The Lesson of the Prodigal’s Father


The story of the Prodigal Son is a familiar, if somewhat troubling, one.

The younger brother in the tale demands his portion of his father’s estate (prior to his father’s demise), gets it, and moves away to a foreign country to live a wild life. When the money runs out and he finds himself living in shameful squalor, he swallows his pride and returns home to beg a place among his father’s servants. Instead of refusing his younger son, the father reinstates him in the family and throws a party for his return. The older, faithful brother who never left complains that his father’s reaction is unfair and that his own faithfulness has never been rewarded.

I’ve heard the story like a billion times, and I’ve always puzzled over the lesson to be learned. I understand it from the point of the younger brother. He makes a string of bad choices, realizes his mistake, and returns to find forgiveness. The way this story is often taught, the listener is encouraged to identify with the younger son and be thankful for God’s forgiveness. Maybe the lesson we are taught is that we shouldn’t make poor choices in the first place, but when we do, we should repent.

The troubling part of the story is when we identify with the older brother instead. After all, the younger brother severely messed up and shamed the entire family. Just because he says he’s sorry, should he really be forgiven and reinstated in the family? Isn’t celebrating his return just another way of enabling his bad choices? To these thoughts, we are often taught that the older brother shouldn’t think these things, because what happens between the father and the younger son shouldn’t concern the older brother. He shouldn’t resent his faithfulness just because his younger brother’s faithlessness turned out okay.

I always thought the lessons ended with the two brothers… until recently.

What happens when we are placed, not in role of the brothers, but the father?

Yes, it is hard to admit you were wrong and plead for forgiveness like the younger son does. And yes, it is hard to not compare yourself to those around you and continue in your faithfulness despite your perceived lack of reward like the older brother must do. But the hardest part of this story to understand is the father’s.

When someone you love wrongs you deeply, acts as though you might as well be dead, and then returns to ask your forgiveness, are you so quick to rejoice at their return? What do you do with feelings of bitterness and pain? How do know that the person who wronged you won’t do it again?

There are many lessons to be learned from the story of the Prodigal Son, but I think the one that is hardest to put into practice is to forgive as the father does.

Have you ever been wronged like this? How do you put away the pain?

One thought on “The Lesson of the Prodigal’s Father

  1. Josh – thoughtful post. I switched from calling this parable “The Prodigal Son” to “The Forgiving Father” a long long time ago. IMHO, the story is actually about God’s love for us, and that we are *never* beyond reach or hope of His forgiveness, if we only repent and confess. This perspective also explains the Father’s answer to the elder son.

    Now, in answer to your questions, unlike God, we neither love perfectly, nor forgive perfectly. Both are works in process. Feelings are amoral. Not to be judged, but experienced. It is how we act in response to feelings that counts. In the past when I have screwed up badly, repented a few days later, owned my sin, confessed to God – as it is against Him all sin is committed (Ps 51) — then went to the hurt person, confessed and asked forgiveness and reconciliation. Only twice in my entire life was the request for forgiveness rejected. It hurt deeply, and those friendships were not restored. While I could presume they identified with the elder brother, i do not. I simply believe one of at least two possibilities occurred. First, perhaps they not in that place in there spiritual journey to understand fully the need to extend forgiveness. Second, perhaps they have pride, some feelings of their own personal guilt in the area where I was asking forgiveness, but again due to where they may be, they cannot respond in kind. I firmly believe, if we cannot forgive ourselves, we cannot forgive others. Either way, any of the myriad of other possibilities, it is *not* my place to judge. When my apologies were refused – I took it to God in prayer to heal both our wounded hearts. It takes much prayer and time for me, but when I pray for the other person to be healed from the pain I inflicted, God answers, and my own hurt is healed more quickly.

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