Question: You often refer to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) but you don’t say much about the elder brother who stayed at home. What about this part of the story?
In my opinion, this parable embodies the entire scope of Jesus’ teaching concerning the state of the soul. I refer most to the younger son who squandered his inheritance on riotous living in the far country because most of us can easily relate to this character. We’ve all felt alone and far from home. We know fear and we know suffering and I think we instinctively know these conditions are the result of poor choices attributed to spiritual ignorance.
The figure of the elder son does indeed have much to tell us. In the parable, we see the unwavering constant is the father and his household. If we think of this figure as the soul and its divine environment, the very different roles of the two sons comes into focus. Both sons suffered, but for completely different reasons. The younger, the prodigal, suffered deprivation and fear. The elder suffered self-righteous anger and self-pity. The younger suffered for breaking all the rules. The elder suffered because he felt unrewarded for keeping all the rules.
The father, addressing his elder son, pointed out that there is but one rule: “All that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). This rule is not changed because we stray. Nor does it change because we do all the right things. We do not harm or enhance the condition of the soul based on merit. Our understanding fluctuates, but the soul’s condition of completeness does not. We suffer from the false perceptions triggered by these fluctuations in understanding.
The two sons represent two kinds of attitudes. The elder son is the belief that if we walk the straight and narrow and learn all the lessons the soul needs to learn, we will be rewarded. Those who embrace the concept of reincarnation usually do so as another chance to get it right. What are we supposed to get right? To follow the rules perfectly and experience full illumination. But as Jesus has his father character point out, all that is mine is yours already. You don’t have to earn what is already yours.
Both mainstream and alternative Christianity place us in the far country. Those who embrace scriptural literalism insist Adam and Eve’s transgression put us there. We’re born in sin and we have to earn the right to get back into Heaven’s garden. The alternative approach essentially blames soul immaturity. Our return to the garden depends on lessons learned. With this parable, Jesus clearly contradicts both narratives. The prodigal did not have to earn the right to return home. He did not have to earn his father’s love and acceptance. Nor was the elder brother’s rule-abiding behavior a key factor in keeping him in his father’s good graces. This brother’s good behavior had no bearing whatsoever on the father’s unconditional love for him.
Those who teach that their way, their interpretation of the rules of salvation is the only way could learn much from both points. In one sense, our soul’s taking on a physical body has placed us in a far country. Our daily operating consciousness has shifted from a soul-based understanding of who we are to a body-based self-image that believes we are separate from God. The hardships brought on by this forgetting in no way diminish the condition of the soul. If we do not realize this while in the body, we see it the moment we drop it. The trick is to come to remember it while in the body.
I believe we never intended to forget our spiritual identity while in this physical incarnation. But with the bulk of our attention focused on the needs of the body, how could we not forget? This is a universal problem shared by all cultures throughout the ages. At its best, religion reminds us of this spiritual core we have forgotten. At its worst, religion reinforces and capitalizes on the problem of perceived separation by erecting a theological toll booth through which we must pass to regain our oneness. This is the elder son. Abide by the rules and you’ll be rewarded. Jesus, I believe, is debunking this myth.
I have forsaken the belief that we are required to return until we live a full human lifespan without losing our spiritual anchor. For me, the message of Jesus’ parable is this: Your self-righteous piety won’t earn you points that you already have. And even if you totally blow it in this life, you are still an expression of God, and all that God has is and will always be yours.