The Lesson of the Prodigal’s Father

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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?

Racism, Grace, and a Shrinking World

The world is shrinking. No, I’m not talking about physically shrinking (although if the universe is expanding at the rate science believes, statistically our world IS shrinking in proportion to the universe).  I mean that technology has effectively closed the communication distance between people.

For instance, if in the distant yesteryear, you said something that could have been construed as inappropriate , the only people who heard your gaff were the people in the room. Today, people say things on Twitter and can offend millions within seconds.

This past week, PR exec Justine Sacco was sacked following this tweet:

Justine SaccoObviously offensive. What could have possessed her to write such a thing? Especially given the fact that she works in public relations? My wife and I still puzzle over it.

And then, Steve Martin came across as a jerk in this tweet:

steve_martin_tweetPeople viewed his answer to the question (Is this how you spell lasonia?) as making fun of names in the African-American community.

In both cases, the tweets were deleted shortly after they were written and their writers apologized. Steve Martin, in addition to his apology, has explained the context of his joke and I’m sure that his image will sustain no permanent tarnish. But Justine Sacco doesn’t have a Hollywood history of comedic gold on which to fall back. She’ll probably pay for her mistake forever.

After owning up for his mistake, Martin said this:

“Comedy is treacherous. I used to try out jokes in clubs and the audience’s feedback would tell me when I had crossed a line, or how to shape a joke so it is clear,” he said. “Today, the process is faster. It’s your brain, a button, then millions of reactions. But it’s my job to know.”

In this shrinking world, perhaps our grace should grow with the size of the audience. In the past, an offensive mistake would require an apology to only the room that heard it. Since the room today includes everyone everywhere, I propose that our forgiveness grow in size, if not in proportion (still covering everyone). Because one of these days, we are going to say something unintentionally offensive, and we are going to need that grace and forgiveness for ourselves.

The Breaking Nature of True Forgiveness

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I’ve been listening to Jars of Clay’s song “Reckless Forgiver” lately, and it’s got me thinking.

I kind of hate forgiveness. Specifically, I hate needing it. To need forgiveness means that I have done something wrong. And when I have done something wrong, I would rather earn redemption than receive forgiveness.

I would almost always rather face the consequences for my actions than accept forgiveness.

Because forgiveness is unmerited. There are no strings attached. No expectations.

There still may be consequences based on the actions committed, but the when the wronged party truly forgives the offender, they forfeit claim to any personal retribution, which puts the offender in a tricky position. It forces the offender to either abandon their pride and accept the forgiveness, or refuse forgiveness and put consequences on themselves.

In the first situation, the response is uncomfortable because it requires us to set aside our pride. Why would someone who needs forgiveness experience pride? Because they want to believe that they can still make the situation right, that they can fix things on their own.

In the second, it is uncomfortable because it forces the offender to attempt something that is simply impossible. No matter how hard we try, no one can wind the clock back and undo the offense. The best they can hope for is to be offended in the same way by the person they offended so that somehow things will be “even”. But even then, things will never be better; they will simply be equally bad.

And so to be forgiven is to be broken. To accept that there is nothing we can do to make a situation right is hard thing to do, a very foreign thing to do. And in the wake of this brokenness, how should we act? Humbled, and hopefully wise enough to avoid making the same mistake in the future.