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Skewed thinking on righteousness

Here is the most beautiful of all the parables of the gospels. Jesus’ introduction explains the reason he narrated the parable. 

He is not appealing to sinners, but to the righteous: “Tax collectors and sinners were seeking the company of Jesus. But the Pharisees and scribes frowned on this, muttering, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (vv.1-3). 

Jesus’ answer to this accusation is the second part of the story, that of the older brother, who clearly represents the Pharisees enters the scene. 

They blamelessly observe the commandments. They are the ones who need to change their way of thinking if they don’t want to remain excluded from the banquet of the kingdom announced by the prophets (Isaiah 25:6-8).

The older son comes from the fields, exhausted. He is indignant and his anger is more than justified: it is the logical reaction of the faithful and irreproachable person before an obvious injustice. 

To the father who begs him to enter, he lists his merits: I have not transgressed any command, I have always served faithfully…

It is the perfect portrait of the observant and careful Pharisee, who in the temple can say to the Lord: “I am not like other people, grasping, crooked, adulterous. I fast twice a week and give the tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12).

That was how the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time reasoned and that is how many believers today reason. 

Theoretically, we admit that God is right to do what he wants (Matthew 20:15), we recognise that from him we receive grace for free, but basically we continue to think that the righteous are in credit before him, that paradise has to be earned, and that those who do not earn it are kicked out.

This blameless older brother did not understand that the father does not want servants in his home, but children. 

In the parable, the younger son uses the word father five times, because for him the father is really a Father. He knows he cannot make claims in his regard, is convinced he received everything free, not deserving anything. 

But from the lips of the older son the word father never escapes. He shows signs of being a servant, not a son; the father for him is only a master.

The consequence of this skewed relationship with the father is the refusal of the brother who is called: “This son of yours” (v.30). 

Immediately, however, the father, with great finesse, corrects him: “This brother of yours…” (v.32). 

The older son cannot accept the novelty, cannot renounce his ideas, his beliefs, his complacency for his merits… He will continue going to church, will not miss a Mass, but always harshly criticise those preachers who speak of the gratuitous love of God, the salvation of all people, of an empty hell…


Can we hear the Lord’s invitation to change our way of thinking about righteousness? 


• Father Fernando Armellini CMF
Claretian Publications