A commenter asked whether the criticism of Mary Gordon’s
It’s hard to “re-discover” the parable of the Prodigal Son, since it is so familiar to us. But it is also one of those stories that simply doesn’t ever lose its emotional power. Unless you are an only child who has never had children of your own (and perhaps even then), its hard to imagine that you wouldn’t resonate with some relational dynamic of this story. Who doesn’t know the shame, at some level, of “coming to yourself” after wandering away? Who doesn’t know the grief of seeing a loved one wander off? Who doesn’t know the resentment of the elder brother, feeling overlooked though he’s strived for so long to keep his nose clean?
In our own house we spend a lot of time thinking about sibling rivalry, and a lot of energy as parents trying to blunt its power. But wow, it is a force! The need the children profess to have everything be “fair” is insatiable, a game you cannot ever really win. Because they are not the same. To treat everyone “the same” is in fact to treat someone unfairly, because their needs differ.
One of the “bibles” of parenting through this minefield is Siblings without Rivalry, which provides parents with tools for stepping out of the tit-for-tat scorekeeping kids so readily engage in. But its most powerful moment is when the authors recount a seminar in which they acknowledged that, no matter what we say, most parents secretly do have a child that speaks to their heart more than the others. Amazingly, when the authors say this aloud among parents who have begun to trust each other, no one contradicts them. Most of us try mightily to not let our children know this truth, but in our own hearts we can't deny it. We strive to treat children equally as a sort of compensation for the reality that they truly are very different people.
In fact, one confidential survey some years ago of adult children and their parents revealed that all family members identified a “favorite” among siblings. But here’s the odd thing: the children often identified a different favorite than the parents did. The beloved child doesn’t always look that way. (Case in point: Jesus).
This parable is one of the most powerful arguments for the assertion that “God is not just. God is merciful.” No wonder we prefer to focus on the love shown to the wayward son as opposed to the elder son’s bitterness. We might know exactly how angry he is, and yet the story cannot truly end as long as he's just sitting out there, outside the party.
God is merciful. Maybe God made "him to be sin who knew no sin" so that we would stop trying to figure out who the favorite is after all. If the beloved child is the wayward one, dying cursed on a tree, then the party thrown as he comes to life again really belongs to all of us.