The Unrepentant Son

March 26, 2010

The Unrepentant Son

There was once an elderly man who had raised two sons and had worked diligently his whole life. Now, the younger of the two sons was impetuous by nature and said to his father, “I do not want to wait for my inheritance. Give me my share now.”

His father reluctantly complied. A few days later, the younger son packed his bags and departed from the home. Over the next few years, he squandered the money that he had been given, leading a life of worldly pleasure. However, his money soon ran out, and the young son found himself with friends, food or shelter. He eventually found a job feeding pigs and was so poor that he had to supplement his diet with the scraps used to feed the animals.

This was no life for the youn man, so he thought to himself, I have had a good time in the last few years, but perhaps I should now return to my father’s home. For there it is warm, and while he will be angry, he may take pity on me and let me work as a hired hand. And so he began the return journey.

But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. Overcome with joy, he ran to his lost son and embraced him. The father then said to his servants, “Bring the best robe that I own, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, but now has been found.” That evening there was a great celebration.

Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.

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This parable is the second in the series that takes a look at the idea of the prodigal, but this time it sticks fairly close to the story that Jesus told. A couple of thoughts, then, to flesh that out:

I found at the Drops Like Stars event a few weeks ago how transgressive this story is. The son asking for his inheritance would have had just about the same effect then as it would have today. It is, essentially, saying to the parent, “You are worth nothing more to me than the money I’ll get when you’re dead. In fact, I wish you were dead.” The story is so familiar that the shock of this request is often lost on us, though. In Jesus’ telling, this story has no resolution. In fact, the story switches perspectives abruptly from the Prodigal to the Faithful son. That’s one of the strengths of the parable, really. There’s unresolved tension, and most people can see themselves in everyone in the story.

This telling of the story is unconcerned with the reaction of the Faithful son, though. Instead it is most interested in the space that the father’s reaction has created. The reaction is different than we’d expect; it is forgiveness without apology. The repentance comes afterward, and it is precisely because the forgiveness was extended first with no condition. We don’t generally operate in that way, and I wonder if that damages our ability to truly forgive and to truly apologize and repent. In this case the father requires no penance, whereas our forgiveness usually comes with strings attached. But the unconditionality of the forgiveness has opened up space for the son to repent in a real way.

There is no economy here; no horse trading. There is only love, a counterintuitive force that is able to change a person.

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One Response to “The Unrepentant Son”

  1. Mahlon said

    As always you continue to amaze me with your insights to these parables. It must be a genetic thing.

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