Monday, March 7, 2016

The Merciful Father and our Innner "Older Brother"

At various points in our lives, the Good Shepherd throws us on his shoulders and carries us home.  Like the Prodigal Son, we receive a lavish welcome back--the grace of a new beginning.
However, once we've returned, we often run the risk of becoming the "older brother." We find ourselves called to be merciful like the Father, but often feel that it is easier to ask for mercy than to show it.

In point of fact, Jesus' most powerful parable about the Merciful Father is directed to the Pharisees and Scribes of his day--the consummate "older brother" crowd.  These seemingly committed "insiders" provide the immediate context for the parable by complaining about both the content and the methods of Jesus' teaching: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:2).

In response, Jesus essentially throws a medley of mercy at them, culminating in the parable most commonly known as the Prodigal Son.  Yet what if those of us who hear the story today are supposed to consider the Merciful Father not just from the perspective of the lost son, but also from the perspective of the haunting "older brother"?


The best of the Pharisees and Scribes must have heard the start of the parable about the lost son with a dawning sense of familiarity:  Yes, good Teacher, you are reminding me of my own wayward days as a youth. I recall how demanding I was of my father, how I rejoiced in and abused my freedom, how the life of dissipation seemed to come so naturally. 

Such Pharisees and Scribes might have even remembered their own bottom out moments—starving to death while tending the unclean swine!  They may have fondly recalled their process of conversion, their commitment to apologize, and their journey home.

Jesus’ relentless feasting with sinners could have open their eyes to the fact that their turn from the path of sin was never primarily about their change of heart.  It was about the merciful heart of the Father--the prevenient grace of the Lord--drawing them ineluctably home.  It was the presupposed conviction that mercy awaited them, even if it ended up exceeding all their expectations.

The worst of the Pharisees and Scribes must have leered and jeered their way through the story as they heard Jesus describe the younger son, however.  How happy they must have been to hear of the demise of the sinner!  They might have even nodded in approval, even as the whitewashed tombs of their hearts secretly envied the son’s avarice and gluttony and lust.

The turn of Jesus’ story to the lavish response of the Father would have struck them as nonsense, mere sentimentality on the part of the Teacher.  Perhaps they might have even thought to themselves, “We all know that this isn’t how life works, don’t we?” Or more dramatically: “This is not our God!”

But then the punchline arrives, purposefully directed at these most hardened of hearers: They are the older son; they are the point of the story.  “Look,” the older son says—as in “Listen here, old man”—“all these years I have served you and not once did I disobey your orders” (Lk 15:29).  They are the Accusers, and their very own Father is on trial.  In their minds, it is their service and their obedience which counts, not the gift of their identity in relation to the Father, and not the Father’s overflowing generosity.

Perhaps the Father’s reply cut them to the core: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours…” (Lk 15:31).  If so, these hardened Pharisees and Scribes may have entered the house to celebrate and rejoice; they may have realized that were the ones who had been dead but had come to life again. Lost, indeed, perhaps they had been found.


The motto for this Jubilee Year, “Merciful Like the Father,” calls all baptized Christians to become perfect like our heavenly Father—to stop judging, to stop condemning, and to start celebrating the fact that everything the Father has is ours. Indeed, this Year challenges us to transform our own inner "older brother," so that we might gaze upon everyone we meet with the merciful eyes of the Good Shepherd.

After all, the Father wants us to rejoice with Him, even as He wants to send us out to help carry home others who are lost and wandering aimlessly.