The Parable of Brotherly Envy Print
From the Diocesan Administrator
From the Diocesan Administrator column

Following is a homily given by Msgr. James Bartylla, diocesan administrator, for the fourth Sunday of Lent.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son on the fourth Sunday of Lent is a parable well known to most of us. I've often thought of it as the New Testament version of the Book of Job in its impact.

If the Book of Job might be conveniently subtitled, "Why do bad things happen to good people?", the Parable of the Prodigal Son might be subtitled, "Why do good to bad people?" (i.e., to the prodigal son), and "Are good people really so good?" (i.e., the older son's behavior).

Reading story in the light of redemption

Why do good to bad people? A good exercise is to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in a spiritual way, and thereby seeing Jesus become the prodigal son by taking on his sins and bringing him back to the Father.

Essentially, it's reading the exchange of the prodigal son and father in the parable in light of the redemption of humanity by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

When the prodigal son says, "How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here I am dying of hunger", it is the plight of humanity lost, a kind of word spoken from the Cross.

When the prodigal son says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers", there is reference to how deeply Jesus self-emptied and took on the sins of the world starting in Gethsemane.

When the father states, "Let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found", who cannot think of the joy of the Resurrection and its meaning for humanity.

Father greeting his son

There is also the father reluctantly letting the prodigal son go to a life of dissipation and waiting for him expectantly and then running to greet him.

A father in that era was not supposed to run to his son, and he had to lift his long robes and tuck them under his belt and run with bare legs, in apparent humiliation according to the decorum of the day.

Imagine the scene of the old father running that way towards a son who is filthy and disgusting from his work among the swine and his dissolute life, with a robe, sandals, and a ring put on his filthy body at that moment of greeting. It makes for quite a vivid scene with greater poignancy of the love of the father for his son.

If humility is less about thinking bad about oneself, and more just about not thinking of oneself all the time, holiness, somewhat paradoxically, is thinking less about your own holiness and rejoicing more about the holiness of others.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of converted humility returning to self-forgetting holiness. It makes for a spiritual "big bang".

The older brother's envy

"Are good people really so good?" The greater conversion in the parable remains dangling and needed at the end of the parable. An open question remains; will the older brother convert from his envy? The poor father trades the problem with one son for the problem with the other. This will require deeper spiritual surgery.

Usually, there are some words that give away the underlying attitude. For example, the older son says, "All these years I served you . . ."; he doesn't say, "All these years I loved you."

The father's response to him is the language of love, "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours." The older son also says, "But when your son returns . . . for him you slaughter the fatted calf." What ever happened to "My brother has returned!" or "I am my brother's keeper."

Isn't this parable the New Testament version of the Cain and Abel story? Abel the Just is now Abel the Repentant, and Cain the Murderer is Cain the Envious.

Of what was the older son truly envious? Was it the feast being thrown for his brother, or was it deeper, maybe the envy of the conversion of his brother?

Two goods competing

There are two goods seemingly at competition here -- that of remaining good and that of converting to the good. The first may begrudge the zeal of the second as lacking depth and stability, while the second may begrudge the solidity of the first as lacking initiative and energy.

In the life of holy orders and of consecrated life, we must be aware of the older son's envy as a particular kind of capital sin for many who are involved so stably in their work for the Church.

Do we really want anyone close to us to be considered holier than we are? Maybe we'll allow for someone at a distance, a semi-remote figure to us, like St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to be holier, but a brother priest or a fellow sister?

Envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, and it is certainly the most joyless of the seven deadly sins, since it starts out unhappy, with no initial pleasure, and it doesn't have anywhere else to go but to brood in its unhappiness.

Moral relativism

A subtle manifestation of envy today in our culture is moral relativism, which denies that there are any objective moral norms. This denial is intended to subvert the objective status of the goodness of others, and not allow their moral goodness to challenge us to self-examination or cause us discomfort.

Even in Religious Life, envy can sometimes lead us to a kind of "spiritual relativism", not so much pertaining directly to objective moral standards of good and evil, but a kind of "relativism of the virtues".

For example, one may so revel in the virtue of striving for justice in society, that the person or community avoids the demand of the greater theological virtue of loving the Lord with one's whole heart, soul, and mind.

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta's great example is that her deep and profound love of Jesus Christ was never falsely put at odds with her tireless work for social justice and for the poor.