The Parable of the Slighted Son
Why forgive when no one asks to be forgiven?The parable of the Prodigal Son—I hate it.
Most people like this story because they identify with the prodigal. I guess they regard themselves as squanderers and sinners like the young man. Not me. As a hyper-responsible oldest child, I identify with the elder son. Remember him? Most commentaries and sermons pay scant attention to his role in the narrative. Even though the Bible itself does not give the story a title, tradition calls it the parable of the Prodigal Son, not the parable of the Dutiful Son or even the parable of the Two Brothers. Yet the younger son’s antics constitute only the first half of the tale. The rest of the story is about the older son, the one who stays on the farm with his father, tending the cows and threshing wheat while his no-good brother is off whoring god-knows-where. The elder brother has always done what he was supposed to do. He has played by the rules, obeyed his father, and worked himself to the bone.
No wonder he raises hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back into the father’s good graces. We dutiful older sons know it’s just not fair. What’s the point of always doing what you’re supposed to do if it doesn’t earn you a few advantages? When the prodigal’s father decides to throw a homecoming bash for his lost son, my heart goes out to the elder brother. I am furious with his father. The older son gets no party, no fatted calves, no ruby rings. Instead, dad comes outside with a few words for his sulking son: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15: 31-32).
And that’s where the story ends. Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens next. It might be nice to imagine that the father’s words console the elder brother and convince him to join the party, but I don’t think so. The little speech is pretty lame. It reflects a father’s point of view, not that of a dutiful son. Do our parents really expect us to love our siblings as much as they do? It is easy for me to imagine the elder’s anguish stretching into weeks, months, and maybe years, renewed every time he sees his worthless brother strutting around in his new robe and flashing his fancy ring.
As I said, commentators usually focus on the father’s graciousness towards his younger son, making the story a theological allegory. That’s fine. But forgiveness of a child comes fairly easy for a parent. What loving father would not forgive a wayward son who returns home penitential and humble, no matter how wasteful he has been? There is nothing remarkable in that. The real story of forgiveness in the parable comes into focus when we consider the older son. He too must forgive the younger son, and it will be far harder for him than for the father. And, what’s more, he may also have to forgive his father.
That contention may make little sense if we only think of forgiveness as receiving pardon for violating a rule or a precept. The younger brother did nothing to harm his elder sibling. His recklessness did not diminish the older one’s life in the least. Nor did the father’s joy and spontaneous merry-making at his lost son’s reappearance mean he loved the elder any less. No laws were broken, no commandments were violated, no boundaries transgressed. So what’s to forgive?
Some years ago I came across an idea that helped clarify and deepen my understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness means relinquishment. It’s that simple. To relinquish something is to release whatever power it holds over us. If I forgive someone for a wrong done to me, I no longer allow that event to determine how I treat the other person. I may remember the wrong or I may forget it, but either way I have disarmed it. It no longer determines my actions, thoughts, or words. Forgiveness in this sense is rarely easy or quick. How often do we say, we “forgive” another person, but still hold a secret grudge? Because of its difficulty, forgiveness has to be practiced. It is less an act than a way of living, a discipline, a cultivated skill. I think this is why Jesus told his students to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21). True forgiveness often comes only at the end of an inner struggle.
If we view forgiveness in this light, perhaps we can see why it is necessary for the elder brother to forgive and why it will be so difficult. As long as he regards himself as slighted, that notion will worm its way into his soul and embitter him and make his life a living hell. It hardly matters whether the injustices he suffers were real or imagined. Either way, his struggle is with his own thoughts. The Buddha, a kindred spirit with Jesus on this matter, says it poetically:
“I have been insulted!” “I have been hurt!” “I have been beaten!” “I have been robbed!” Anger and hatred never cease for those who dwell on such thoughts
— Dhammapada 1:3
If we need a reason to forgive, this is a good one. We forgive to be free, to be liberated from the destructive power of anger and hatred. Of course, it’s a lot easier to nourish the thoughts of indignation. It’s hard to surrender the delicious feeling that we’ve suffered unfairly. But ultimately that sense does us no good. The elder brother might wallow in his hurt feelings, but what’s the point of that? How much better for him to let them go, to follow the discipline of relinquishment. Sure, it’s the harder path, but in the end the rewards are worth it.
I’d like to think the older brother realized that.
Copyright ©2004 Mark Muesse