you were dead, so that I can get my hands on my money right now!"), but the older son is guilty of the same offense. He goes even further, refusing to acknowledge the father's other son, his younger brother. He cannot bring himself to say "my brother," but says, "your son."

The parable challenges us to reflect on our own situation. We, too, can become prisoners to attitudes that can lead us on a journey to anger, bitterness, envy and jealousy -- a place far away from the image and likeness of God - and we, too, can lose our joy or peace.

We, too, can offend the father by our words and actions. We, too, can easily forget, as St. Augustine reminds us, that serving and obeying God is a tremendous honor and gift, not some grudging obligation. We, too, can find our faith or our relationship with the Lord becoming locked in the permafrost of cold duty, or as a distant obligation.

We, too, can be offended by the very presence of others and not even acknowledge them as members of God's family, thinking, for example, "What is that person doing in church?" As St. Ambrose wisely concludes, "Let us not envy those who return from a distant country, seeing that we ourselves also were afar off."

We do not know how the story in the parable ends. Perhaps our Lord leaves this open deliberately. Rembrandt, too, seems to freeze the story at one particular moment, inviting us to think what might happen next.

I am sure we hope that the older son, like the younger son, also "comes to his senses," realizing that a diet of anger, resentment or bitterness is a poor diet for the soul. Let us also hope that he journeys back from his distant country to the father (and his brother), letting the words of his father unfreeze his heart and call him back home.

Perhaps the older son will relax that frigid and upright posture, come down off his high platform and move into the light, embracing both his father and his younger brother. Then all can rejoice that he, too, was lost, but is found, was dead but has come to life again.

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham. He holds a doctorate in theology and was a professor at St. John's Seminary in England before coming to the U.S. in 2004. Read other columns at www.evangelist.org.)





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