In the parable of the Prodigal Son, I am not the only one to think that the
older son got a raw deal. You may remember that he was the one who stayed home
on the farm and worked while his younger brother went off to have a good time.
After burning through his inheritance, the younger son came running home to dad
who not only forgave him but threw a big party. Did dad really expect the older
brother to share in the joy?
Henri Nouwen and my own aging have helped me see this parable as a story of the
life many of us lead. In our teens and early twenties, we rebel and go off to
see the world. Authority figures have little authority. Our options are open,
and we no doubt abuse many of them. Somewhere in our late twenties or early
thirties we end up getting married (perhaps for the second or third time),
taking on a decent job and mortgage, and bringing up a family. Somewhere into
our forties, we begin to see that life hasn't turned out quite like we
envisioned when we were younger. The belly is growing, as is the list of
responsibilities. And we're up against the fact that our hard work and
commitment hasn't led us anywhere particularly special. It's not so much that
the grass is greener elsewhere as that it is a jaundiced yellow everywhere. And
that is where the elder brother's resentment can become our own.
I've spent a fair bit of time reading about addiction and alcoholism. A common
part of the problem is resentment, a sense that things shouldn't be the way they
are. Those addictions can take the form of workaholism, alcoholism, eating
disorders, drug use, and religious fanaticism. For men, working so much that
they don't have time for family and friends is the most socially acceptable. In
fact, we often take pride in it. Yet it can be as destructive to our
friendships and family as the other forms of addiction. And when we slow down
for a minute, we still have to face our resentment of the demands on our time,
the judgements of others, and that life hasn't been as good to us as we believe
our hard work deserves.
The parable of the Prodigal Son provides a clue as to where we have to go to get
through this crisis of resentment. We have to give up being the older son, and
become the father. That is, we have to offer love and forgiveness to others. I
believe this is the crucial step in moving through our midlife crises. As long
as we cling to our resentments, we're stuck. While the party is going on, we're
off by ourselves nursing our hurt feelings.
The parable of the Prodigal Son has continued to impact people for centuries
since its telling. I think two things explain its impact: All of us experience
resentment and the need for forgiveness. And the healing power of letting go of
resentment and forgiving is a psychological truth. At different points of our
lives we experience being each of the characters of the parable. Moving into
the role of the forgiving father is the necessary step for passing through a
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his
father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a
distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had
spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began
to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country,
who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the
pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father's hired men have
food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to
my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.'
So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with
compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I
am no longer worthy to be called your son. '
"But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on
him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf
and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead
and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he
heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what
was going on. `Your brother has come,' he replied, `and your father has killed
the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out
and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I've
been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even
a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours
who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the
fattened calf for him!'
" `My son,' the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is
yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was
dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "