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The prodigal son

A wounded identity
and mercy

 L’identità ferita  e la misericordia  DCM-006
04 June 2022

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.  And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.  So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on[b] the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet;  and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry;  for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’  But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,  but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15, 11-32

When the older brother learns about the reason for the music and the party, he is outraged. He is so angry that he refuses to enter. It is not difficult to imagine him on the threshold of his father’s house, gnashing his teeth. His sadness has always led me to reflect, and I have wondered what ever happens in our hearts when we are unable to rejoice. What chord must be struck for the good of others to become a threat or an insult to us, or both at the same time?

In the case of this parable, the answer seems clear. Certainly, the elder brother feels envious, which is a decidedly unpleasant feeling. It is the only capital sin that does not carry with it the illusion of happiness or pleasure in return for our consent to an apparent good. Envy promises nothing, for it brings only bitterness and sadness. The elder brother believes he has justified reasons for feeling it. For years, he has gone the extra mile in his father’s field. He has borne the burden of fatigue and heat, and has irrigated the fields with his sweat, every day, every week, every month, and every year. Meanwhile, his younger brother did nothing good. In fact, he did all those things his older brother probably had wanted to do too, but had never allowed himself, except in his dreams. To kill the fatted calf to celebrate the return of this irresponsible wretch was certainly an offence. It practically meant telling him that his work was worth nothing, that his faithful service over all those years was worth nothing, in short, that he himself was ultimately worthless. Insignificant.

At the root of envy, there is always a doubt about one’s own worth. When one is unsure of a father’s love, one imagines the other as a competitor. This is clear in the case of children. If the older child feels envy towards the younger one, it is because they feel that the latter’s arrival will steal some of their parents’ love away from them. Instead, when children are certain of this love, they learn to share.

The passing of years teaches us to adopt good manners. As we enter into adult life we no longer make the scenes we did as children, which was when we knew how to scream and cry “it’s not fair!”; “it’s my turn now!”; “it’s my go” without restraint. Nevertheless, the child’s sense of being wounded often stays with us, and makes us experience the success of others as if something has been taken away from us.

However, there is more besides. We carry within us a wound in our sense of identity as children, which makes us doubt that we are lovable. Therefore, here we probably come to the crux of the matter, as such we do not believe that we deserve total and gratuitous love. We perhaps accept that we are loved for our beauty, or for those qualities, actions, and behaviour that we recognise as our merits. Nonetheless, we all have, in the ‘home of our intimacy’, rooms where we wish no one would ever enter; rooms full of shadows, which throw our poverty in our faces. Those rooms - we think - are not worthy of love. They are too ugly. This inner sense of unworthiness leads us to think that we have to deserve affection, and with our successes, an eagerness to control, which responds to the expectations of others. For the eldest son in the parable, it seems that he lives a little like this, he sees himself not as a son, but as a servant. He does not live under the loving gaze of his father but under the judging gaze of himself, and he never considers himself to be equal, which explains why he is so harsh towards his brother too. The point lies in the fact that we look at others in the same way we feel looked at. If our gaze towards others is hard and uncompromising, perhaps we find that we have an equally hard and uncompromising gaze towards ourselves.

The sadness of the eldest son has always encouraged me to examine myself. I discovered that the ability to look tenderly at others is intimately connected with my personal experience of mercy. I have noticed that when I have felt invaded by the Father’s gaze of love (the one from which all fatherhood comes) my heart has spontaneously become gentle and sweet towards the people around me. We begin to understand who we are the moment we meet the loving gaze of the Father, who delights in us and welcomes us exactly as we are. At that moment, so admirably portrayed by Rembrandt, we stop being servants, we discover ourselves to be children and we also become brothers to our brothers. Moreover, we can finally enter into the joy and celebration of love received and shared, which is undeserved.

by Marta Rodriguez