'A man had two sons' is almost as familiar as 'once upon a time'. Jesus' story of the prodigal son, which begins with these words, is one of the greatest stories ever told. I was introduced to it in school as the parable of the prodigal son. Later a clever scripture scholar taught me that it was more accurately described as the parable of the prodigal father. In a third moment I heard it preached about as the parable of the elder brother, that he is the key figure in the story. And one year I heard a preacher, perhaps a bit desperate for a fresh angle on it, describing it as the parable of the unsuspecting calf. That's probably not going to be a runner as, indeed, neither was the poor calf!
All three human characters are important and teach us something about ourselves, about our relationships with others, and about God.
The younger son is the best known character in the story, the one who is anxious to leave home and go away, have a good time and see the world. His request for his inheritance says to his father, in effect, 'it's time you were dead': give me my inheritance, let's read the will now. One can imagine the kind of wound that must be to a father and yet he lets him go. The son's departure is a radical rejection of 'home'. In his eagerness to be gone, to have new experiences and find something more sophisticated and more exciting than what he has been given at home, the younger son had become insensitive to the love of his father.
Worse is to follow as he wastes what he has been given, falls on hard times and finds himself reduced to looking after pigs, hungering even to share their food. It is difficult to imagine anybody sinking lower. He is completely lost, his plans and dreams in tatters round his feet, adrift in an alien and foreign land.
But, the gospel tells us, 'he came to himself'. What does this mean? It is the turning point of his story and so is worth pondering. Henri Nouwen, meditating on Rembrandt's painting of the return of the prodigal, interprets it to mean 'he remembered whose son he was'. He remembered his father. He is unable to claim anything more from his father who has already given him his share of the inheritance. All he can stand on is the fact that he is his son. He feels unworthy now to be counted as his father's son but conceives the hope that his father will take him back as a servant in the household. So he takes the long journey home, long at least in terms of the moral courage required.
While some people will find it easy to identify with the rake, the younger son, others may well see themselves in the older one and sympathise with his position. After all he has been working hard for his father. He stayed with him at home, tried to do his best, looked after the family property. We can understand his dismay when the wastrel comes home, having destroyed a goodly portion of the family's property, and the father welcomes him back like a hero and throws a great feast in his honour.
The elder brother has the more difficult task if he is to come home to his brother in spite of resentment and bitterness. He refuses to join the party. He cannot enter into that joy. There is a great tragedy here as a good person finds himself alienated from home, struggling with things from which it is more difficult to be converted. we are not told whether the elder son was able to make the journey required of him. In the context in which the story is told, he represents the Pharisees and scribes who are murmuring at Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them. We know that some of them at least were not able to enter into Jesus' way of understanding God's salvation and we know the price that Jesus was asked to pay in order to convince the elder brother.
The father appeals to the elder son to come to himself, in other words to remember whose son and brother he is. In referring to the prodigal as 'this son of yours' the elder brother disowns him and, in effect, disowns his father also. In reply the father reminds him that it is his brother who was dead and is alive. Like his younger brother, the elder son needs to remember who he is, where he belongs, where home is. He must let go of rivalry, acknowledge the reach of his father's love, and be grateful for it if he is ever to share in the common joy, the 'sound of angels cheering' as a sinner repents and returns to the household.
The story has an open ending and we are not told what the elder brother said or did next. In Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity there is a space at the front of the picture and a place set at the table for us, the ones looking at it. Perhaps this parable does the same in literary form, ending with the eyes of the characters on us who have up to now been looking at them. How am I, how are you, to be reconciled with your father and your brother, with your mother and your sister? The story of the prodigal son and the elder brother does not end on a page of the gospel text but in the life of each of us as we struggle with difficulties similar to theirs.
The third character in the story is the father, old and, in Rembrandt's painting, almost blind, but full of compassion, watching out for his son and rushing to meet him before he arrives at the house. He represents for us the heart of God, which is rich in mercy and open to all equally. This is the first and everlasting love which has brought us into being and which sustains us in all our ways even when those ways involve journeys through selfishness and ruin, through resentment and bitterness. We may see ourselves in one of the sons. We may even see ourselves in both. But we are called to see ourselves also in the father, to live from the nature which He has shared with us, becoming merciful, as he is merciful.