The Prodigal and His Brother, by Father Basil William Maturin

Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.

After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”‘ So he got up and went back to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’

He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”

– Luke 15:11-32

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Besides the leading thought in each of our Lord’s Parables, we constantly find, as we might expect in words so deep, much instruction in some less prominent feature of the Parable; indeed, it occasionally happens that the central thought is set in a cluster of lesser Parables which gather round it or grow out of it.

Such is the case in the Parable of the Prodigal. There is a vast treasury of instruction in the details and lesser incidents of the Parable subsidiary to its great central thought.

Let us consider one of them.

The Parable speaks of two sons. According to the strictest interpretation of the words of the Parable, these two sons can scarcely be meant to represent the Jew and the Gentile, The sons were, both of them, in their father’s house; they had an equal share in the blessings and the discipline of the home. Their knowledge of their father, their relations to him, and their privileges, were identical.

There is not in all this the contrast which we should look for, if the Parable were describing those who were within and those who were without the Covenant Both were within, their blessings and their responsibilities were the same.

They represent, rather, two types of character that are always to be found amongst those who live in their father’s house within the covenant of grace.

1. First, there is the Elder Brother. He is the type of those who always have been and always will remain contented within the limits of their Father’s home. He has no desire to leave it His temptations do not draw him into that great and unknown world which lies outside. It has no special attraction for him. His interests, his affections, and consequently his temptations lie within the sphere of his father’s house. It is for him at once his world and his home. His life and his hopes are centred there.

2. And then there is the Younger Brother. He is the type of those whose eyes instinctively and almost from the first turn outward to that great unknown world of mystery that lies so near and yet so far from his father’s home. He feels within himself capacities that suit him for that free, fascinating, and adventurous life. He chafes against the narrowness and the limitations under which he is compelled to live. He must be up and away, and active. He cannot be happy and contented at home like his brother. The surroundings are uncongenial. Things look small, and mean, and poor compared with the possibilities he feels within him for life in the world outside.

These two men are born and brought up under the same circumstances; they have had the same opportunities, the same discipline, the same love and care from their father, yet how different the effect The elder finds his home in his father’s house. He has no desire to leave it. The younger never has been able to look upon it as his home. The things that his brother loved were to him contemptible. What his brother considered peace he characterized as dullness. The interests that filled his brother’s life appeared to him narrow and stifling. There was a lack of masculine force in the employment and doings of the life at home that he felt sure was to be found in the life outside, and so in the spirit of defiance and opposition he closed his heart against the surroundings of his life, and spoke with contempt of all that his brother held most dear.

So it was from the first, and the contrast only became more marked as the years went by. There is a fundamental difference of temperament, though as yet neither character is in any sense developed, yet from the beginning they are separated in tastes and interests.

It would seem, however, that there was no merit in the fact of the Elder Brother’s love for his home; it was his natural disposition. And it could scarcely be called a fault for which the younger was responsible that his inclinations should lead him to desire things which his home could not supply. It was with him, also, the result of a natural disposition for which he was not responsible.

No, there was neither merit nor fault in the mere inclinations of either. Religious tastes do not necessarily make a man good, any more than a natural distaste for religion necessarily makes a man bad. But these differences of disposition showed at the very outset that the two lives would be very different both in their probation and development The one is doomed to a more difficult life than the other. He has within himself characteristics that must necessarily involve a terrible conflict if he is to remain dutiful to his father; though, no doubt, the Elder Brother is not without his difficulties also. The all-important question is, how will these two men of such different natural dispositions act under the circumstances that are to test them?

Consider, first, the Younger Brother. He is brought before us in the Parable at a crisis in his life. It is the moment in which, no doubt, after a long period of restlessness and discontent, he makes up his mind to take his life into his own hands and leave his father’s home. Such a decision was, we may believe, the last act of a long period of interior conflict A breach with all that is best and noblest in life could not be the outcome of a moment’s discontent Rather it was the necessary result of years of dissatisfaction and complaining. A wrong habit of mind long indulged in must eventually formulate itself in an outward act of sin.

