We’re all familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son, but how often do we try to understand it in the place of the elder brother? The prodigal has returned to, what amounts to, a red-carpet welcome, and the older son is angry, he’s fuming. But what would he rather have happened to his younger brother?
Did he want to see him suffer? To have the door slammed firmly shut in his face? Maybe he hoped to see him humiliated in front of the whole village. Or might he have preferred to hear that his brother had starved to death in a foreign land?
Such anger seems pretty extreme. But haven’t we all felt twinges of pleasure over someone else’s misfortune? Don’t we feel just a little satisfaction when someone encounters troubles?
Something in the human heart inclines to this perverse, gleeful gloating. The Germans, who are so good with words, call it schadenfreude—a composite of the words for “misfortune” and “joy.” Schadenfreude means “to rejoice over someone else’s misfortune.” And its flip side was demonstrated by the older son. He wouldn’t rejoice at the prodigal’s good fortune.
Our Lord’s parable challenges us to examine how well our desires for other people line up with God’s desires. Do we want what’s good for them? Are we grieved when they experience setbacks? Are we happy when they achieve success, honour, and wisdom?
It isn’t easy to change what makes us happy. In fact, it’s impossible without God’s help because it requires nothing less than a new heart. How blessed we are, then, that God longs to give us a share in his own heart of mercy. He wants to give us more of his Holy Spirit so that we can, in the words of Saint Paul, generously and wholeheartedly “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Let us always seek that priceless gift.