When I was young and brainless, I went to what one used to call 'Sunday School'. A sort of casual, Sunday afternoon hour of religious instruction for young would-be-future-Christians. Later on I attended 'Confirmation Classes' for a short while. It may have been there that I tried to follow an interpretation of the parable, The Prodigal Son. As it was badly told, I suspect that it was the curate's personal interpretation of the story, because at one time I was rude enough to yawn, and this so annoyed the curate, who may have thought he had special ties with God, that he insisted that I leave his class immediately. It's probable that this event planted the first seeds of doubt in my mind about the merits of religious instruction, and encouraged me to find my own spiritual chemin.
At school it was thought that I was what one then called 'a late developer', but it was more probable that, although unaware of it at the time, I was growing deaf, and was consequently less able to follow the lessons as thoroughly as was required. Because of this I naturally withdrew more and more into my own dream world of relative silence, at least until my state became obvious enough for something to be done about it, to try to stop the process from getting worse.
But to return to the Prodigal (spendthrift) Son. It was retold in such a way that the veritable essence of the story was lost. The class was thus led to believe that the eldest son who had stayed at home serving his father dutifully, was perfectly justified in thinking that his father was wrong to welcome home and generously celebrate the return of his younger brother. After all, he had asked for his inheritance then had wandered off to squander it on wine and women, (which might be considered reasonable to start with) and now he comes back and its big celebration time, with a fattened calf no less, whilst for the same period his elder brother has been obediently carrying out all the boring, paternal duties and domestic chores, and for all his pains he was never once even offered a scraggy old goat to ever celebrate with his own friends.
But the whole point of the story is that the celebration of the return of The Prodigal Son is perfectly justified. Would it be wrong to believe that the parable is not only a reflection of all pardoning, divine love, and the boundless mercy of God? It's true that with his carefree, youthful vanity and confidence intact, the younger son leaves home and recklessly spends all his money, but the story relates that there was a famine in the region he had reached. Also because of this he eventually suffers terribly from poverty and is forced to work as a swineherd. Even then he considers that the pigs he has to tend are better off than he is.
He realises that he is slowly dying of hunger whilst his father has many servants and still food to spare. At the same time he is resolved- '(...) I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'(...)' (Luke 15 : 17-20).
What is often unappreciated is the fact that the youngest son was venturesome enough to leave home and try, even though unsuccessfully, to live his own life independantly. He recognises his own dismal failure and already has enough humility to admit it. He never expects to be royally received by his father. On the contrary, yet such is the welcome that he doesn't even have the opportunity to say the words that he has constantly been churning over in his mind during his return peregrination.
The celebration is precisely for this. His father (who loves his sons equally) is wise enough to know the value of humility. The feast of the fattened calf is to celebrate not only the return of the younger son, it is to acclaim his reaching the threshhold of maturity, his being able to reconcile with himself having become aware of his own fragility and limitations. It's to celebrate his humility in recognising this and being able to admit his failure. His father would have lived long enough to know that what is generally considered as success, can often be illusory and transient. He would know the principle that in order to attain virtue and real happiness, it's often necessary to first negotiate the path of temptation that leads to sin, misery and failure.
The eldest son preferred homely security rather than to take his own chance in life. He never had such an initiation experience. He has yet to learn, and the jealousy that he has for his younger brother is proof of this.
His father explains to him- 'But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.' (Luke 15 : 32).
Isn't this simple explanation a precis of the Prodigal Son's positive evolution and reconciliation with himself?
Perhaps one could conclude that those who misinterpret the story of The Prodigal Son, (including the vain curate who couldn't abide yawners) are acting in the same way as the eldest son. As they more readily identify and commiserate with him, they would therefore be more likely to react as he did. Perhaps they have never experienced the humiliation and sufferance one feels from failure. After having ventured out at an early age eager to make one's fortune and confident of success, finally to be confronted with having to acknowledge one's own illusions. To come to terms with oneself, and then to have to find the courage to return, after having failed. For ironically, this experience is an essential part of the process of reaching maturity, and finally 'succeeding' in life, if success is essentially self-realisation.
Text © Mirino. Source- Gospel of St. Luke. Top image- The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt van Rijn, sepia drawing with pen and brush, 1642. Teylers Museum, Haarlem). Lower image- The Prodigal Son (Pompeo Batoni, 1773 Kunshistorisches Museum, Vienna). With thanks to Wikimedia Commons. March, 2012