Friday, February 2, 2007

The Parable of the Dutiful Son

(In a previous message, I referred to my thoughts about the parable of the prodigal son. This is my commentary on that parable, which I originally posted on 10/19/2003 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

What I call the "Parable of the Dutiful Son" is what most other people call the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in Luke 15:11-32.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up as follows: A man has two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home, proceeds to waste his money in an immoral and irresponsible life, and ends up coming home penniless and humble, hoping to work as a servant for his father, but his father greets him with joy and prepares a great feast in his honor, to the displeasure of the older son who remained behind. The younger son represents the sinner, the older son represents the faithful, and the father represents God. The moral of the story is that God always loves us no matter how we have sinned, and those of us who don't sin just have to learn to live with it.

The Parable of the Dutiful Son is more complicated. The facts are the same but the focus of the parable is on the older son who stays behind and why he is resentful.

When the younger son returns and the older son discovers the celebration going on, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. The father comes to plead with him, and the son states that he has been working like a slave for his father, and has never disobeyed him, and yet the father has never given him "even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends." (15:29.) The father begins his reply by saying, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (15:31.)

This seems terribly unfair. And the father's response, that "we had to celebrate" because the younger son "was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" doesn't really seem explain the unfairness of squandering a fatted calf on behalf of a wastrel and denying the hard-working son even a young goat.

But did the father ever deny his older son a young goat "to celebrate with my friends"? The older son doesn't actually claim that the father ever denied him anything. What angers the older son is that the father never gave him the goat. And the father replies by saying that "all that is mine is yours," which is a round-about way of the father saying that he couldn't actually give the older son anything, because everything already belonged to the older son (i.e., you can't give something to someone that they already have). If the older son never had a young goat to share with his friends, it was because he never asked for one (or just never took one).

And the father described in the parable does not seem like the sort of father who would work his son like a slave. So if the older son worked like a slave, it was his decision to do so, and not his father's.

Taking these observations one step further, I believe that the older son was waiting for his father to die. The older son was dutiful and served his father, but he had more or less put his own life on hold until his father died and he came into his own inheritance. Only after his father died would he begin to live and enjoy himself. Until then, he would be the dutiful son and work like a slave.

So the parable actually does address the "unfairness" of the father's actions, and shows that what seems to be unfair only seems that way because of the actions and decisions of the older son, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to work like a slave, and not the father. It was the older son who decided never to take a young goat to celebrate with his friends, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to live a boring, unhappy life, and not the father. And the father loved both his sons, and the fact that the older son had decided to make his own life unhappy was not going to stop the father from celebrating the return of the younger son.

So the parable is not just reassurance to the sinners in us that our Father still loves us, but also a wake-up call to the slaves in us that our Father also loves us and that everything our Father has is already ours. It is up to us to enjoy our lives, and to enjoy the world and the gifts that God has given to us.

God's gifts and grace are unlimited and are available to all. If we begrudge God's grace to anyone, it is probably because we have begrudged God's grace to ourselves. If we enjoy our lives and the grace and gifts our Father has given to us, we will not be angry or jealous when our Father celebrates the return of one of our brothers, but we will be able to celebrate with our Father and share our gifts with our returning brother.

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