The parable of the Prodigal Son was the topic of the Pope’s Angelus address on March 27th. Pope Francis said:

The Gospel for this Sunday’s Liturgy recounts the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Lk 15:11-32). It leads us to the heart of God,  who always forgives compassionately and tenderly. Always, God always forgives. We are the ones who tire of asking for forgiveness, but he always forgives. It [the parable] tells us that God is a Father who not only welcomes us back, but rejoices and throws a feast for his son who has returned home after squandering all his possessions. We are that son, and it is moving to think about how much the Father always loves us and waits for us.

But there is also the elder son in the same parable who manifested his resentment in front of this Father. It can put us into crisis as well. In fact, this elder son is also within us and we are tempted to take his side, at least in part: he had always done his duty, he had not left home, and so he becomes indignant on seeing the Father embracing his [other] son again after having behaved so badly. He protests and says: “I have served you for so many years and never disobeyed your command”. Instead, for “this son of yours”, you go so far as to celebrate! (cf. vv. 29-30) “I don’t understand you!” This is the indignation of the elder son.

These words illustrate the elder son’s problem. He bases his relationship with his Father solely on pure observance of commands, on a sense of duty. This could also be our problem, the problem among ourselves and with God: losing sight that he is a Father, and living a distant religion, made of prohibitions and duties. And the consequence of this distance is rigidity towards our neighbor whom we no longer see as a brother or sister. In fact, in the parable, the elder son does not say my brother to the Father. No, he says that son of yours, as if to say: he is not my brother. In the end, he risks remaining outside of the house. In fact, the text says: “he refused to go in” (v. 28), because the other one was there.

Seeing this, the Father goes out to plead with him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). He tries to make him understand that for him, every child is all of his life. Parents know this well and are very close to feeling like God does. Something a father says in a novel is very beautiful: “When I became a father, I understood God” (H. de Balzac, Le Père Goriot).  At this point in the parable, the Father opens his heart to his elder son and expresses two needs, which are not commands, but essentials for his heart: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive” (v. 32). Let us see if we too have in our hearts these two things the Father needs: to make merry and rejoice.

Pope Francis has often spoken about this parable; it is one of his favorite themes. This time around, his comments stirred up a bit of controversy on Twitter. Some Catholics were upset that he had portrayed the “dutiful” older son in such a negative light, and particularly that he presented the parable as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a legalistic religious mentality. At least one person insisted that the older son should be seen exclusively as a symbol for the Jewish people, rather than as having anything to do with faithful Christians. (While this is one of the traditional interpretations of the parable, it is not the only interpretation. Nor is it the most useful one. The parables should challenge us, rather than being used to highlight the failings of others. As the modern Church has come to terms with its legacy of anti-semitism, such interpretations have been downplayed in favor of other, more constructive ones.)

These random Twitter complaints are rooted in a much deeper and more common criticism of Pope Francis. Many Catholics are puzzled by his emphasis on the dangers of rigidity. They are annoyed that he shows so much mercy toward sinners while at the same time chastising those who are “loyal” to the teachings of the Church. Some even go further and claim that the Pope has “declared war” on faithful Catholics. Without this wider perception that Pope Francis is “lax,” I doubt anyone would have taken umbrage at his reflections on the Prodigal Son’s older brother.

The Writings of Pope Benedict XVI

In response to the internet nay-sayers, Mike Lewis pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI had written something very similar about this parable in his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Discussing the faults of the older brother can hardly be considered a modernist innovation cooked up by Pope Francis! The section to which Mike was referring runs as follows (emphasis added):

The older brother now makes his appearance. He comes home from working in the fields, hears feasting at home, finds out why, and becomes angry. He finds it simply unfair that this good-for-nothing, who has squandered his entire fortune—the father’s property—with prostitutes, should now be given a splendid feast straightaway without any period of probation, without any time of penance. That contradicts his sense of justice: The life he has spent working is made to look of no account in comparison to the dissolute past of the other. Bitterness arises in him: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed one of your commands,” he says to his father, “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Lk 15:29). The father goes out to meet the older brother, too, and now he speaks kindly to his son. The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations and wanderings experienced by the younger brother, of his journey into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees only injustice. “And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31). The father explains to him the great value of sonship with these words—the same words that Jesus uses in his high-priestly prayer to describe his relationship to the Father: “All that is mine is thine, and all that is thine is mine” (Jn 17:10).

The parable breaks off here; it tells us nothing about the older brother’s reaction. Nor can it, because at this point the parable immediately passes over into reality. Jesus is using these words of the father to speak to the heart of the murmuring Pharisees and scribes who have grown indignant at his goodness to sinners (cf. Lk 15:2). It now becomes fully clear that Jesus identifies his goodness to sinners with the goodness of the father in the parable and that all the words attributed to the father are the words that he himself addresses to the righteous. The parable does not tell the story of some distant affair, but is about what is happening here and now through him. He is wooing the heart of his adversaries. He begs them to come in and to share his joy at this hour of homecoming and reconciliation. These words remain in the Gospel as a pleading invitation. Paul takes up this pleading invitation when he writes: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20)…

While we may regard this application of the parable of the two brothers to Israel and the Gentiles as one dimension of the text, there are other dimensions as well. After all, what Jesus says about the older brother is aimed not simply at Israel (the sinners who came to him were Jews, too), but at the specific temptation of the righteous, of those who are “en règle,” at rights with God, as Grelot puts it (p. 229). In this connection, Grelot places emphasis on the sentence “I never disobeyed one of your commandments.” For them, more than anything else God is Law; they see themselves in a juridical relationship with God and in that relationship they are at rights with him. But God is greater: They need to convert from the Law-God to the greater God, the God of love. This will not mean giving up their obedience, but rather that this obedience will flow from deeper wellsprings and will therefore be bigger, more open, and purer, but above all more humble.

