Cycle C: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
In the parable of the prodigal son a man loses both of his sons — the first through self-indulgence, the second through self-righteousness.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son leaves us with an unanswered question: Does the elder son join in the celebration of his brother’s return or does he stay outside fuming in his self-righteousness? The door is unbarred. He can go in whenever he chooses. Only his inability to enter into his father’s joy keeps him outside.
Within this perspective we can understand Jesus’ words: “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you. “If we misinterpret these words, we can conclude erroneously that God withholds forgiveness from us when we withhold it from others. In reality, when we do not forgive others, we lose the capacity to receive the forgiveness that God offers us.
Jesus condemns not the elder son, but his self-righteousness. Self-righteousness can cloak itself in many forms, even the guise of humility. Even the prodigal son himself has a peculiar self-righteousness that declares, “I may have my faults and failings; I may have even done wicked things in my life, but at least I’m not self-righteous like my brother. ” Such a disclaimer not only proclaims one’s moral superiority but also can even contain a sort of boast. It’s the pride of the initiated sophisticate who smiles down with condescension upon his inexperienced brother. “What does my brother know of life? He’s never been off my father’s farm. He’s never been in the big city. My God, he’s never even disobeyed one of my father’s orders.” Tolkien labels such an attitude “inverted hypocrisy.” He held that while we are somewhat free from the common form of hypocrisy that professes a holier than thou attitude, we are subject to an inverted form of hypocrisy that consists of “professing to be worse than we are” (337).
The two brothers in today’s gospel may resemble each other more than either of them would care to admit. Rigid, overly moralistic, self-righteous people are vulnerable to abandoning themselves to a self-indulgent, hedonistic lifestyle. Conversely, hedonistic individuals are often blind to the self-righteousness that they project upon others.
~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.