The Older Prodigal

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The film Becket is one of my favorites. Although some of the historical revisions to render it fit for the silver screen are somewhat chuckle-worthy, the splendid acting, narrative and pathos exuded in the performance more than make up for such quibbling. It is also a repository of some rather memorable one-liners:

Becket is the only intelligent man in England, and he’s against me!

He’s drunk and wenched his way through London, but he’s thinking all the time!

I’m intelligent! I’m even profound. Oh, I’m so profound it’s making my head spin- probably comes from making love to that french woman last night…

One of the most memorable, however, is when the profligate Becket- the worldly courtier- is raised to the archbishopric by King Henry II and discovers in himself a faith he had left long ago but has never quite abandoned him. On the eve of his ascension to the seat of Canterbury he is clothing beggars and selling all he has, in obedience to the words of Christ.

Bishop Foliot, the bishop of London and the man passed over for the office, questions such an opulent display of almsgiving. But Becket counters:

Consider it the clumsy gesture of a spiritual gatecrasher.

As I was driving today I caught a bit of a talk on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps the best known of the parables, I was only half-listening since I have heard it analyzed to death and from many different angles. While I cannot for the life of me remember who was speaking, a theme stood out that stuck in my mind all day.

That theme was that the parable of the Prodigal Son is first and foremost about spiritual inheritance rather than earthly inheritance.

Upon first hearing this I started to tune out, but decided to listen in a bit more, even though I was nearing my destination. While this parable is quite familiar, I must confess to have a certain mystification when it comes to the character of the older brother.

To briefly recap: the prodigal son gets his fathers inheritance (before the father dies), goes off and wastes it, realizes his life is terrible and returns home, hoping to merely be a servant. The father- full of love for his son- will have none of this, but rather welcomes him back with open arms, throws a huge celebration, and so on. The older brother is offended, since he has never engaged in the wickedness of his brother, but has been faithful to his father. Yet the point of contention is that he has never had the lavish parties his brother now gets, which (he implies) seems to vindicate his brother’s choices.

The father’s response is- let’s be honest- cryptic: You are my son, and all I have is yours. But your brother was dead and is alive again.

The hardest teaching of this parable, if we are strong enough to admit it, is that most of us tend to sympathize with the older brother. We try to live our lives as best we can, make the right decisions, serve God with our hearts and lives, give to the poor, etc. And even though we mouth the words of selfless devotion, the darker truth is that most of us probably want the parties and the accolades or at least the attention that the prodigals get.

Even in our churches and in our history we tend to follow this pattern. The faithful who are faithful in everything rarely get a footnote in history, whereas spiritual gatecrashers like St. Becket and St. Augustine fascinate us and get books and movies and blog posts.

But the parable of the Prodigal Son has no pat on the head for the older brother; in some respects he is presented as the villain, or at least the foil.

I must admit to not fully understanding this, even though I can perhaps intellectually grasp some of its meaning. And that’s where my thoughts are brought back to the movie Becket.

Bishop Foliot, who plays the part of the older brother, is incensed at Becket’s ascension to archbishop. After all, he (Foliot) was next in line. He has been the one who cares for the well-being of the church. he is the one who hasn’t been drinking and wenching his way through London (but thinking all the time!)

And Becket could hardly be a less-worthy candidate. A libertine, a courtier, a political partisan more for the King then for the Church, cast into the role to solidify Henry II’s position against Rome.

But archbishop he will be, taking up the miter and the golden cope and the great silver cross. As much as Foliot may (or may not) care for Becket’s soul, to give such a man the authority of the English Church is perhaps too much to bear. Once Henry regrets his decision to appoint Becket, he knows to whom he may turn- the one who has the most to be jealous of.

It’s hard enough to watch a prodigal come home; it’s worse to have to be in charge of confetti for the welcome home gala.

As this parable and this movie were swirling around in my mind, I was brought back to the theme from the radio, about how this parable is more about spiritual inheritance than earthly inheritance. At first it seems obvious- after all, a parable is not meant to be taken literally. But a deeper reflection shows the way clear.

