Let's recall just how bad a jerk this younger brother is: first off, he comes up to his father, whom he should honour above all earthly things, and asks for his inheritance. That is, he is essentially saying to his father, "It'd be better for me if you were dead. Can you pretend to be dead so I can get what I want from you?"
The positive response of his father is in itself, scandalous to Jesus's audience. The younger son then distances himself from his father so as to completely control that wealth which is properly his fathers. Finally, after wasting his money on dissolute living ("sex, drugs and rock'n roll" to my students) he finds himself completely isolated and starving.
At this point in the story, I imagine the Pharisees and the scribes leaning back, perhaps smoking on their pipes if they have them, and muttering to each other, "That was a good story. I thought the father was a little bit of a putz, but at least the younger son got what was coming to him. Good story."
But Jesus isn't done yet. He continues with the younger son returning to a powerfully emotional welcome from his father, an acknowledgement on his lips: "I have behaved like no son of yours."
The father restores his sonship to the highest honour: sandals, the best cloak, a signet ring. The younger son still smells of pig poop. One only "kills the fatted calf" once in a lifetime.
Now watch the elder son's reaction. On hearing the news of the return of his brother, and the joy of his father, he refuses to go inside. His first sin, that of disobedience, leaves him out in the field alone, hungry, trying not to smell the roasting calf. He isolates himself, robbing himself of the great feast, music and dancing. He only hurts himself in distancing himself from his father.
As he ran out while the younger son was "still a long ways off," this lavish father comes out to plead with the elder son, just to accept the feast and celebration. While most of us hearing the parable find it difficult to believe he runs out to meet the younger son, there is a certain entitlement we feel on behalf of the elder brother: You have some explaining to do, pops. "Listen!" he demands. I worked for you, I did what you want (except for right now) and you never gave me a young goat for me and my friends. Why did he obey and work all these years? For love of his father? No. For love of goat. He still wanted to be rewarded. He wanted a little sliver of the sensuous pleasure his young brother gorged himself on. And that desire lead to the same place: wanting to control the father's wealth.
Finally, the separation is complete, when he refers to his brother as "this son of yours" - notice he does not question the legitimacy of his brother's relationship with the father, but by not referring to his brother as "brother" he is rejecting his connection with the father. As if the father is dead to him. Both brothers commit the same sin, face the same consequences, and receive the same lavish offer from the father.
"You are always with me, and everything I have is yours,"says the father. In other words, I'd kill the calf for you if you asked, just as I gave my wealth to your brother, just to keep the two of you close to me. Just to let you know how much I loved you.
And, of course, Jesus leaves us there, with the warm invitation of the Father ringing in our offended and indignant ears - we must celebrate. Each of us, Pharisees, scribes and disciples, must make a choice at the end of this parable: will we cross our arms and pout in a field alone, or will we enter the grand feast, the party that reveals the emptiness of dissolute living and private functions?
Here's one thought: when we approach a celebration, we often fear it will not measure up in some way. No one will come, the caterer will mess up the date, the cousins will fight, great-aunt will be offended, in-laws will be offensive... why do these, real or imagined, storm up in us so badly? Why is the Christmas season marked by so much depression and domestic dispute?
For me, at least, the answer is clear. It is the same reason why both brothers in the parable ended up alone and hungry, when there was plenty of love and food within their reach. I want to control the party. Whether it's a well-funded trip to Vegas or a small private meal of chevon, I want to make the decisions. I want everything to be perfect, for the celebration to convey the reality I wish were in my life, where everyone gets along and has a good time. And, in the pig-pen or a darkening field, when I try to take control I find myself alone and cut off.
With my wonderful children bouncing off me today in Mass, I realized again the gift of parenthood: our children invite us into the moment, that reality which holds the feast that's waiting for us, which we cannot accept as long as we worry and fret. I have screwed up in the past, and I cannot will a particular future into existence - but I have now. I have the smiles and the moments of closeness which the parable father loved and missed so much. Father's Day could have become a stressor of Managing the Perfect Event (it sort of did for my wife...) but thanks be to God, whether I was hosting my sleeping baby boy on my chest or getting an expensive Starbucks hot chocolate dumped on my pants, I was able to celebrate and rejoice that my children are with me and everything I have is theirs.
This, then, is the feast we are called to, the lavish love of the father we can receive as soon as we come to our senses and turn towards him. It is not the special events which confirm what we wish to be true. It is the moment, the Prodigal Moment, when we acknowledge we have behaved like no child of God and allow him to give us even more than we wasted, more than we refused, more than we could have imagined or chosen for ourselves. Every moment we have offers this same feast of the fatted calf, and the greatest tragedy is when we get hung up on our paltry vision, the illusion of our control.
Why are we afraid? Have we no faith?