Let us add a further aspect that has already been touched upon: Their bitterness toward God’s goodness reveals an inward bitterness regarding their own obedience, a bitterness that indicates the limitations of this obedience. In their heart of hearts, they would have gladly journeyed out into that great “freedom” as well. There is an unspoken envy of what others have been able to get away with. They have not gone through the pilgrimage that purified the younger brother and made him realize what it means to be free and what it means to be a son. They actually carry their freedom as if it were slavery and they have not matured to real sonship. They, too, are still in need of a path; they can find it if they simply admit that God is right and accept his feast as their own. In this parable, then, the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us too to convert truly and to find joy in our faith.

This passage could almost have been written by Pope Francis. It is in perfect agreement both with his emphasis on mercy and with his insistence that the “devout” need to be careful to avoid spiritual pride and interior rigidity. Christians are always in danger of falling into a narrow legalism that will warp their relationship with God. An accountant friend of mine said that we too often think of God as a great accountant in the sky. If we feel that our books are out of order, the thought of God brings nothing but terror and confusion: the curse of scrupulosity. On the other hand, if we feel that we’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”, we may begin to feel that God is very lucky to have such fine servants as ourselves! We can end up forgetting about how much his mercy has done for us, and so adopt a harsh attitude toward all the “younger brothers” out there.

As Pope Benedict wisely notes, such harsh attitudes can stem from a hidden longing to break the law. The older brother seems to think the younger brother has gotten away with something, almost as if he’d like to have eaten some husks and slops himself! So long as we see the Divine law as merely a bunch of arbitrary precepts, we will chafe against them. We will feel that we deserve special treatment for having kept the law, forgetting that the law exists to guide us toward authentic happiness. We won’t value the relationship with God that is being offered to us; instead of joyfully “selling everything” to buy that field, we will grudgingly count the cost of following the Lord.

It is also notable that Pope Benedict dispels the idea that the “older brother” is solely an allegory for Israel. He looks at the context of the parable; it was told to justify Christ’s benevolence toward sinners, and so indirectly to condemn the pride and legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus is asking them to drop their cramped and petty pride and to enter into the rejoicing of his new kingdom of mercy.

Dispelling Some Concerns

Despite the thoroughly Biblical and traditional roots of this interpretation, some Catholics might still think that Pope Francis overdoes it. They might grant that in this particular address, Pope Francis is within the proper bounds; but they might still feel that his emphasis on mercy is lopsided and represents a departure from authentic Christian spirituality. Besides, they might say that he still shouldn’t be so quick to judge “faithful” and “orthodox” Catholics; why does he seem to assume the worst about them?

Of course, if Pope Francis is overdoing his critique of devout legalism, what should we say about Christ’s own words? It is striking that Christ spends so much time denouncing the sins of the devout. At the very least, we can say that Pope Francis seems to be acting within this tradition. But why did Christ find it so important to criticize the devout, those who kept the law and were externally faithful?

For one thing, the sins of legalism and spiritual pride are more insidious. They are less likely to provoke shame and remorse in the sinner. The very exterior rectitude which provides an occasion for such sins masks their gravity. And so it makes sense that a shepherd of souls would spend a lot of time warning his flock about these dangers.

Further, “the corruption of the best is worst.” It can be assumed that the world is sinful; that’s just the natural state of things. It shouldn’t cause any kind of surprise. Legalism and spiritual pride, however, give evil an entryway directly into the holiest and best actions that human beings can undertake. They represent a sort of interior sacrilege, a defacement of the temple of God. They profane the worship given to God, subtly redirecting it to the glorification of mere human beings; as such, these sins constitute a form of idolatry under the cover of true worship.

Hebrews 12:6 tells us that “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” God loves every one of those whom he has made; as the very parable under consideration tells us, he runs to meet the repentant sinner with outstretched arms. Still, in a certain way, the sins of the faithful wound his heart more deeply. Such sins represent a kind of betrayal; the very ones to whom he has given so much are now turning against him.

Finally, I don’t think that Pope Francis assumes the worst about the faithful Catholics. He frequently condemns rigidity and spiritual pride and legalism and judgemental attitudes, but he doesn’t generally name names. If you think that these criticisms really do apply to you, then take them to heart and amend your ways. But if you don’t think that such criticisms apply to you, then don’t worry about them; they probably weren’t directed at you! If, in addition to carefully obeying the teachings of the Church, you have a heart filled with love and mercy for your erring siblings in the Faith, then you are on the right path. Come inside and enjoy the banquet spread for those who have been redeemed by Christ, instead of staying outside in the darkness of criticism and suspicion.

Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son. Naples. c. 1630. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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