One of the most challenging moments in a Gospel parable for me is when the oldest son says to his father:
‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ — Luke 15:29-30
Who among us has not felt this way at some moment–in our families, among our friends, in our job? Loyalty is something we feel strongly. It is something we give to others as trust grows. As super-heroes and TV and movie protagonists put it, “I’ve got your back.”
We know the power of loyalty in our daily lives. When tragedy strikes the family, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and far-flung relatives come together to “circle the wagons”–to protect, to comfort, to raise up, to pray.
In business and politics, we see this same “herding of cattle” mentality–bringing everyone and everything tightly together to resist any outside attacks or challenges.
Loyalty is a peculiar thing, though. It is by definition devotion or faithfulness to a thing, person, or cause. But what is at the root of loyalty–a common experience, a shared emotion, something more profound?
I’m convinced that one of the most subtle lessons Jesus tried to teach us was about loyalty. It is much easier to stop the parable of the prodigal son after the father rejoices at the return of the younger son, and say, “A-ha. The lesson to be learned is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”
And that is all true. But by the wisdom of those who determined the readings in the Lectionary, it doesn’t end there. And so, we (or, at least, I am) left with this quizzical “hmmm” moment at the end of the Gospel. Because it doesn’t quite fit the easy and obvious lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation. Is there a more profound lesson here? Yes.
The eldest son got the “circling the wagons” kind of loyalty easily. Regardless of what befell the family, he knew his role and what to do in any situation. But there is another “L” in loyalty that has escaped him — Love.
When we are loyal without love or true faithfulness, what we expect of each other can become transactional. “I do this for you. You do this for me.” Instead the father tries to show him how deep and rich the love he has for his older son is, and in that, what true loyalty is. He does not rebuke him for his anger. He accepts it and offers back a gift, everything he has and is.
It is the love of the father for the son–this father, this son; fathers everywhere for their sons; the Father and the Son. This is loyalty.