In Exodus 32, Moses has gone up on Mount Sinai to talk to God. Almost immediately after he left, the Israelites fall into idolatry, worshiping a golden calf (Ex. 32:1-6). God is displeased, and says to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Ex. 32:7). Moses responds by pointing the finger back at God: “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (Ex. 32:11).
|Juan Fernández Navarrete, Baptism of Christ (1567)|
On one level, this dialogue is almost comical, like two sleep-exhausted parents saying to one another: “your son is crying again, you’d better go take care of him.” But there’s an important message being conveyed. We belong to God, we belong to the Church, and we belong to one another. We are our brothers’ keepers (Gen. 4:9).
Sonship is an important theme within the New Testament, both Christ’s and ours. For example, at His Baptism, the Father says of Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22). And immediately after this, Jesus goes into the desert, where the devil unsuccessfully attacks this filial identity, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Lk. 4:3). As for us, St. Paul writes, in Romans 8:15-17,
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
It’s this sonship, this filial identity, that the devil seeks to undermine through sin. We see this illustrated well in the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A more accurate name for this parable is the Parable of the Two Sons, because it’s told in response to the Pharisees, who are represented by the prodigal’s older brother, and who were complaining that Jesus dined with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 15:1-3).
The parable is well known, so I won’t summarize it. Instead, I want to focus on the ending of the parable, in which the older brother is so upset that his Father rejoices at the prodigal’s return that he refuses to go into his Father’s House (Lk. 15:28). This action, even in isolation, is a dramatic action of alienation from what should be his family, but the son doesn’t stop there. His Father rushes out to comfort him (Lk. 15:28), just as he had done to his younger brother (Lk. 15:20). The older brother, the rigorist, says to his Father (Lk. 15:29-30),
Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!
|Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665)|
The contrast between the two brothers is stark. The younger brother, even at his worst, always referred to his Father as Father (Lk. 15:12, 17, 18, 21). At his lowest, the prodigal decides to return to the Father, and to say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk. 15:18-19). He only makes it halfway through his prepared speech before his Father prepares a welcome home party for him (Lk 15:21-22).
The rigorist, on the other hand, doesn’t address his Father as Father. Instead, this son treats himself as if he’s a hired servant. He says that “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command,” and it’s on this basis, rather than on the basis of sonship, that he expects the Father to give him nice things. The extreme of the rigorist brother’s alienation can be seen when he describes his brother as “this son of yours.” That phrase is packed with meaning.
It’s an implicit denial of the brotherhood between the two sons, and it’s also an implicit denial of the older son’s sonship. In this way, Christ shows an oft-overlooked truth of Christianity: you can’t have God as Father without Christians as your brothers. Or, as St. Cyprian of Carthage put it, back in the third century, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” We want the King without His Kingdom, and Jesus always reminds us that this just isn’t possible. You can’t honor the first great commandment, love of God, while rejecting the second great commandment, love of neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). Being a child of God means being having the rest of the Church for your brothers and sisters, period.
There are many beautiful scenes in this parable, but one of the best is the Father’s response to his older son (Lk. 15:31-32): “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” He simultaneously reminds his rigorist son both that (a) he’s His son, and (b) the prodigal is his brother. In this way, the Father mends his son’s damaged relationship, both with Himself and with his brother.
And suddenly, the two brothers don’t look so different. Both, by their sins, alienate themselves from their Father’s House. The prodigal does it more dramatically, demanding his Father’s inheritance, and running off “into a far country” (Lk. 15:13), while the rigorist just stays a little outside the House, angrily (Lk. 15:25-28). The low point of the prodigal comes when a man sends the prodigal “into his fields to feed swine” (Lk. 15:15), and so it’s fitting that the “elder son was in the field,” also (Lk. 15:25). Both sons feel themselves reduced from sons to servants by their sins, and in both cases, the Father rushes out to restore them to their proper place as sons.
|Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel (1637)|
Both sons also show the sheer ugliness of sin. One brother chooses to indulge the sins of the flesh, the other chooses to indulge self-righteousness. Both are left miserable and alone. Consider, once more, the older son’s reaction to his younger brother’s return. Remember that while the older brother was working (joylessly) for his Father, his son was engaged in what Scripture calls “loose living” (Lk. 15:13). The older brother is scandalized that his brother might go unpunished after all of this behavior, and it’s hard not to read a hint of jealousy in all of this. If this behavior is to go unpunished, perhaps the pharisaic brother would like to do some “loose living” of his own.
This reaction is one that I think a lot of Christians are guilty of: we’ll hear the conversion story of someone who’s lived a life of sex, drugs, partying, and the rest, and some part of us will think, “they got the best of both worlds! They indulged all of those vices, and they’re still going to end up in Heaven!” But here’s what that reaction misses: the younger brother, while engaged in this sinful lifestyle, was miserable (Lk. 15:13-17):
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!”
The younger brother had be reduced, in a way, to something sub-servile, and long after the veneer of the “glamour of evil” had worn off (which happens almost immediately, “not many days later”), the son is dying alone, in isolation from the Father. That’s what sin really looks like.
It’s a diabolical deception to imagine sin as something that’s lots of fun now, as long as we avoid the eternal consequences. The reality is that the hellishness of sin begins here on Earth. Gluttons, the promiscuous, addicts, thieves, bullies, and the like aren’t just punished hereafter. They’re almost invariably miserable here and now. If we miss this point, we miss something fundamental about sin: it can never satisfy us, because we’re made for God alone, and only He can satisfy us.
|Guercino, Return of the Prodigal Son (1619)|
We see this in the sinful rigorism of the older brother. Once again, the older brother has less of a flare for the dramatic than his younger brother, but he arrives at the same place. He’s also out in the fields, and he’s also descended into misery. He claims to be upset that he hasn’t been given the opportunity to “make merry with my friends” (Lk. 15:29), but he says this while refusing to go into a merry party. He can even hear the music and dancing (Lk. 15:25), and yet he’d rather mope, clinging to an unsatisfying self-righteousness, envy, and anger. If a merry party is really what his heart desires, the Father has prepared one already in full-swing.
This parable shows us that, just as we belong to God, we belong to one another as brothers and sisters. In that light, the older brother should have rejoiced to see his brother return, just as the Father did. After all, this brother is part of the Father’s legacy, part of the “inheritance” the Father has bestowed upon his sons.