I have often thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son is inappropriately named. I think a more appropriate name for the parable is the parable of the Lost Sons.
It seems to me that both sons are lost in their own ways. The lostness of the younger son, the prodigal, is evident. He moves away from the Father. He leads a debauched life. The lostness of the older son is only made evident later. He leads the externally good life. His lostness consists not in leaving and losing possessions, but in his disdain for his brother.
The parable of the Lost Sons is actually the third parable in a set of parables Jesus told to the Scribes and Pharisees because they objected to Jesus’ eating with those whom they disdained: tax collectors and sinners. Jesus tells them first the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one, and the parable of the widow who searches for the lost coin. These two parables emphasize the longing of the shepherd and the widow, and the lengths to which they will go to find what is lost, and the joy they experience upon finding it. Similarly, in the third parable, of the Lost Sons, we see the Father and the Prodigal and the joy of finding what was lost, but another element is now added. The additional element is the older brother, who does not partake in the joy. This Older Brother corresponds to the religious professionals, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who separate themselves and find no joy in the repentance of the fallen brother.
What makes religious people, of whom I am chief, so inclined to the sort of lostness we see in the Older Brother? One factor may be the tendency to focus on performance and possessions. Shortly after I converted to Orthodoxy, one of my best friends, who was ordained deacon with me, went off the deep end. I don’t know what snapped, but he left his wife and four young children and began leading a prodigal life and abusing prescription drugs. I was so angry with him. I wanted to beat him up and yell at him and tell him to grow up. When the bishop met with the clergy to discuss what to do about the situation, I told him that I was very angry with this deacon. Immediately the bishop flared up and forcefully rebuked me: “You have no right to be angry. Mercy, we pray only for mercy. Put away your anger.” I was shocked. My anger had blinded me. Suddenly I realized that I only saw the terrible performance, the wasted life, and the failure. I didn’t see the brokenness and the confusion. I didn’t see the lostness. Instead of letting my heart be broken, I hardened my heart with anger.
Because of my anger, I couldn’t feel compassion. In the parable, as soon as the Father sees the returning Prodigal, it says that “he felt compassion.” Compassion means ‘to suffer with.’ Because the Father suffered with the Son, he could rejoice at his return. The Older Brother in his anger and hardness of heart could feel no compassion. He did not suffer with his lost Brother, so he could not rejoice at his return. It seems to me that there is a correlation between suffering and rejoicing. As Jesus said of the woman who washed His feet with her tears that she loved much because she was forgiven much, I think people who rejoice most are those who have most suffered. And those with compassion, those who suffer with those who suffer, rejoice much with them. But the Older Brother felt no compassion. He saw no suffering. He saw only waste.
The Older Brother was consequently envious also. I spoke with a cradle Orthodox man recently who told me how amazed he is at how zealous and knowledgable converts to Orthodoxy often are. “They go early to services, fast and pray diligently and read lots of books–it is as though the hard work of living an Orthodox life is a joy to them. Why is that?” he wondered. I suggested that it is because many converts went through years and years of wandering through spiritual deserts searching for the water they have found in Holy Orthodoxy. Many also paid a high price in the loss of family, friends and sometimes even comfortable jobs in order to convert to Holy Orthodoxy. These who have suffered much, love much. They would have been happy to be “one of the hired servants” in the house of Holy Orthodoxy, to “eat from the crumbs that fall from the table.” Yet that they are received as sons and daughters is delight beyond their dreams, privilege to be savoured, and cause for eternal thankfulness. My cradle Orthodox friend got it, but unfortunately sometimes, as in the parable, the Older Brother doesn’t.
The Older Brother had everything: “All that I possess is yours” the Father tells him; yet he enjoys none of it. It is only a labour, an obedience, a discipline to be good and to conform to expectations. He has lost sight of the end. The family does not exist to tend the ranch, the ranch exist to sustain the family. If he disdains his brother, then the ranch loses its meaning, its purpose. In the same way, spiritual labours and disciplines exist for a purpose. We strive to become holy so that we can better love God and neighbor. If we disdain our neighbor, then religious striving loses all meaning. Like the Older Brother, although we possess everything, we end up enjoying nothing. We hear the dancing and merry making of the Great Feast, and we stay away. We refuse to enter even Heaven itself because this one or that one who had disappointed or offended us is there. We sit outside and feel sorry for ourselves, complaining that the Father was not good enough to us.
It seems to me that compassion is key. Just as I had no understanding of what went wrong in the head of my friend and fellow deacon, so we often see those we love and care about make foolish, foolish choices. We watch helplessly as those we love self destruct, as they attack all who try to help them. We don’t know what went wrong. Sometimes the pain–perhaps from self blame–is so great that we are tempted either to despair or to hardness of heart. There is, however, a third option: compassion, to suffer with. We suffer with not by co-dependency. Suffering with does not imply enabling. We suffer with by not hiding from the pain in our hearts, but rather by offering that pain to God in fervent prayer. God is the only one who saves.
My attitude changed almost immediately toward my deacon friend. In tears I carried his pain and the pain of his family in prayer. For about a year or longer this unbearable situation continued. He even stopped by my house once toward the end, when it looked like he might even pull out of it, to thank me for being publicly supportive of him and his family. He soon found a wise and compassionate priest and was able to make his confession and even receive the Holy Mysteries. Three days later he was found dead of an apparently accidental overdose of the prescription drug he had been abusing.
Why there are Prodigals, I don’t know. But I do know that those who do not wander, those who stay close to home, these are called not to condemn, but to suffer with their wandering brothers. Perhaps if we can learn how to bear the pain of our lost brothers in our hearts before God now, then we can all dance together at the Heavenly Party when the Father receives back home all His lost sons.