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Note: On the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent this year, the Church offers a choice of using the scripture readings for Year A or Year C. Since we will celebrate the First Scrutiny of the Christian Initiation of Adults at this Sunday’s 7 PM Mass with Wil Martins who will be baptized this Easter, we will be using the Year A readings in the Chapel. The reflection that is offered here, however, is for the Year C readings.
I am the elder son!
A Sunday School class had just been hearing about the parable of the prodigal son. “Now,” said the teacher, “who was not happy to learn of the prodigal son’s return?” A student replied: “the fattened calf!” Well, the elder also was not happy about that. We often hear about the younger son or the father. Today let us focus on the attitude of the elder son. I know a little bit more about the elder son because I myself am the oldest of three brothers. They are wonderful brothers. Now you know why my parents sent me to a religious community. They wanted to keep their best children at home! I am going to talk about the attitude of the elder son by using the word “Joe.” J stands for joy, O for outside and E for expectation. By the way, Joe is a familiar name to me because my Christian name is Joseph.
Upon the younger son’s arrival, the father threw a party for him. The celebration began and the elder son was not yet present. When the elder son returned from the field, he heard music and dancing which were the external signs of exceptional joy. He perceived an unusual festive atmosphere in the house and did not want to come in. His withdrawal spoke volumes about his deep desire. He stayed away from the exceptional joy in the house as if it were not personally addressed to him. He was far away from the movement of joy as if it were out of his reach. Instead of joining his family in a joyful celebration, the elder son decided to keep his distance.
We wonder whether the spontaneous reaction of the elder son revealed his own personality. Did he hate friendly parties, family meals and festive gatherings? Was he truly an antisocial person? Did he deeply feel excluded from the joy of encounter? In any event, by staying outside, the elder son gave us to understand that he had no place in the feast of life. He stayed away from what is livable, enjoyable and sociable. Notice that the elder son was already unable to enter the house before he knew about his brother’s arrival. In other words, it was not the arrival of his brother that prevented him from entering the party. Rather, the festive atmosphere stopped him getting into a place where, in his perception, joy was absent. He excluded himself from the house and from everyone even before having good reasons for doing so. Indeed, staying outside because of the exceptional joy within, he found a reason to remain there when he learned about his brother’s homecoming.
The elder son’s refusal to enter the house was not, however, totally negative. His act of refusing could be understood as the first step towards a “return to himself.” While staying outside, the elder son hinted at a first step towards his deeper desire: he did not want any more to enter the house as a slave to his father. This is the first time in the story that the elder son expressed his own desire. For the time being, the elder son knew only what he did not want. Later we will see how he had difficulty in expressing what he really wanted.
Like his elder brother, the young brother had also made a first step toward a “return to himself” while staying outside the country. Faced with famine in a foreign country, the young son imagined that the hired servants in his father’s house had bread in abundance. It was not true at all because even the elder son, the only son left after the younger son’s departure, did not have food in abundance. If the inheritor did not have a goat to feast on with his friends, how could the servants enjoy bread in abundance? In any event, while staying outside, both sons felt excluded from the father’s resources: joy in abundance and food in abundance. They also felt frustrated. The elder son did not want to enter the house and felt angry. The younger son wanted to return home, not as a son but as a hired servant. Be that as it may, the two sons experienced a fertile solitude. Each of them could say to himself: I am alone right now because I am not worthy to be with others. Their rupture was painful but fruitful. Only when they were aware of their separation from others could they begin to think about themselves and their desire to live their own lives.
When the elder son remained in his feeling of exclusion and refused to enter the house, the father went outside to meet him. The father joined the elder son where he was, in his suffering. Instead of making a long speech, he entreated his son. His attitude allowed his son to express the dissatisfaction that he held deep down for many years: “you never gave me a young goat to feast on with my friends.” The elder son began to be aware of his lack of joy. For many years, the elder son served his father as a slave and did not have any of the joy of encounter. Life for him was joyless. Notice that even though the elder son did not have any joy in life, he expected something from his father. This expectation is clearer if we translate the complaint of the elder son literally: “to me you have never given.” Indeed, the elder son expected a gift that was personally meant for him. He was waiting for a specific thing just for himself. He did not, however, know how to express his deepest need. While he desired to have something intended for himself personally, he complained to his father for not giving him even a young goat.
We find a similarity between the request for a young goat and the offering of the fattened calf. In the reasoning of the elder son, if his brother had a fattened calf, he wanted to have a young goat. The elder son looks like a child who wants the same toy as his brother. Aside from that, however, the complaint of the elder son helps us to understand better his anger. For many years, he devotedly worked for his father and expected a young goat to feast on with his friends, namely to share joy with others. But he never received that gift. As for his younger brother, after squandering his part of the inheritance having fun in abundance with women, he received a fattened calf upon coming home. His prodigal brother got what was denied to him even though he was obedient to all his father’s orders. This is what made his suffering unbearable. Notice also that the elder son did not expect to have two or three goats. Only one goat would have made him happy. He did not dare to desire the fullness of joy. He did not know how to live to the fullest.
Lent is a journey toward joy. This joy is not easy to attain but always possible if we are willing to improve the understanding of ourselves and our relationship with others. This joy is possible if we dare to be fully happy and fully alive. By following the elder son and by learning from his mistakes, we will know how to overcome our feeling of exclusion to have access to the full joy of life and to the full joy of resurrection.
Prayer: Merciful Father, help us to express our deepest desire even in the form of a complaint.
Resolution: Compare my attitude with that of the elder son and share it with my brother or sister.