The parable in today’s Gospel reading belongs to a category of biblical literature called “two brothers stories.” The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis and the story of Jacob and Esau in the same book are examples of “two brothers stories.” The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel is another example of this type of story.
“Two brothers stories” provide a comparison and contrast between differing patterns of behavior. Typically, one brother in the story is an example to be emulated and the other brother is an example of behavior to be avoided. The parable in today’s Gospel reading contains an added plot twist: the brother who appeared to be virtuous to Jesus’ audience is the one whose behavior was condemned.
In truth, both brothers in the story were rather disappointing examples of filial obedience. The first son made his father look ineffectual by publicly refusing to fulfill the father’s wishes. The second son was no more obedient than the first, but he was, at least, cognizant of his father’s self-esteem. The second son lied to his father, but he did so in a way that preserved his father’s public reputation as head of the household.
Surprisingly, Jesus identified the combative son as the one whose behavior is to be imitated because he repented of his selfishness and fulfilled his father’s wishes.
Obviously, this is a parable about repentance. The moral of the story accords with Jesus’ preaching. Jesus was always quick to recognize and affirm repentant sinners. He taught that, despite one’s history of sinfulness, heartfelt repentance was far superior to giving the mere appearance of righteousness.
The parable is also a story about expectations and the fulfillment of expectations. The father expected both sons to be obedient to his commands. Further, he expected both to uphold the family’s honorable reputation. Unfortunately for the father in the story, each son fulfilled only one of those expectations; one was conscientious and the other was respectable.
Jesus’ audience would have approved of the respectability of the second son, but Jesus commended the first son for his change of heart. According to Jesus, true righteousness is found only in repentance.
Like the father in the parable, every person has expectations of other people’s behavior. Each one of us knows precisely how we want others to treat us. Often, however, we find ourselves receiving the same disrespectful treatment that the father in the parable received. There is a way to elicit the kind of respect we desire, but it requires that we abandon conventional expectations.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul writes, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3) This advice is clearly contrary to our cultural norms. Each of us expects others to treat us with deference, kindness, and generosity; we feel slighted when these attitudes are lacking in the people around us. While this sort of disappointment is a common experience, it is equally common to ignore the fact that other people feel the same way we do. Everyone expects to be treated well, and everyone is disappointed by the inconsistencies in other people’s behavior. The solution to this dilemma ought to be obvious, but our disappointments and dissatisfactions tend to cloud our perceptions.
St. Paul said, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3) If this doesn’t sound like an effective strategy for receiving the respect you desire, ask yourself about the alternatives. Are you likely to receive kindness and compassion from people whose expectations you ignore?
Our culture’s conventional tactics of demanding respect, coercing the attentions of others, and threatening retaliation for insults are incapable of eliciting benevolent behavior from others. The obvious choice is to treat others in the way that we wish to be treated, but this requires an extraordinary degree of humility – the sort of humility exemplified by the son who repented.
Jesus demonstrated that righteousness results solely from repentance by telling a story about one brother who was humble enough to abandon his selfishness and a second brother who masqueraded his selfishness as respectability. Then, he asked, “Which of the two sons did his father’s will?” (Mt. 21:31) We might, then, ask ourselves, “What is likely to elicit kindhearted treatment from others: outrage or humility?”