Once, there were two brothers. One went into the world bearing half of his father’s fortune and squandered it on empty pleasures. The other stayed home, working dutifully in the fields, asking for nothing as he did his father’s will.
In any common fable by Aesop or Grimm, we would expect punishment and retribution to fall on the Prodigal Son, while the virtues of the Good Son would reap a rich reward.
Yet, in Christ’s parable in Luke 15, it is the Good Son who is rebuked.
The elder brother "does not understand the father’s goodness. To the extent that this brother, too sure of himself and his own good qualities, jealous and haughty, full of bitterness and anger, is not converted and is not reconciled with his father and brother, the banquet is not yet fully the celebration of a reunion and rediscovery" (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 6).
Pope John Paul II notes that the lack of reconciliation in this family, and by extension within the entire human family, is not ultimately brought about by the prodigality of the younger son, but by the refusal of the older to fully embrace and understand the father’s mercy. John Paul II goes on to tell us that "every human being is ... this elder brother."
The elder son won’t accept the father’s mercy because he is unable to recognize his own selfishness. He is accustomed to think of selfishness in terms of weakness and vice, the selfishness of the younger brother who abandoned his duties and squandered the father’s fortune.
The Good Son is unable to recognize that there is a kind of selfishness in the way that he himself practices virtue.
His desire to do the will of the father is motivated by a belief that it is possible for him to be good on his own strength. Like a good Calvinist, this son believes that his adherence to the law shows that he is numbered among the elect.
He experiences obedience to the father as a kind of bitter self-denial — he stays home and works hard while his brother goes out and has all the fun.
What the Good Son doesn’t realize is that virtue is not a sacrifice which will allow him to pull himself into heaven by his own bootstraps. He can’t see that the law is for man, not man for the law.
The Prodigal Son is able to understand that the pleasures of the city and the sufferings of the dung hill are one and the same, that the practice of vice does not need to be harshly punished by the father because it contains its own punishment.
On the Prodigal Son’s return, virtue seems like a rich robe, a jeweled ring, a fatted calf. For the Good Son, virtue seems like a long day in the field without a goat.
I think this is the reason why the father gives the inheritance to the Prodigal Son in the first place. The father’s liberality and forbearance with his younger son are the beginnings of a practice of mercy which bears fruit when the Prodigal Son returns.
The experience of loss, weakness, wretchedness and distance from the father are all manifestations of the father’s mercy. He permits the Prodigal Son to go out into a situation where he is guaranteed to fall so that the prodigal may understand that he is still beloved even when he comes home empty-handed and unclean.
To the elder son, this seems intolerable. Yet his anger towards the father does not begin when the Prodigal Son returns, but when the father hands the inheritance over.
From that moment, the elder son is suspicious of the father’s goodness. His fidelity becomes a test of the father to see if justice will finally be done.
The justice that the elder brother hopes for is typical of the universal human desire to see others punished or rebuked for sins which we do not ourselves commit.
Like Jonah sitting on the top of the cliff overlooking Nineveh, we wait with anxious anticipation to see the sinner chastised. We become frustrated when our spiritual fathers, bishops and priests don’t do enough to crack down on immorality and vice.
Yet, in thinking this way, we judge ourselves. No one hopes for a crackdown unless he imagines himself to be among those who will be spared — but no one can ever be certain that he will not be the next to fall.
What the Good Son misses is that he is not good. His bitterness towards his brother is bitterness towards himself, for "this prodigal son is man, every human being: bewitched by the temptation to separate himself from his Father in order to lead his own independent existence; disappointed by the emptiness of the mirage which had fascinated him; alone, dishonored, exploited when he tries to build a world all for himself sorely tried, even in the depths of his own misery, by the desire to return to communion with his Father" (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 5).
The Good Son has led an independent existence in the field, ignorant that the father is always with him, fascinated by the mirage of his own piety, feeling increasingly alone, dishonored and exploited as he awaits a reward which never comes.
It may seem that this is why converts have such a vibrant faith, but even this misses the point. None of us is ever truly converted. It’s very easy for those who have had spectacular conversion experiences to think of ourselves as being "former sinners," grateful for God’s mercy but distanced from the degree to which we still stand in need of redemption.
Amazing grace is indeed sweet, but it can sometimes make it easy to forget that blindness, lostness and wretchedness are features of the present and not relics of the past. So long as we are not yet received into the father’s house, the pleasures of the city and the sufferings of the swine pen are ever present in our lives, nor can they ever be entirely overcome.
When the story of the Prodigal Son comes to an end, the redemption of the Good Son still lies in the future. There are multiple possible endings.
Perhaps the Good Son, angry, envious, fed up with waiting for the father to acknowledge him, demands his own inheritance and heads off down the road towards the city. Maybe he buys himself a field and hangs himself there, as a spiteful warning to ungrateful fathers everywhere.
But maybe, we might hope, he creeps up to the edge of the banquet, sees the happiness of those rejoicing there, swallows his pride and reconciles with his brother, his father and himself.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.