A few years ago there was a very nearly violent confrontation at a workplace instigated by a man who had a tendency to speak his mind very aggressively, especially if he felt challenged. Being a rather large man, it seemed he knew how to use his size and his booming voice to intimidate. What was going through his mind, however, is not necessarily relevant nor is the situation that led to the blow-out. In the course of events, the man had all but told his supervisor – in front of the rest of the work team – to go jump in a lake, though I cleaned the language up a bit! In the end, the president of the company called the managers together to discuss the confrontation and what course of action to take. This president preferred consensus management over delegated authority. The managers were unanimous in their agreement that the man must be terminated immediately, being aware of legal precedents which were already established.
The president, claiming to be a Christian, said; “What about the Prodigal Son?” He felt the offender should be forgiven and given yet another chance. One manager asked: “Did he ask for forgiveness? Did he apologize?” The president answered that the man had not only not apologized but insisted that he had no reason to apologize.
Finally, another manager a little more familiar with the Scripture and the story answered the president. “There is a key element to the parable: REPENTANCE. The Prodigal Son did not insist that he was “right” even if his method had been wrong – AND the Son asked to be forgiven AFTER he had come to his senses and realized the harm, the sin, and the subsequent damage, all that came about as a result of his chosen and deliberate separation from his father.
The man was finally fired.
The second story involves a son who took some money from his father for a weekend retreat with a church group – only the son took the money and went bar-hopping and skirt-chasing. This story is similar to that of the Prodigal Son except that this young man got locked up for drunk and disorderly. Since he had already spent all the cash, he was forced to call his father for bail. Of course dad was disappointed because he never suspected his son to be so inclined, but he posted the bail and said very little on the ride home.
The next morning the son did finally muster the nerve to apologize to his father, and dad readily accepted his apology and forgave him for the incident after the son had assured his dad that such a thing had never happened before (a lie) and would never happen again (a big, ol’ lie). Later one of the son’s buddies came by to pick him up for a ball game. On the way to the game, the son was laughing about the “good ol’ time he had until he got picked up by the police. A bit of bad luck, he said, but the women I met and the high time I did have …. Wooo-weee!! “Next time I’ll be more careful!”
The first story involves a man who is unwilling to believe that he could be wrong on any level, that it was everybody else’s fault. Since the incident which led to his dismissal was not the first offense and since he refused to make peace with anyone when he was given the chance, he was dismissed by a man who was eager to “forgive and forget”, but there was that portion of the equation missing from the entire situation: the man was not sorry, and repentance was not an option.
The concept in the second story some may consider being a little trickier because dad’s forgiveness was sincere. When the son had asked for forgiveness, the father readily accepted the apology and was ready to put the incident in the past where it belongs. However, the unconditional blessing coming from dad has been somewhat complicated by an ungrateful and manipulative son who said “sorry” not because he was but because he was seeking to avoid further consequences. He wanted dad to believe he had learned his lesson. He was manipulating his father and the circumstances for his own benefit. He had learned nothing, his “apology” was no apology at all and as he had expressed to his friend, repentance was not an option.
So the question we’re left with in the story of the Prodigal Son is this: if son had just come home after he ran out of money and said nothing, would or should dad be compelled, required, or inclined to forgive him without a word, especially if the only thing the son might have been sorry about was that he ran out of money? To be sure, the portrait Jesus is painting is that of a loving father who is painfully aware that his son has gone astray. It could be inferred that the father was not naïve about why the son took the money in the first place, but he nevertheless gave the son his portion without question and without warning. The son was not seeking a new business venture or to expand the family enterprise. The son was up to no good and the father may well have known this but this was his son, not an indentured slave. The son was free to stay or go – the choice had to be his own.
In the case of the wild man in the work place, forgiveness from the president would have been inappropriate because the president was not a party to the incident and had not been directly offended. In the case of the father with the drunken son, forgiveness came easily as it was the father’s nature not to hold grudges. He was inclined by his good nature to give anyone who asked the benefit of the doubt. Dad is no fool, however. There is a limit to his patience and good nature. He possesses a pretty sound understanding of human nature which allows him to give a great deal of slack especially for those with a rather weak constitution, but he also understands that one’s intent is eventually revealed. Those who apologize as a mere courtesy but make no real effort at reconciliation are not interested in a restored relationship; they only want to escape retribution.
The Prodigal Son came into a real awakening, but the story goes much deeper than just surface issues such as consequences for bad behavior. Children leave home and set out to make their own way in the world. In fact, we parents do our best to teach our children to function independently in the world. So our kids leave, but the loving relationship which existed before still exists. In fact, that loving relationship can be extended by the child who was taught how to love. So rather than a relationship being completely severed, that relationship can actually be extended to include others who will eventually come into the child’s life. The life line from generation to generation still exists.
In the story of the Prodigal Son a genuine, loving relationship had been severed by the son’s choice of action. The son sought not only to strike out on his own but to completely separate himself from his father altogether. Why he made such a choice is anyone’s guess just as we parents are even today sometimes left scratching our heads and wondering why our children sometimes make such obviously bad choices. I don’t see, however, that Jesus makes an attempt to go there because that is not the point of the story.
Jesus is speaking to an entire audience of prodigal children – then and now. He is speaking to a huge chunk of that crowd, many of whom likely believe their sins are so great that restoration is not possible – so they don’t even try. But listen carefully. Jesus is also speaking to the many who take such forgiveness for granted and merely assume that such grace is automatic, that it is not necessary to apologize, make amends, or even attempt to live a life worthy of such love and consideration. Simply to say, “I’m sorry” says nothing of tomorrow. It is merely in the moment and seems to be appropriate – and it is, but it is not enough.
Repentance goes far beyond spoken words. In fact, like “love” itself, repentance requires an act of the will. We not only express our sorrow for any offense we’ve committed, but within the apology is an expressed implication that we won’t do that again. Repentance also indicates which way we want the relationship to go and whether we are truly seeking restoration of that relationship – or simply trying to escape punishment or avoid consequences. It’s funny that we teach our children to apologize when they’ve hurt someone because it is the polite thing to do. I think often we also try to teach our children to see and understand the harm they’ve done, but in the end it is the apology we will insist upon – whether they want to or not. But think also of this: do you really want an apology from someone who does not mean it and has no intention of changing his or her behavior?
The “meat and potatoes” of the story is for those who are truly sorry and who truly intend a new direction for their lives. It is for those who understand how directionless and pointless and fraught with danger is a life spent apart from the very source of life. It is for those who would be grateful to the Father for mere “scraps from the table” but would soon enough discover that their place at the table is still intact and that our Father has just been waiting – and hoping – we would choose to return to Him.