Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughts on the Prodigal Son and His Brother

I've been fascinated with the story of the prodigal son for many years. You know it: one son asks for his share of his inheritance up front, goes out and fritters it away, and finally comes home to beg for work from his father rather than living with pigs. Upon his arrival, he's greeted by a jubilant father who throws a big party in honor of his return. The other brother who stayed home resents his father's fawning over the returned brother.

I guess it was in high school I started thinking about this story in earnest, considering the joy that came to father when the prodigal returned, and the relief that the prodigal must have felt when he was welcomed home. I assumed it was a pretty straight up story of repentance and redemption, and a cautionary tale to would-be judgemental brothers.

It was during college that I realized there might be an issue with the justice in the story: if the prodigal had already spent his inheritance, what was there for him, beside his father's joy? Was he then left only to work as a laborer? Did he have no more reward because he had squandered what was there? Was this a zero sum game: only so much inheritance to go around, and he had already spent his? If so, a cautionary tale to would-be prodigals: don't waste it now because you might not get it back.

Recently a friend got me thinking differently about the story, and helped me to see that it's not only about one brother or the other. It is also about both brothers. In the story I am the prodigal, for I do waste my gifts from time to time. And when I repent the Lord does welcome me home. I don't know how the economy of inheritance plays out, but I know that the atonement applies to me when I stray and then make an honest effort to return.

But in the story I am also the brother who stayed behind. He could not enter the feast because of the resentment he carried. If I want to enter that feast, I must be fully ready to forgive all who have wronged me (or who I've thought have wronged me, anyway). Indeed, I must be more like the father (what else is new?) and welcome the returning prodigals in my life with open arms and celebration. And I've got to overcome the feeling of injustice in the brother who stayed home.


  1. We're all both brothers. We all waste our gifts, and we all need forgiveness--and we all feel resentment for what we don't have. The grass is always greener on the other side of the garden. The other brother resents the prodigal son, not even stopping to think that, hey, he has more! He's in a position of strength; would it really be so "unfair" to extend his brother, at his life's greatest low point, a little generosity?

    And as for the prodigal son, it's hard to admit when you've made a mistake. Often, parents like to lord mistakes (real or perceived) over their children. At its worst, this can turn into "and then, 10 years ago, you...". Then they wonder why their children aren't trying harder to please them.

    The fact is, improvement doesn't happen in a vacuum. The father's actions are worthy, because his love and acceptance create an environment where the prodigal son can improve. Love and acceptance help us grow; criticism and enforcing "justice" don't.

  2. The new insight for me was that I am both brothers simultaneously. It had never occurred to me that way before.

    I read something this morning that was interesting to me. The prodigal, when he decides to return, "comes to himself". That is, the Good in him is there from the start to the end; only his choices have masked it for a period.

    The good news is that not all parents lord their children's mistakes over them. And those that do often (sadly) are hurting from their own.