At first reading most of us will feel at least some sympathy for the elder son in the parable. But we should wonder why he was unable to share in his father’s joy. After all, his little brother has come home safe and sound. True, the young man had wasted so much of his father’s money—money that the older brother had helped earn through his labour on the farm. But still, this is a happy ending to a potentially tragic tale.
The older brother couldn’t see how good an ending it was. All he could see was how it affected him. After all, he was the one who stayed home and worked even harder to build up the value of the estate. He had to spend all his time untangling the knots and the mess caused by his younger brother’s selfishness. Surely, if anyone deserved congratulations and a party, it was he.
It’s interesting that while this older brother clearly respected and obeyed his father, he was quite blind to how good a father he had. He couldn’t understand why his father would throw a lavish celebration for this selfish, wasteful son, because he couldn’t grasp how committed his father was to his family. He couldn’t see how much compassion and love his father had lavished on him, let alone his younger brother. And the sad result was that he had yet to learn some of the most important lessons his father wanted him to learn.
Our Lord told this parable in response to some Pharisees who had been muttering against him for welcoming sinners. Through this story, Our Lord was inviting his detractors to understand how merciful his Father is. And Our Lord left the end of the story vague on purpose. How this parable will end is up to his hearers. Will the dutiful brother remain outside the family? Will Our Lord’s critics embrace such a radical message of mercy? Will we, even in this Year of Mercy?
Today Our Lord is asking us to take one more step away from self-centeredness and one step closer to his Father’s heart of Mercy, so that we may show that same mercy to the people around us.