Last week’s post focused on the tension when an unofficial disciple was casting out demons. Today’s post considers the story of the prodigal son and the elder brother. The story is about a man whose second son took his inheritance and left for a distant country where he squandered it. When he returned to his senses, he returned to his father, who lovingly welcomed him and called a big feast where they killed the fatted calf. The elder brother was indignant and complained, but the father calmed him.
Although the common lesson concerns God as a compassionate father, it also has lessons on conflict management. Unlike other stories discussed in these series, the story of the prodigal son is not a true-life story but a parable. The conflicting parties are the two brothers. The elder brother considered his interests threatened when his father welcomed his lost brother. The actions of their father serve as Jesus’ response.
The story is only recorded in Luke’s gospel (Luke 15: 11-32). Jesus told the parable when the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.
While tensions may have existed between the two brothers, it is unclear if tensions made the younger son ask his father for his share of his inheritance and depart with it. Nevertheless, the conflict actually began when the younger brother returned, and the father welcomed him with a great feast. Conflict is the tension that arises when people perceive that others are blocking their goals, needs, desires, or expectations. When the younger brother took his inheritance and went away, the elder brother knew that the rest was largely his. However, when the younger brother returned and was reinstated as a son, the elder brother became concerned because the great feast meant that the father may still cut down his share to give to his younger brother, who had already squandered his share.
The elder brother got his first information from a servant who said: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he came back safe and sound” (Luke 15:27). Then the elder brother became angry and refused to go in. When the father came to plead with him, he answered the father: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15: 29). While the elder brother’s anger is that his father did not gift him even a young goat to feast with his friends, I argue that his anger is basically that his younger brother has been reinstated as a son with a great feast, and not that he was not gifted a goat to celebrate with his friends.
The father’s response
The father’s response in the parable of the prodigal son shows the depth of his love for his children. Yet, his love gestures were strategic because he knew the prodigal son’s return would lead to tensions between his two sons.
First, the prodigal son knew he had lost his right to sonship because he asked for his share of the inheritance while the dad was alive and departed with the wealth. Hence, when things got difficult, he decided to go and tell his father these words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Luke 15:19). Interestingly, when he met his father, he did not say exactly these words. Instead, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). The scripture did not say why he omitted the clause ‘treat me like one of your hired hands’. Of course, the prodigal son never expected the reception the father gave him. He had prepared himself for the worst, but the love must have changed his mind to omit that part.
Hence, the father’s first response was to show love to the prodigal son. He didn’t respond to his request of being unworthy to be called a son. Instead, he told the servants to dress him in the best robe, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, and kill the fatted calf because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”. This response shows the father welcomed him back and reinstated him as a son. Yet, the dad never explicitly said he did so. Saying so would have implied that he automatically regained all his lost rights.
The father’s response to the elder brother was also important. As I stated earlier, the elder brother got his first information from a servant, who may not have known the full details of the discussion of the prodigal son with the father. Hence, the elder brother may not have known that the father never explicitly reinstated his brother as a son. He just saw the feasting for a prodigal brother. This partly explains his response to his father not gifting him a goat to celebrate with his friends.
Therefore, the father first went and pleaded with the elder son to come in and join the feast to celebrate a lost brother who returned alive. Second and more importantly, the father responded to his fundamental concern about the prodigal son sharing in his inheritance. The father said: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Lessons from the Father
(a) Love should not make us ignore justice:
Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed (Psalm 85:10). Although the truth of the prodigal son’s misdeed remained, the father showed him mercy by forgiving and welcoming him home with a great feast. Nevertheless, justice means that the prodigal son should no longer share in the remaining inheritance, and that is the only way to enable lasting peace between the two brothers.
(b) Safeguard your negotiating position:
Not everyone can successfully intervene in a conflict because only those who have some influence on the conflicting parties can intervene in a conflict. The father of the prodigal son mediated because both were his sons. Therefore, leaders should be cautious in taking sides in a conflict among their followers. This is to ensure they maintain communication with every party. As the previous lesson shows, love and mercy should not undermine justice.
(c) Focus on the issue and not the person:
The father’s interest was on the return of a ‘lost’ and ‘dead’ son and not on what he did. The elder brother instead focused on his brother’s character. The father did not also focus on the elder brother’s jealousy but on the point at stake – making space for his younger brother, who was ‘lost’ and ‘dead’. Focusing on the issue is essential in conflict management because it reduces misinterpretation of an attack on one’s ego.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.