The speaker noticed that even within the parable itself, the issue is not whether the prodigal son can have money or not to do what he wants. The main issue in his heart is not wanting to submit to authority; namely that of his father. To ask for his inheritance early is to essentially count his father as dead and himself thus free to do what he wants.

In other words- he is now his own man.

The choices he makes are clearly the choices he would have made anyway; it’s just that within this arrangement he has no one to answer to but himself, or at least so he thinks. Once the money runs out his situation brings him a cold splash of reality- not only has he rejected his father, but in doing so he has rejected God.

Even though he comes to his senses, his thinking is still oriented along the lines of being answerable to himself alone. Hence, he returns wanting to be servant, knowing that such is his only chance. This is certainly a huge leap of humility and an act of grace, but such a state is not a total conversion. He still operates as if his father is dead, for if the relationship is that of master and servant, he might as well be.

But the father understands that the choices his son has made and even his rejection of him cannot undo the deeper familial bonds that tie them together, nor the even deeper love that brought his son into existence and welcomes him back. He could no more make his son a servant than he could make the day into night.

At this part of the story we can have the tendency to bristle, for it seems as if the father ignores the wickedness of his son. In our more honest and vindictive moments we might wish for retribution or for the son to at least pay back what he has taken. But the father also realizes the truth of the matter: sin is its own punishment. St. Paul speaks in Romans how some have received the due penalty in themselves, and such is the case.

No matter how pleasurable sin is in its season, it always collects.

Since the issue was not about money but rather about authority and submission, for the son to come back and admit the errors of his way is the first step along the path of grace. The son has realized his helplessness in and of himself and how all his plans and wickedness lie only in ruin. All that remains is for the full conversion, where he must equally realize that he is his father’s son, rather than his servant. Their relationship is not about power (money) but is about love (authority).

We don’t often associate authority with love, but love’s nature as submissive to the one who bestows it cannot be excised from the equation without the prodigal’s disaster.

Which brings us (finally) to the older son. Even though he can claim the faithfulness of sticking with the family, it become clear that he is capable of viewing his relationship to his father in the exact same way as his brother. When life is normal it is bearable to make the sacrifices, but once the wicked knave comes crawling back, only to be greeted with a celebration- well, that’s one insult too many.

All those hours in the fields without a word of thanks. All those late nights making ends meet. All the unanswered prayers and self-sacrifice and million other things that no one ever mentions…

The father’s response can smack of rudeness: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” If we have the mind of the older brother, we are inclined to imagine this means God wants us to be happy or wealthy or successful or famous or be healthy or any number of lesser things that we believe we are owed for our good lives.

But such a mindset is only inches from the pig-pen.

The father’s response turns the argument inside out. It’s not about having everything, but rather it is about always being with the father. The relationship is the point around which all else must turn, and is the ultimate reason why the prodigal left in the first place. When he returns, throwing a lavish feast is not only not wasteful but is altogether right because to be with the father is to have everything.

Both brothers live with the freedom to be with the father, and such a relationship is presented in the parable as the ultimate life to possess. While the prodigal left with his feet, the older brother has himself wandered off a million times with every mumble under the breath, every protest about the prospering of the wicked, every offended emotion when the repentant receive perhaps just a bit too much grace. One is reminded of the Psalmist’s words about the temptation for prodigality we face every day:

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Jesus presents an image of the relationship the Father and the Son enjoy, for “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The perfect freedom in love is reflected (rather than constrained) in perfect unity of will, for the Son does what the Father does and says what the Father speaks. The glories that we all so desperately crave- even if they are trifling acknowledgments- are far from the Son’s desire, for he wishes only to glorify the Father, knowing that he is glorified with the Father.

In the supreme irony, as the Son empties himself, laying aside even his life, he is raised to life and glorified above all things. Humility may be hard on the knees, but in this case it is humility to which all knees will one day bend.

 

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Jason Watson

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