"Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf."
This parable of the prodigal son has long troubled me. Partly for the same reasons it troubled the elder son. The younger was lazy, wasteful. He didn't care about his father's example, teachings, or entreaties. While the older son labored diligently to honor his father, it was the younger son who received honor simply for coming home.
Part of me understands perfectly, especially the parent part of me. It is easy to spend most of our time, attention, and praise on the child for whom obedience comes hardest. Sometimes my daughters get jealous of each other. If I hug one, the other immediately demands a hug or pouts. If I praise one, the other wants the same praise. While it is sometimes exhausting, one thing I make certain to do as a parent is give them as much love and praise as I possibly can, especially when they ask for it. Even if I know their motivations for needing love and attention are less than pure.
I told them once that my love for both of them was endless, that there was no way to find a limit, no matter what they do or who they become. But that my love for them was differently infinite, it was impossible for me to love one more than the other, but that I love them for being THEM, not for being like their sister. The difficulty of trying to explain this to them has given me a bit of insight to how the Lord must feel about His children.
But part of me still wonders.
I have spent my life, in once sense, miserable. I have constantly struggled to overcome my weaknesses, understand my mistakes and learn from them. I have fought to be humble, wise, kind, charitable. All because my deepest desire is to please my Father. And I often feel as though I have failed at all of them. No matter what I learn, I always find another flaw. No matter how I try to be charitable, I inevitably get frustrated or self-involved. It was this constant drive to be better and kinder that was once manipulated to entrap me in an abusive marriage. It has shamed me, made me reluctant to reach out and help for fear that I could never help in the right way or at the right time. Belief in my ability to offend too often conquers any belief that others may need me.
But the parable of the prodigal son teaches us that there is law and there is love in the Lord. Those who follow the law will be blessed for it. When we disobey, we will endure consequences. In a sense, we are all the prodigal son who abandoned our father's principles to live according to our desires. But in a sense, we are also the loyal son who stayed home and did what he was asked to do.
This parable isn't a parable of comparison: those who do against those who don't. It's a parable of experience. When we depart from God's will for us and begin to return, we often feel immediate connection with His Spirit, telling us we are on the right path. But there is a time in the path of our discipleship where we are following God's will for us, doing all we know how to do to please Him, but are left feeling disconnected and alone, without the constant guidance of the Spirit we once enjoyed. It isn't that we never feel the Spirit, but that we don't feel His influence as constant bursts of good feeling.
I'm there now. I've been there for awhile. I feel the Spirit in little ways, generally prompting me to help someone or tuning me into an upcoming problem. But I don't feel accepted by the Lord. That frequent "burning in the bosom" feeling isn't very common any more. And when I do the things I know will help me feel the Spirit better—read scriptures, pray, ponder—the only answer I get is to "be still" and trust God's hand on the helm. It has been this way for years, and I am left begging and pleading to know what I'm doing wrong that I am not being given the praise from the Spirit.
And this brings us to the entire point of the parable. The point isn't really the prodigal son so much as it is the loyal son. His story is not a bonus moral tacked onto the end. He is the true focus of the tale. Christ wasn't talking to sinners. He was talking to Pharisees, those who focused their entire life on trying to fulfill the commandments of the Lord.
His message to these men is that if you are the one who is doing all that God commands to the best of your abilities, you are in a place where you can afford to rejoice with your Father in Heaven over the redemption of those who have strayed. Rather than judging them and being jealous of the joy from the Father they receive, join in and rejoice with them and Him.
Maybe those tiny little promptings to help others are the real secret and core of the Gospel. Maybe communion with the Spirit isn't living in constant spiritual high, but is opening your eyes to the salvation of your brothers and sisters. Letting God the Father worry about your inheritance and focusing on sharing that infinite (endless!) inheritance with as many of your siblings as you can.
There is no end to what God offers us. Our inheritance from Him is made greater by the salvation of others of His children. That is the reason there had to be a Christ, someone whose perfect life was wholly and infinitely subsumed in the salvation of others.
As we learn to be like Him in this preeminent way, we begin to glimpse eternity. The return of other sinners to the fold of God, no matter how much they have injured us in the process of their sinning, is a cause to rejoice. I am so fortunate to be shown this path in my life right now.
May I have the strength and trust to walk it.