|Prodigal Son by Murillo|
I have a confession to make. Whenever I read that story, I can't help sympathizing with (and relating to?) the older brother. His part of the story begins with the fact that he "was coming in from the fields." That tells me he was out working. Of course, he's working for himself as well as for his father because one day all the property remaining will be his. The younger son already got his share. At least, that's what the story says. But maybe the older son thinks all that will change. Now that his younger brother is back will Dad not only kill the fatted calf, but give half the herd to his brother? Will he change his mind and write younger brother back into the will? What exactly was going on in the mind of the older son? We only know from his actions that he resented what his father did in welcoming back his sibling.
How easy it is to feel resentment and to begrudge the love of our parents and friends for others who are not us. How easy it is to see anything given to another as diminishing what we receive. And that of course is why envy is on the list of the seven deadly sins. It's as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Cain envied Abel's goodness and the fact that it made his gift acceptable to the Lord. His own miserliness with God disappeared in his eyes and he only saw the love God had for Abel. And he resented and hated Able for it.
And then there were Joseph's brothers. How much they resented "that dreamer" and their father's love for him. Every time they looked at that many-colored coat they saw their own worth diminished. Their envy, like Cain's, drove them to contemplate murder. Fortunately for them, they sold Joseph into slavery instead and the object of their envy became the source of their salvation when famine struck and they journeyed to Egypt for food.
The story of envy is certainly contemporary. The relationship between Mary and Edith in Downton Abbey comes to mind or the relationship between Scarlet O'Hara and her sister Sue Ellen in Gone with the Wind. We would like to imagine that our families are places of love and acceptance. But often they are microcosms of everything that's wrong with the world.
I've often said that if you scratch the surface of anyone's life and look more deeply, you'll find a soap opera. We used to live across the street from an Episcopal minister whose children were all grown. Everything looked wonderful on the surface, but we later learned one of their grandsons had committed suicide. Another neighbor grieved over the estranged relationship with a beloved daughter. We would like to think our families resemble the Holy Family at Nazareth, but are often more like a civil war.
Yes, the story of the prodigal son is about all of us and the challenges in our families. Who do you relate to in the story? Do you have the compassion of the forgiving father? Do you struggle with the licentiousness of the prodigal? Have you had moments in your life when you "came to your senses," recognized your sins, and sought forgiveness? Do you harbor the resentment of the older brother over love given to one you consider unworthy?
I once read a book by Fr. Simon Tugwell who made a statement I've never forgotten. "Part of the cross we carry," he wrote, "is the fact we carry it so badly." Amen to that. And so today, I'm going to reflect on my own lack of forgiveness and my resentments. Like the older son, I have a lot of work to do to become more like the father. I've certainly been in the pig sty with the prodigal son at periods in my life, but today I'm more tempted to be like the older brother. I think I need to focus on the humility prayer for the rest of Lent. Since only little, humble people can enter heaven through the narrow gate, I need to diminish and let Christ in me expand. With the help of Mother Mary, all things are possible -- even that.