Which Son are You? The Prodigal Son or the Dutiful One?

Henri Nouwen in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, wondered which was more damaging, lust or resentment.  

You recall the parable of the Prodigal Son:  The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance well before he was owed it, and asked in a way that in that culture he essentially was wishing his father dead.  This younger son then goes off and squanders his inheritance on prostitutes and other lusty pursuits, only to be penniless in the end.  He had enough sense to recall though that he was still his father’s son, so he returned and asked forgiveness if only to survive. He had no idea that the father would love him unconditionally, and with open arms.

The elder son had stayed home and been very dutiful. He obeyed the father in all things.  He did things right. When he heard that his younger brother had returned and was given a complete pardon, and not only that, but a huge feast — something he had never received from his father– he was resentful.  We never find out whether he too accepted his father’s unconditional love.

Nouwen writes:

“The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things.  He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son.  Outwardly, the elder son was faultless.  But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.

“…. I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment? There is so much resentment among the ‘just’ and the ‘righteous.’ There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the ‘saints.’ There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding ‘sin.'” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Image Books, copyright 1992, page 71.

Nouwen’s question is a good one. Which is more damaging to oneself and the world — undisciplined lust or simmering resentment. He doesn’t seem to answer the question, at least not in the first 80+ pages of the book. Which has damaged you more? Your family? Your community?  Your parish?

Perhaps the elder son’s resentment is the more difficult for us to acknowledge in ourselves and rectify. It is perhaps more difficult to accept the God’s unconditional love when we are resentful than when we have sinned against the flesh. Our resentments can always be rationalized away, it seems.

I’ll bet there are more sins of lust admitted in the confessional than sins of resentment. 

The moral of the parable is that the Father’s love is unconditional. He loved both of his sons completely. His love was not dependent on anything either son did or did not do.  He always loved them. The younger son seems to have accepted that. We never found out about the elder.

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota.
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