No wonder he raises
hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back
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?
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
and embitter him and make his life a living hell. It hardly matters whether
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,