The Prodigal Son: Humility and Pride

I’m about halfway through Fr. James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage. In this particular chapter I was reading last night, Martin was exploring the parable of the Prodigal Son. For the Christians who know it – it’s a really tough one to swallow. In fact, for me, I’d say it’s the hardest. It’s like Jesus is saying, “Get over yourself. Yes, you work hard. Yes, you’re noble and loyal. But you’re not any better than someone who doesn’t.”

For those unfamiliar with the parable, it’s a story of a father and 2 sons. The younger one pleads for his inheritance early and takes it and squanders it. Debauchery, prostitution, drugs, and vice. The older brother stays at his father’s farm and works diligently for his father, not taking any of his father’s money. Then out of change of heart or something, the younger brother comes home. He admits that he has disrespected his father. He begs for forgiveness and even says, “Consider me your worker now.” Out of excitement for his son’s homecoming, the father throws a huge celebration and brings out the best wine and meat he has on his farm. Naturally, the older brother is a little unsettled and, well, quite frankly, sour. He tells his father, “I’ve been nothing but loyal and committed to doing your work.” And the father says, “Yes, but your brother has come home! We must share joy for him.”

Now. We’ve all been the younger brother and the older brother. But I, and I don’t think I’m alone, feel like the older brother far more often than the younger one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve compared my blessings to someone else’s and muttered, “But I’ve worked harder for mine.”

As someone who takes her faith pretty seriously, I feel like I labor for my faith. I go to mass, I go to confession, I read the bible, I try (try being key word) to avoid sin. But look at all these guys who don’t work for it, right? Look at all these people who haven’t been to church in years, who do all the things we’re “not supposed to do” and they’re not just surviving, they’re thriving. It makes a girl wonder, “Why even bother??”

And so what are we supposed to take away from the prodigal son parable? To me, it’s the most unfulfilling message. The message is, “Don’t compare yourself to others, refrain from envy, and share joy in others’ successes and homecomings.” Well, gee, thanks. And we don’t get anything from it? Nope. Maybe holiness. But as I told a friend the other day, “Ya know, the path to holiness is no picnic.”

In other news, the path to holiness isn’t actually really even about me. Or how much I work. Or how hard I try. It’s not about people knowing how hard I try. It’s not about pleasure, and it’s not even about happiness. At least, not happiness in the 21st century way. (Happiness has gotten terribly misconstrued.)

So as I watch my friends who claim no faith, who see no value in religion, I’m supposed to be happy for their joy in life. And I’m supposed to share it. Because joy is a universal language. Regardless of who you pray to. And somewhere along the road, I might be one step close to a better person for it.

As Fr. James Martin put it, “We may act like the wayward younger brother and feel like the hardworking elder brother, but in the end we are called to be like the merciful father.”

Did that do you a dose of humility? Cuz it sure did for me.

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