Pastor's Column

Clergy Column

September 14-15, 2019

 Gratitude and Resentment Cannot Co-Exist


Today’s well-known parable of the Prodigal Son is a poignant description of the limitless mercy of God and His desire for every lost soul to seek and find Him.

Many might say that this is the parable’s takeaway, and that the wayward son who receives forgiveness is the central character. A memorable December 2015 column written for Catholic News Service rsuades me differently -- that it is actually the older son in the parable who may have the most to teach us. Penned by Catholic Relief Services president and CEO Carolyn Woo and entitled Mercy: From a Heart of Stone to a Heart of Flesh, it reads, in part:

“As the Year of Mercy begins …, I turn our attention to a popular parable: the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). … [The] character who intrigues me is the older brother. In truth, I am too cautious to adopt the wayward choice of the younger son. I could easily channel the worries of the older brother: half of the family property is gone but just as many people to care for; in modern day, the situation would likely involve just as much debt on half the assets. He may fret about his father’s health and wish to spare his father these burdens.

Not only do I feel this way sometimes, I actually know people in similar situations: the sibling who sacrifices all to care for an elderly parent only to find out that all children received equal amounts from the estate; the sibling who assumes responsibility for the family business when some siblings just want a share of the profits; a sibling who lives a ‘carefree’ life only to reappear when options run dry. Isn’t resentment their due? …

Alarmingly, in these sentiments, I recognize qualities that frighten me. You see, I dread becoming small, hard and joyless. The older brother describes his work, which hopefully once emanated from love of family, as ‘orders’ from his father which he now ‘obeys’ rather than embraces, and the person returning as ‘your son’ rather than ‘my brother’ thus losing any sense of bond and kin. He values his work in the light of compensation and competition relative to his brother and calibrates his father’s love with things and feasts. His judgment leaves no space in the heart to comprehend how the brother has suffered and what his father has lost. His righteousness robs him of the capacity to celebrate.

The older brother is the message Jesus directs at the Pharisees, whose disapproval of his dining with sinners precedes this and two other parables of mercy. It is a message for us, too, when our love turns to obligations, fatigue crowns itself in martyrdom, prudence gives rise to harsh judgment and success breeds contempt. The good news is that the father reaches out also for this son, reminding him that he has always been loved and that love for one son is not diminished by love for the other. The older son is invited to join in and be glad, essentially to turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He and we are also the lost sons whom the father rejoices when found. Such framing is not easy, but this is why we need a special year to note that gratitude and resentment cannot co-exist; that in condemnation, we overstep our bounds and lose our own humanity…”

Years after the conclusion of the Year of Mercy, these lessons endure.

- Fr. Michael Panicali