Father Donald Senior. CP

March 31: Fourth Sunday of Lent

March 20, 2019

The older brother

Jos 5:9a, 10-12; Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

What is your favorite passage in the Bible? I suspect that Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son read this Sunday in Lent would surely be in the top five.

This parable is the third in a trilogy taught by Jesus in Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel. Immediately before the story of the prodigal son, we have the parable of the lost sheep (the shepherd leaves 99 behind and searches for the one stray and, when he finds him, rejoices), and the parable of the lost coin (a woman loses a precious coin and searches her house until she finds it and calls in her neighbors to rejoice with her). 

Many commentators on Luke have called these the “mercy” parables. They are triggered by the opening verses that are included in our reading. The religious authorities complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds by telling these three parables, each drenched in compassion and mercy for those who are lost.

Of the three, the story of the prodigal son is by far the most complex and compelling. It is a story about a father and his two sons. The younger one insults the father, asking for his inheritance before the father’s death and then goes off, squandering his father’s hard-earned wealth “on a life of dissipation.” 

Reduced to a job of feeding swine (no doubt Jesus’ Jewish audience chuckled at this detail), and feeling hungry and in dire straits, he decides to go back to his father’s house. He rehearses his speech so he can get back into his father’s good graces.

But, true to form, this younger son underestimates his father. Standing at the end of the road, searching the horizon, and waiting and hoping — as many parents do for a lost adult child — the father runs to him and smothers his son in kisses before he can get out his set speech. The father welcomes him back as his son, not as a hired hand: “Quickly, bring the finest robe … put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet ... then let us celebrate with a feast.”

The story could end there as in the previous two parables. The lost is found, so let rejoicing begin. But Jesus’ keen understanding of our human nature propels the story to another level. 

There is the older brother. Coming back from the fields, he hears the “sound of music and dancing” and discovers, to his dismay, that it is for his no-good brother. He refuses to join the party.

Now the father must embrace his older son as well. The son is indignant and hurt and jealous: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders and you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”

The father reaches out to this son, too: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

The story ends here. What did the elder brother do? Did he accept the embrace of his father and go into the party, with perhaps even an awkward embrace of his younger brother? Or did let his anger and hurt overwhelm him and stalk off, leaving his father with another broken heart?

And who is this “elder brother”? Is he a reflection of the religious authorities at the beginning of the story who resent Jesus’ lavish mercy for the “tax collectors and sinners”? Or was this story meant for those always faithful Jewish Christians who were troubled that Gentiles could so easily come into the Christian community?

What about us? Are we that elder brother ourselves when we underestimate God’s forgiving love? Or when we think of God as a stern taskmaster and not as a loving parent ready to embrace us? Or how do we deal with those who have hurt us or failed us: a spouse, a child, a friend? These are good Lenten questions.


Jos 5:9a, 10-12; Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32


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