The prodigal son: A tale of two ‘snots’ Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Written by Bishop Robert C. Morlino   
Thursday, Mar. 18, 2010 -- 12:00 AM

This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.

The story we heard in the Gospel on Sunday, the story (as it is called) of the “Prodigal Son,” is a terrific story. I have a bishop-friend who always refers to this, not as the parable of the prodigal son, but as the “parable of the two snots.” That, indeed, is exactly what it is.

Let’s take a brief look at the first son. In speaking of this story over the past weekend, Pope Benedict talked about how, as young people grow up, they go through a period of “infantile dependence” on their parents, during which time they practice “infantile obedience.” Then, as they hit those wonderful teens, they get the idea that they should be free and more independent of their parents. And then they sing that old song, “I gotta be free, I gotta be me.”

The first son

That is precisely the song that the first son in our story was singing — he was very “normal.” That is the song that the son was singing when he said to his dad, completely out of order, “Father, give me my inheritance.” He was not supposed to receive that inheritance until the father died; his asking was a deep, deep insult, a deep act of disrespect, and a deep act of disobedience to the father. But he was just like many other adolescents, feeling his freedom.

The son took what he wanted and went far away to a land distant from the father. The son didn’t want to be anywhere near the father and wanted to live out his newfound autonomy and freedom. Eventually, he saw that he was filled with nothing but emptiness. He was left with no money, nothing that he had done that he was proud of, and was, in fact, very ashamed. So, he said to himself, maybe I can go back and have a different kind of relationship with my father. And he so longed to get back to his father’s house that he said, “I am not worthy to enter it; treat me like one of your hired servants.”

The father paid no attention to the speech that the son had practiced; he ran out, hugged him, and called for a celebration. So the first son passed from infantile obedience and dependence, through the phase of autonomy and rebellion, to the point of a mature, respectful obedience to the father and a desire, once again, to belong in his father’s house. He clearly started out as a “snot” and clearly does not end up as one.

The second son

Now, let’s look at the second son. The Holy Father said that the second son was stuck, for his whole life, in that first stage of development of a little child — he was stuck in a stage of infantile dependence and infantile obedience to his father, though in age he was getting older. But he was normal enough that that desire to feel his independence and freedom was still there — though he had squelched it all his life — and, as his brother returned, was in a rage.

So, the one who had always been with the father, sharing all that the father had, “refused to enter the father’s house,” when his younger brother returned. He had been wanting to refuse for years, but he was stuck in infantile dependence and infantile obedience, and when he reached the breaking point he erupted like a volcano into that phase of, “I gotta be free, I gotta be me.”

We know that the younger son “came to his senses,” but we don’t know about the older one. We don’t have that information. The older son refused to enter his father’s house, even though the father reminded him, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” We never hear, though, what the older son said or did at that point. We don’t know if the older son moved into the mature respect and obedience of belonging in his father’s house.

A human portrait

Ultimately, when we look at those two sons, they really represent all of us. In all of us, because of original sin, there is something that makes us not want really to belong to our Father and live in His house. If you live in the Father’s house, you respect the Father and you play by the Father’s rules — and it’s the same in human families.

The younger son couldn’t get far enough from the father, but then he came to his senses. The older one stayed with his father day-in and day-out, in infantile dependence and infantile obedience, and every year he hated it more and more, until he erupted and refused to enter the father’s house. We’re like one or the other. There is something about belonging to the Father and entering into His house that we resist.

To enter into the Father’s house is to have total joy, but to enter into the Father’s house is also to have a serious responsibility for doing the Father’s work in the world. And there are elements of that responsibility that every one of us is tempted to reject. How much do we really want to be in our Father’s house? How desperate are we to enter His house? How dedicated are we to belonging to the Father, completely, in His house? How much do we want to be like Jesus?

Remember, it is the same St. Luke who offered the parable of the Prodigal Son who also told the story of the disappearance of Jesus from His parents in the caravan on the way to Jerusalem, when He was 12 years old. And what did Jesus say to His parents when they found him, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus loves His Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, but the mission of the Father comes first. He belongs in the Father’s house and that is where He wants to be.

I hope that all of us, when we renew our baptismal promises at Easter can say that with great joy. At Easter, we will be joyful if we can say to the world, which so often thrives on the absence of God, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house — I belong completely to Him and that’s where I must be!” That is the expression of a truly happy Easter and of resurrection joy!

Thank you for reading this. Continued Lenten blessings to you and your loved ones. Praised be Jesus Christ!