An elderly man on the beach found a magic lamp. As he picked it up and started cleaning it, a genie appeared and said: “Because you have freed me I will grant you a wish.” The man responded. “I had a fight with my only and older brother thirty years ago. I want to be reconciled with him so that he may forgive me and start loving me.” The genie said, “I am glad that you did not ask for money or riches. Your wish is granted. Are you sick and about to die?” the genie enquired. “No way!” the man shouted. “But my unmarried, older brother is about to die and he’s worth about $60 million!!”
Today’s parable of the prodigal son is so famous and so rich that we might not notice that it is incomplete. It ends too soon. It ends with the father pleading with the older son to come in to the celebration which he has arranged for the prodigal son. But we are never told how the elder son responds to his father’s pleading. His father says, “We must celebrate and rejoice.” Yet the parable ends before we find out whether the older son in fact does celebrate and rejoice.
So the incompleteness of this parable draws attention to the decision which the older son must face. That choice, whether to celebrate or not celebrate with his brother, becomes a key to unlock the meaning of the parable. The decision of the elder son which is left hanging in the air suggests that this parable is not so much about sinning, repenting, and forgiving as it is about jealousy. It is not so much about forgiving the son who came home but the willingness to accept the brother who has come home. It asks us: Are we willing to rejoice in the good fortune of others?
When someone makes a great basketball shot on our team or someone delivers an excellent speech in debating class, are we willing to rejoice with that person or do we say, “I could have made that shot if they passed the ball to me. I could have given just as good a speech if I had been given that topic.” When someone at work gets a promotion or pulls off an important project, are we able to rejoice with that person or do we say, “I could have done that too if I played the game, if I catered to the whim of my superiors.” When we see a great mother, a clever businessman, a creative thinker, are we willing to rejoice and celebrate those gifts or do we feel compelled to tell ourselves and others of that person’s flaws, mistakes, and limitations? This is exactly what the older brother does as he tries to tell his father all the reasons that his younger brother should not be welcomed home.
Today’s parable is a parable in which the elder son is jealous of the love that the father gives to his brother. Clearly the parable is inviting us to avoid such jealousy in our own lives. But if we are going to do that, we have to understand what is the cause of jealousy. The parable gives us the answer. The older son is unable to accept the love that his father has for him. The father certainly loves the elder son. He says this clearly. He says, “My son, you are here with me always and all I have is yours.” And yet, for some reason, this elder son will not believe in the father’s love. Because he will not accept the gifts that flow from that love, he ends up being jealous of his brother.
The surest way to avoid jealousy in our own lives is to accept the love God that has for us and the gifts that God has given us. Even though our gifts might seem less than the gifts of others, we need to believe that the gifts that we have been given are valuable and important. Sometimes we think: If God is loving that other person so much there will not be enough love left over for me. But the parable clearly says this is wrong. The father is excessive in loving, prodigal in loving. The parable assures us that with our God there will always be enough love for all of the children.
This story invites us to claim the love that God has for us and the gifts that God has given us. It invites us to be thankful for our gifts and to believe, whatever those gifts are, they are a sure sign of God’s unfailing love for us. If we can be thankful for the gifts we have received, we can avoid jealousy in our lives. When we claim God’s love, our response to someone’s success or exaltation will be joy rather than envy. We will be able to celebrate with them, because no matter how much someone else can be blessed, we will know that we are never left out. With our God, there is always enough love to go around.