-- Angel (detail), Giotto di Bondone, c. 1305-06, fresco, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padova, Italy
Who is the Older Brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
We know who the Prodigal Son is. It is us. The money that was demanded by the Prodigal Son is our human nature -- our life, our resources, the beautiful and good things God has given us, our bodies, our families, God’s love that surrounds us.
The wasteful frittering away of riches by the Prodigal Son in the far country is our “giving our heart” away to lesser things. It is as though we chopped and diced our spiritual heart up into little pieces and attached each piece to “false importances” -- these are the pursuits of the world that take our attention away from God.
The “pig pen” of the Prodigal Son is when we “hit bottom” and finally realize that what we thought was important really wasn’t important. We found that the important things of the world were actually “trivial pursuits.” And we finally perceived that life outside real fellowship with God is as meaningless and vain as a human being trying to satisfy his hunger in a pen of pigs.
When the Prodigal Son “came to his senses” and saw the pig pen for what it was -- a home for pigs and not the right place for humans -- then he decided to go home where he could eat the right stuff for persons -- bread from his Father’s house. We know what that moment of “coming to one’s senses” and turning around really is: it is repentance, plain and simple.
And we know, too, that God is just like the Father in the parable. He stands, waiting, ready to receive the repentant sinner, who is now turning all his attention and priority back to his soul where he can meet God standing and waiting. We know what the ring and the robe is -- the re-clothing of the sinner in his baptismal gown of innocence, and the ring of sonship.
Finally, we know what the “fatted calf” is -- this is the Son of God slain, who takes away the sins of the world, Whose self-sacrificed Life we receive in the Feast of the Eucharist.
We know what the Return Celebration is: it is the Joy of the Holy Trinity at the return of a man or woman or child from the dark death-zone of sin, and back to the light of Eden and Paradise.
We know this story. It is all deja vu. We know the Prodigal, for he is us.
But who is the Older Son who was upset with all the celebration? Who is the Older Son who stayed and was faithful? Who is the Older Son who took his father to task for spending so much in the Welcome Back Party for someone who betrayed the family so poorly?
One possibility is that the Older Son represented the Jewish Christians who had to put up with Gentiles (that is, non-Jews like Greeks and Romans and barbarians) coming into the Church. These Gentiles never had to put up with circumcision and kosher. These Gentiles were able to get into the Church on a shortcut. It just didn’t seem fair.
Another possibility is that the Older Son represents those Christians who are faithful Sunday in and Sunday out. They are the 20% who do 80% of the work. They are the ones who should the spiritual and material burden of a Church throughout the year. And they naturally wonder why people who don’t do the work, who don’t fast and pray and give -- why these people should be given any leeway or any notice.
Both of these possibilities are discussed by the Fathers. Both are acceptable interpretations.
But another interpretation remains, and this interpretation is the deeper and most theologically meaningful.
The Older Brother stands for the faithful angels.
There are only two species in this entire Universe that have the moral freedom of whether to accept God’s Love or to refuse it. To refuse God’s Love is a rejection of their own soul. To accept it is to follow along on the eternal way of perfection, an ever-unfolding moment of infinite beauty and peaceful difference.
One of these two species is humanity. The other is the angels.
The angels made their decision for God outside of our time. We perceive their decision as an instantaneous, once-and-for-all choice in a moment. The Fathers tell us that a third of the angels joined the lead of Satan in his rejection of God’s love, and in his attempt to be his own God.
We do not really think much of the angels, and perhaps this is why we don’t often remember that the Older Son could represent the angels who were never so jejune and foolish to go off as as a wanton Prodigal. Gluttony is for the inane, with respect to the angel who could only fall to pride (and, perhaps, despair).
But we should not neglect the reality of these “bodiless powers.” We should remember that the angels are often spoken of by Christ Himself. He told us that even children have their own guardian angel who is always before the Face of the Lord. He told us that the angels will accompany Him on the Last Day, and will be the agents of Divine Justice. The Apostle Paul told us that in caring for the poor or unattractive that we might actually be interacting with “angels unawares.” St Paul also told us that we are always being watched and cheered by an angelic “cloud of witnesses.”
St Basil said that the angels outnumber human beings by at least a hundred times over. St Dionysios the Areopagite said that the angels are like the “middle managers of Providence.” They are the ones who administer the way the Universe is run. It very well could be, for example, that what we understand as formulae of higher mathematics (not arithmetic, which is really not up to the level of “math,” so to speak) is really the speech of angels.
It may also be that angels may be involved as intermediaries between perception and conception -- i.e., what we perceive and what we conceive. For there's no way that your thoughts can arise themselves out of physical events, and perceptions of them. (And that's easy, compared to the difficulty of the whence of existence at all: which I abbreviate as the rude little question, "Why is now?")
All this to say, in short order, that you and I are completely surrounded by the activity of angels, and that the Unseen World is so very, very much larger, more multi-dimensioned and even more substantial than the world we perceive. The angels are the managers of the Order of Creation -- if we violate God’s natural design and then suffer the natural consequences that accrue from that violation, then surely, angels have been involved. You should know that this is an important reason why the celebrant is careful about the correct observance of Liturgy, and the showing of proper respect for the holy things: it is, as St Paul said in 1 Corinthians, "because of the angels.”
So it would be a bad thing if the angels were upset at us.
And it wouldn’t be an unprecedented thing.
It may have been that when God revealed His plan to create man, and then to redeem man from sin and death, and to actually become man and to bring man into eternal fellowship ahead of the angels themselves -- it may have been at that very moment that Satan and his followers said no to God.
In fact, the Parable of the Prodigal Son may turn out to be a lot broader than what we usually think. It may be Jesus telling us symbolically what really went on -- the real eternal context of Creation and Redemption. He may have revealed the symbolic story of the Prodigal Son -- as all of humanity -- to the angels.
And it was up to the Angels -- the Older Brother -- to decide just how to respond to God’s plan for rescuing sinful and stupid humans -- even to the point of God becoming one of them, and elevating humanity second only to God, ahead of the angels.
So Satan, being of the prideful, autocratic temperament that he is, grew angry upon hearing about God’s plan.
You can just imagine God pleading with His Archangel: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
Satan and his followers could not accept this Love of the Holy Trinity, that always seeks the lost and redeems by way of quite scandalous kenosis. He and his followers could not accept the Angelic task, which is to serve humanity and help humanity in salvation.
So they left, and invented hell for themselves -- which is really the description of the life of any Older Brother who cannot tolerate God’s love for a sinner.
(It is a question, by the way, that is critical for every mind, especially one who would take up the work of theology, philosophy, or most frighteningly, both.)
However, two thirds of all the angels remained, led by Michael and Gabriel.
Because when they heard first the Parable of the Prodigal Son, first told by Jesus before the world began, they rejoiced, and entered the celebration.
One must be humble and meek to be happy for someone else. The devil was far too aristocratic to go to someone else's party.
As Jesus said, “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents” (Luke 15.7).
That joy is the Welcome Home Party of return, and redemption.
Would you give up your place for a Prodigal coming home? What if he gets in before you? What if the One tells you to let him jump in line, and displace you at the queue?
Aye, there's the rub.