The Parable does not delineate for us the years of inner revolt and rebellion against the circumstances of life. It shows us the man at the moment when the will is ripe for action. The spirit of rebellion and discontent that might have been overcome by self-discipline is now triumphant; his present life becomes intolerable to him, his mind is made up, he must go. He says to his father, ‘Give to me the portion of goods that falls unto me.’

Thus it ever happens. The constant yielding to the spirit of discontent with one’s life as it is, and the looking out towards and longing for another life that appeals to the lower rather than to the higher side of one’s nature, leads at last to a course of action which a short time before would have seemed impossible. It becomes indeed, not only possible, but necessary. Where one is separated from one’s surroundings in everything except the body, the body will at last be forced to follow whither heart, and mind, and will have already gone. The son who allowed his imagination and desires to delight in the dreams of the Prodigal’s life, cannot stay in his father’s house; it is only a question of how soon the outward breach must follow upon the inward alienation.

But if the conduct of the son is unworthy, the action of the father is certainly surprising. The son says to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls unto me, and he divided unto them his living.’

We are not told that he used any persuasion with his son. He asked for his portion, and his father gave it to him. This appears strange when we remember whom this father is intended to represent Would not an earthly father have tried to persuade his son to remain, or even have refused to grant his request, knowing what the end must be? Perhaps so, but the Heavenly Father is wiser. There would be no gain in holding his son back from what he desired, against his will. He had now gone too far to find happiness where he ought to have found it He could get no good, nothing but increasing evil, from staying longer in his father’s house. Let him go.

For it is possible that a time may come when it may be less ruinous to the character to do wrong and experience all the suffering and misery which sin involves, than to live on indulging constantly the desire to do the wrong which one is held back from only through fear or compulsion.

There are, I believe, many men and women who have sinned deeply, and brought upon themselves shame and misery, who are not really as corrupt as others who live in the inward indulgence of the worst desires and passions from the actual gratification of which they are held back only through cowardice – a refined selfishness. There may come the moment in the lives of certain people when it is not a virtue to refuse to yield to sin. When the heart has become corrupt and the will is in revolt, the father will not hold back his son from that experience which now appears to be the only possible way of restoring to him that love for himself and his home which he has forfeited. He said unto him, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me, and he divided with them his living.’

The Prodigal is the type of a class of persons who apparently can only learn the reality of the love of God and the power of religion through the bitter experience of the failure and sin which come through separation from Him. The intense attraction which an undisciplined life presents to certain minds can only be dispelled by a personal experience of the misery which such a life really entails. To some men religion seems narrow and belittling compared with the broader ways of the world, and they are not conscious of any need of God’s assistance. The pathway of self-discipline looks like self-consciousness, and the world and its ways look broad and free. It is useless to tell such men that they are mistaken, that what looks so attractive has no real power of satisfying the nature, that it soon brings satiety, dissatisfaction, hunger; that a bitter slavery is hidden under the appearance of freedom. They will not believe such warnings. If they are shown that other men who have broken away from the restraints of religion, and followed their own desires, have ended in degradation and misery, they answer that others may have done so, but that they will not No, such men are to all appearance lacking in a sense which can only be developed under the pressure of great moral failure. The only thing that can teach them the need of God is the knowledge learned by experience that they cannot control themselves. Enslaved under the dominion of a sin which they hate and cannot conquer, they learn at last that God can be their helper; and in the depths of degradation, with every shred of liberty lost, there begins to dawn upon the soul the vision of the Father’s house so long despised.

So in the Parable, the father saw that his son had made up his mind to go, that to refuse would only be to restrain him physically, in heart and interests he had already gone. So he gave to him what he demanded, ‘the portion of goods that fell to him’ – his natural gifts and endowments, to use as he would without any consideration of his father’s will or the restraints of his father’s house. His life henceforth was to be free, to be governed by no consideration but his own pleasure.

