As the Year of Mercy began, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I remembered the popular parable: the prodigal son. Its graphic depiction of the younger son’s profligate behavior, the depth of his misery groveling for scraps among pigs, and the father’s magnanimous welcome with rings, robe, sandals and feast leave little unsaid about the father’s boundless mercy.
However, the character who intrigues me is the older brother. In truth, I am too cautious to adopt the wayward choice of the younger son. I could easily channel the worries of the older brother: half of the family property is gone but just as many people to care for. These days, the situation would likely involve just as much debt on half the assets. He may fret about his father’s health and wish to spare his father these burdens.
Not only do I feel this way sometimes, I know people in similar situations: the sibling who sacrifices all to care for an elderly parent only to find out that all children received equal amounts from the estate or the sibling who assumes responsibility for the family business when some siblings just want a share of the profits; a sibling who lives a “carefree” life only to reappear when options run dry.
Isn’t resentment their due?
In political discourses, we encounter similar sentiments. Some who have made it the responsible way, working diligently, staying clear of trouble, paying taxes, wondering why the poor should receive assistance. Some wonder why undocumented immigrants and refugees partake in the benefits of our society. The working poor get a living wage? Addicts get another chance?
Alarmingly, in these sentiments, I recognize qualities that frighten me. I dread becoming small, hard and joyless. The older brother describes his work, which hopefully once emanated from love of family, as “orders” from his father, which he now “obeys” rather than embraces and the person returning as “your son” rather than “my brother” thus losing any sense of bond and kin.
He values his work in the light of compensation and competition relative to his brother and calibrates his father’s love with things and feasts. His judgment leaves no space in the heart to comprehend how the brother has suffered and what his father has lost. His righteousness robs him of the capacity to celebrate.
The older brother is the message Jesus directs at the Pharisees, whose disapproval of his dining with sinners precedes this and two other parables of mercy. It is a message for us, too, when our love turns to obligations, fatigue crowns itself in martyrdom, prudence gives rise to harsh judgement, and success breeds contempt.
The good news is that the father reaches out also for this son, reminding him that he has always been loved and that love for one son is not diminished by love for the other. The older son is invited to join in and be glad, essentially to turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He and we are also the lost sons whom the father rejoices for when we are found.
Such framing is not easy, but this is why we need a special year to note that gratitude and resentment cannot coexist. In condemnation, we overstep our bounds and lose our humanity; and that, as Pope Francis notes in the opening sentence of the document declaring the Year of Mercy, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.”
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.