I am the eldest of three children in my family. Looking back at our childhood in Clapham I was the bossy one and the one that was expected to show a good example. I was dutiful. Just ask my brother and sister. I was always trying to please my Mum and Dad. My brother and sister got into a lot of scrapes and I went off to a junior seminary to train to be a priest.
Whenever I hear the Gospel parable of the prodigal son that is read this weekend, I identify with the elder son who all his life did the right thing. I seem to understand his indignation with his father, who welcomed with open arms the brother who had squandered half the family inheritance. You can imagine him saying “How could you kill the calf that we had been fattening. How could you restore this son of yours to the centre of the family. Look how he insulted you by demanding the half of the property that would normally only come to him after you had died. He is only coming back because he was at rock bottom. There was nowhere else he can go. You will regret it because he will take advantage of you again. I don’t believe he is genuinely sorry.”
Those listening to this parable of Jesus were scribes, pharisees, publicans and sinners. The attitude of the elder son was the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees. They thought they were doing well and pleasing God and thus they were on his good side because they kept the law and were faithful. They looked down on the publicans and sinners because they were not faithful to the law. These were the younger son in the parable. What was challenging to both groups was the unconditional love and overwhelming mercy shown by the father. The younger son was certainly not expecting the reaction that he got from the father. He had a careful rehearsed script that he didn’t get to say. The elder son thought it was totally unfair and misjudged. He wanted no part of the celebration.
How do I react to this revelation of who God is? Do I really believe in a totally merciful God who is willing to forgive me anything or do I spend my days trying to please God who will only love me if I am good and toe the line? Those of us who are “elder sons” should be secure in the truth that all we do is seen by God; for God to love “younger sons” does not mean God loves “older sons” less. God’s love is ever bountiful and infinite – there is no limit on how much love is available to all of us.