Then followed the terrible experiences of life. The world that looked so bright, so full of great possibilities, disappointed him when he came into real contact with it His liberty, for which he had yearned when in his father’s home, he found himself unable to use as freely and as easily as he had imagined. He discovered that there were forces in his nature the power of which he had never calculated, and that they had a tendency to become imperious in their demands and tyrannous when the demands were yielded to. The very freedom of his life tended in a most unaccountable way to slavery. He perceived that that very impulse that drove him forth from his father’s house was the chief source of danger to him in life. It was the early manifestation – if only he had known it – of a character too facile and impulsive, which, above all things, needed the discipline and supports of religion to counteract the power of life’s attraction. But who could have taught him that? He would not have believed anyone who had told him. No, he can only learn it by his own experience, and his experience altogether disillusioned him. Those years in the far country, a great way off from the companionship and sympathies of his father’s house, led to a great reaction and complete overturning of the conception of life which he had formed in his youth. That home that had once seemed so narrow and constrained, now appeared to him the abode of peace and true liberty – the liberty of a rule whose principle was love. He, the slave of a master who sent him to feed his swine, wondered how he could have rebelled against the loving rule of his father. The contrast between what he had given up, and what he had gained in its place, stood out vividly and bitterly, and at last compelled him to face the difficulties and the humiliation of a return. ‘How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. I will arise and go to my father.’

And so he arose and journeyed back, and was received by his father with joy and feasting. Yet though his father embraced him and restored him to all the privileges of sonship, though he had learned what he had never before experienced, his father’s love, and the peace and blessedness of his home, nevertheless that past, through which he had learnt to love what once he had despised, could never be forgotten. He could never be as his Elder Brother who had not left his home. He had memories that must haunt him, a knowledge of evil and a fear of temptation unknown to his brother. There were times when the old passions would rise with such force that it would seem almost impossible to restrain them; hours when the cravings for the wild license of the past would return upon him with all their dark horror of revolt against the discipline under which alone he knew he could be safe. Ah, yes. This poor Prodigal could only learn to appreciate the value and the power of religion through failure and sin, but verily it was a heavy price to pay. For though the grace of God can repair the ravages of sin, and the soul can, through penitence, attain to the place in heaven which it had forfeited by sin, yet on earth the penitent can never be as the innocent; and even in the peace and joy of the restoration to his father’s home, the dark memories of the past return to haunt and to disturb.

But the Elder Brother who had not left, and who probably had never had a wish to leave his father’s home, had he no dangers to encounter, no lessons to learn? Has all gone smoothly with him? Because it was natural to his temperament to stay at home, was he therefore so shielded that he could not fail? Surely not. There is no place on earth so sheltered that those who dwell there are secure from all temptation. It lies within the power of everyone to draw good or evil out of the surroundings and circumstances of life, be they ever so dangerous or ever so holy. And certainly the life lived within the father’s house by one whose natural inclination leads him to choose such a life has its dangers. There is the danger of narrowness and hardness, of severity in judging sins to which one is not tempted oneself, of setting up tests and standards based upon one’s own narrow experience. There is the danger of positive lack of charity and of becoming self-engrossed. It is no easy task to escape from the dangers of any life that is in accordance with one’s tastes and inclinations, and this difficulty is not lessened, but increased when one’s interests and occupations are concerned with religious things. For it is possible to live as selfish and self-centred a life in the Father’s house as the Prodigal did who devoured his living with harlots. He who lives amidst all the sacred surroundings of religion, but does not rise through them and by means of them to the Personal God, must needs deteriorate under them, in a different way, it is true, but as really as the Prodigal. His character becomes cramped, wooden, unsympathetic, irresponsive.

And this was the case with the Elder Brother, he could not enter into his father’s joy at his brother’s return, he was out of sympathy with both his father and his brother. He was not moved by the fact that a weight was lifted from his father’s heart He thought only of himself, and looked on the whole scene with jealous eyes and bitterness in his heart.

Life verily had its effect upon him too, and left its mark. He need not have been narrow and jealous and unappreciative. Had he been quite true to all the privileges of his father’s house, and lived in close sympathy with the all-embracing love of his father’s heart, he could not have been so; but apparently he had not done this. He failed in his way as his brother failed in his. And his failure brings to light just that temper that shows he had not been making the best of his life and his privileges.

The one, breaking away from all religious associations, fell into terrible sin; the other, abiding in his father’s house, failed in just those ways in which we find people whose lives are spent amidst religious surroundings, and who are not thoroughly in earnest, are apt to fail.