Have you ever really read the parable of the prodigal son? Who you most identify with in the story, I think, says a lot about where you are in your faith walk. Are you the younger son? Do you see yourself as the elder son? Are you the father? I can identify with the elder son who was indignant and refused to come in to celebrate his brother’s return. I have painted myself from time to time – inaccurately, I might add – as being the one who “never left the Father’s house”. I felt resentment toward the younger son who came back and wasn’t punished for the way he acted.
“Why do I strive to do the right thing and stay on the path when others do as they please and still are accepted into the house?” The real question is, “why do I think I am so different than the younger son?” I completely missed that the point was mercy. The mercy shown to the younger son was mercy that is offered for us all. I started to see that the elder son’s stance wasn’t one of righteousness. He was comparing himself to the younger son. It became a competition. He was listing all the reasons he was better than his brother. He had to show the father how he had earned his love and that his brother wasn’t worthy of it any more. The elder son didn’t recognize that all his father had was already his. He didn’t know how to receive the gifts his father had made available to him his whole life. The elder son was stuck in an attitude of resentment.
What is the reason for all the competition? For some, I think it is an inability to believe that God really loves us. Is it something we can fully comprehend? Really? When we read that God knew us before we were formed in the womb or that every hair on our head has been counted, do we chalk it up as just a nice sentiment? Our fallen human nature puts everyone in categories and ranks. We want to be better than this person or not as bad as that person.
There’s a constant drive to feed pride and to be recognized for what we do. We need the reassurance that someone thinks our ideas or opinions are the best one. We love based on conditions – what others do for us, or how they make us feel. We are supposed to love as the father loved in the story. He loves with everything he has. He loves both sons equally and his love is the same no matter how many times they hurt him or insult him. He empties himself fully.
We have all heard the saying “cultivate an attitude of gratitude”. I think it is easier and more natural for most to live in resentment. We liked to keep that fire stoked and hold onto those hurts. We have to strive to move from that tendency. The elder son resented the fact that he thought he had to earn all that was being bestowed on his younger brother. His father never set guidelines for how he would love. The elder son imposed them on himself and expected the same of others. He couldn’t understand his father’s mercy or generosity because he didn’t have it within himself. We have to learn to let go of the resentment and expectations of how we think things should be.
God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. He asks us to come to Him and accept the gifts He wants to give to us. He asks us to allow him to be Father. We think holding onto the resentment gives us the control in our lives. It only serves to keep us focused inward. God wants us to know there is much more freedom in letting go and emptying ourselves, just like the father.