Like any good parent, the Prodigal Son son’s dad wanted what was best for both of his sons. Despite growing up in the same home, both sons had unique gifts and ultimately chose different paths early on. Despite their age differences, the wise father understood that both sons still needed him in their lives, but in different ways.
He knew that they still needed his words, presence and touch close by to continue guiding them towards maturation. And since kids often do what parents do rather than what parents say, the wise father also knew that he needed to model that which each son spiritually and morally needed. Only in this way could they benefit now from his wisdom and also later as they continued to grow and mature into spiritually mature men.
What did each son spiritually lack? What did the Prodigal son’s dad want most for both sons? That each would grow to have, the Heart of God.
He for whom the parable was named, seems to be the prototypical youngest (spoiled) sibling: outspoken, demanding and unashamedly immature. He was blissfully ignorant – about his own ignorance and the great blessings he had received in life – having always benefited from the work and sacrifices of the family. His young pride filled heart failed to realize that it desired to flee from the very source of its blessings: God and family.
It is very possible that the young son’s heart simply became inflated first by his family’s wealth and social power and also by his own youthful ignorance(s) – including an ignorance of what family had sheltered him from as a child: the world’s harshness and evil.
After falling into abject poverty and experiencing “the ‘REAL’ world” – which takes no prisoners – the prodigal son began to mature as he reflected on his choices in life. Perhaps, Ssmewhere during this process while on the road home, he may have even took some ownership for his decisions…
While journeying home, the prodigal son probably also noticed that his heart was now a bit different! His once hardened heart – which had been kicked and pounded – now found itself much more humble, grateful and truly more open to listening than ever before.
He was now, more prepared for the heart lessons that the father would teach and model for him. Like how to truly win in life’s struggle to live for God and family and how notlose by making false gods like money, power, fame, pleasure, etc. that are offered by the world.
Like how to willingly sacrifice and contribute to the family’s well being… Like understanding his brother’s anger, honestly acknowledging and accepting it as real, without meeting or returning it in kind but choosing to love him anyway… Like living with a graced filled heart that is big enough to live in hope and faith as it waits for his brother’s heart to change over time – however long that may be…
The oldest son was obviously more than just a tad bit older than his younger brother, and had displayed throughout his young adult life both disciplined hard work and respect for family and societal norms. Despite regularly fulfilling every letter of the religious law – attending every religious ritual and meeting all the commandments like not to lie, steal, kill, etc. – somehow his heart still became (or remained) hardened.
Many of us have friends or coworkers like this… They can tax us and sometimes make us ask, “…Now, why am I her/his friend again?” Even in our families we may be able to find one who seems to fulfill every letter of the law, but who struggles mightily to smile, express and to show love and joy daily – the Spirit of the Law! Unfortunately, some families with BOTH parents like this rarely experience the true, simple Spirit of Christian love in family life, since from both barrels/parents they are getting the Christian drill Sargent/Judge enforcing the letter of God’s law…
Its tough to say what may prompt one’s heart to become hardened… However, from studying Bowen Family System Theory in residency and seeing its teachings play out in families at the hospital, I do know there is some truth to the reality of the oldest child resenting/hating the youngest in the family – for any number of reasons. Sometimes this sibling resentment and/or hate is acknowledged, discussed and intentionally acted on as in the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers, but at other times it can lurk undercover in the background of one’s heart as it influences one’s decisions unconsciously.
Despite being the oldest who had always obediently followed the letter of the law, this son also needed his father’s guidance and modeling like younger son did. In fact, because of his age, some might argue that his heart actually needed it more and that he was the most immature! Apparently, like a holiday turkey, his heart had been slowly basting with hidden and unspoken resentments over time… Over the years his quiet, steady self-basting produced a nearly formed and hardened, pride smathered crust that was trying to form a perfect me-myself-and I-shell around his still immature heart. But the father was quietly watching and waiting for this son too…
When the older son used his history to contrast and argue against his brother, the dad knew the depths of his oldest son’s real problems. His comparison did not reflect the natural pride of immaturity like his brother’s did, but that quiet, deep and often unspoken spiritual pride found in many older folks. These kind of people devalue others for struggling or outright failing to ‘make the mark and/or meet expectations’ that they, because of their own giftedness, etc. have been able to meet relatively easily. They elevate themselves and debase others based on their perceptions of one’s personal achievement, success, etc.
At best, the parable leaves unanswered the question as to whether this son’s heart actually changed. However, knowing the father’s great love for his sons and his continued presence in their lives, we can hope and have faith that the oldest son’s heart did eventually change. Despite going away upset and refusing the invitation to celebrate his brother’s return, there is still hope for the oldest son as long as the father is present.
Why? Because his dad will continue to hope, pray, work and model for the oldest son – even though it may seem hopeless – in the same way he hoped, prayed and awaited the return of the youngest son. God the Father simply never gives up on us, his children!!!
Whether our heart is young or old, ignorant or hardened, God is present and waiting, inviting and begging for us to ‘come to the shop and get our hearts fixed!”
God the Father, like the Prodigal Son’s Dad, simply wants each of our hearts to become like His: full of love and willing to serve others with our gifts!!!
God sent his Son, Jesus to save us AND modeled for us how to grow and develop a Heart of God. God has also given us the Holy Spirit via baptism to lead, guide and to transform our hearts from within.
May all that you encounter these Spring days – the good/bad, the sun/rain and the common/everyday – by grace, work to transform your life and your heart!!! May your heart grow to be more like God’s this Spring, sharing God’s joy through your gifts, and letting His joy spill forth from your heart both at home and at work. Amen.