Summary: A younger son tries to run away from the father. An elder son tries to replace the father. Neither succeeds because the love of the father ultimately breaks through and touches them both.
The Prodigal Son
The younger brother threw down his hoe and stormed angrily across the field toward the farmhouse. His elder brother watched for a while, shook his head and returned to his weeding. For the two brothers, never happy with each other, this was the latest incident in the ongoing argument that was their lives.
The younger brother was a free spirit, unbound by convention, who loved to sing and dance. He was a charming, sensuous young man with an easy smile. But he was no farmer and hated the back-breaking labor it required. The younger brother dreamt of leaving his small town on the edge of nowhere to go and experience the wide world for himself. He wanted to leave the joyless toil of the farm, get away from his overbearing brother and mix with people as interesting as himself. The elder brother was his opposite, a diligent field hand who loved the land, appreciated the food it produced and the community it sustained. He was a conservative soul, mistrustful of outsiders, who poured all of his ambition into the earth. And what ambition he had! The elder brother had big plans for the family farm, which he would someday inherit, a responsibility he prepared for every day.
For all of their lives, the two had been locked in a dysfunctional embrace, with the elder brother trying to pound his younger brother into a traditionalist mold he could understand and the younger brother chafing under the heel of his tiresome sibling, unable and unwilling to give up his big city dreams. Their values, their aspirations, their very souls were opposed to each other in a struggle that played out on the family farm, the younger brother yearning to leave, the elder brother committed to the earth and the ancient customs that grew out of it.
As was his habit, their father had been watching from the upstairs window of the farmhouse. He had seen this many times before: a thoughtless comment, an equally unthinking response, an explosion, followed by a deepening alienation that made the next argument all but inevitable. The father was a compassionate man, who loved his sons deeply. He well understood his boys and their poisonous relationship. The strife between his sons was a source of great pain to him and he longed to mend their rift. In their self-absorbed struggle with each other, neither son was able to feel the love of the father. Indeed, blinded by their mutual fury, they did not even see him. The relationship between the three of them was a broken triangle, with the father pouring out love onto his two angry sons like a soft rain on two hard stones.
As the younger son headed back to the farmhouse, the father watched him closely. There was something different in the walk of his younger son, a quick, determined step that the father had not seen in him before. When the younger son was fifty yards from the house, the father saw that the normally cheerful face of his younger son was twisted into a grimace.
This argument was in fact different from all the others that had preceded it. For all of their lives, the father had protected the younger brother from the more extreme rages of his elder brother. However, the father was growing old and the younger brother had been thinking lately about what life would be like after his father passed. The elder brother would inherit two-thirds of the farm as well as the right to manage the place. The elder brother would be in charge and there was every reason to think that he would become, untempered by the kind oversight of the father, a tyrant. The elder brother would work his younger brother from sunup to sundown and force his unwilling sibling into the role of a traditional farmer, settling once and for all their long-running argument. With his elder brother in charge, the younger brother would be bound to the soil forever because the elder brother would certainly never consent to a sale of the farm and a split of the proceeds. His father, on the other hand, just might. The younger brother flew up the stairs and confronted his father, saying, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
The father fell back into his chair, astonished at the request. His younger son was asking for the one-third of the family estate that would normally come to him after the father died. The younger son was saying that he could not wait for his father to die and wanted his inheritance now. The implications of this demand were enormous. First, the younger son showed a profound disrespect for his father, saying in effect that he wanted the material goods of his father but not the father himself and could not wait for his father to die to collect. In order to comply with the request, much of the farm would have to be sold, removing any hope that he and his elder brother might resolve their differences and keep the family farm together. Such a sale would leave the family with a smaller estate and much more exposed to the risk of famine. The community, too, would suffer as servants would have to be released and the property sold at fire-sale prices, very likely to an absentee Roman landholder. There would be a public hearing by the rabbis to adjudicate the claims between the brothers and this was guaranteed to be ugly, an unwelcome test of God’s law.