The Parable of the Prodigal Son follows the aloof youngest Son of a wealthy household. Convinced of his own maturity and confined to his father’s way of life, the Son asks his father for his inheritance early in order to move to the city and create a life for himself. After magnificently failing in this endeavor, the Son returns home to his father and asks for his forgiveness. In response to his child’s rebellion, the father welcomes him back home with open arms and even throws a decadent celebration to commemorate his return.
When reading this parable, most people identify with the Son. The metaphor of the story lends itself to such an interpretation with the father representing the unconditional forgiveness of God and the Son representing the hubris and fallible nature of humanity. However, this story is more complex than it might seem at first glance. When viewed again we can learn a valuable lesson about forgiveness from this parable. One of the main themes throughout Jesus’ ministry on Earth is the idea of forgiveness. In one of his most famous speeches, Jesus talks at length about how you should treat people who have wounded you in the past. For instance in Matthew 5:49-50, Jesus says:
but I tell you, do not resist an evil perSon. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
Only a few verses later, Jesus goes on to clarify his position on retaliation even further. In Matthew 5:44, he gives his timeless instruction to love your neighbor as yourself, an idea echoed in Mark 11:31 when asked to discuss which commandments are most important. To Christ, the desire for revenge and retaliation in the face of adversity are distractions from witnessing the humanity present in that perSon and treating the conditions that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. Instead of returning force with force, Christian conflict resolution might look more like turning the other cheek or donating your coat to someone who needs it more than yourself. It would also look like the open and loving acceptance of a father recovering his prodigal Son.
The Father in The Story of the Prodigal Son is the true role model of this story, not the Son. It is the Father who provides the listener with a vision for what forgiveness is. Throughout the end of the parable, the older brother begins to take a more prominent role in the story, asking questions that an observer might and second-guessing his father’s choices. He blames his brother for squandering his wealth and grows jealous in response to the warm welcome his brother received from his father. This contrasts with the Father who disregards his Son’s failings and welcomes him back into his household despite them. This distinction is important because it shows us the difference between the love of man and Christ’s forgiveness. Human relationships can be eroded by breaches in trust and changes in character. A relationship with Christ is constant, motivated by love that transcends broken trust and perSonal pain. This is not to say that we should stick by every perSon who hurts us. What Jesus shows in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is to be like the father. Despite all of the time and money wasted by his Son, the father chooses to accept him back when met with a genuine apology.
It is very easy to forgive someone who is close to you or someone who hurt you once in the distant past but forgiveness is not just an action. It is a mindset to treat people with love regardless of your opinion of them. This idea does not just extend to our close friends and relatives. It also applies to race, gender, and even nationality. As Christians, we are called to grow God’s kingdom. That is very hard to do when petty grudges and bottled resentment not only promotes self-righteous gatekeeping but also drives internal divisions within the Church. First and foremost, we must remember that regardless of our history we were all the Prodigal Son. When put in the father’s position we know what we should do, but what truly matters is if we act like our heavenly Father.