From Boundless Love
Then Jesus said,
“There was a man who had two sons.
The younger of them said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had
and traveled to a distant country,
and there he squandered his property is dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place
throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country,
who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating;
and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said,
‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare,
But here I am dying of hunger!
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands.'”
So he set off and went to his father.
In studying the prodigal son from the standpoint of reconciliation, one is reminded of the importance of absolutely honest self-assessment. In seeking reconciliation with another, an individual must be willing to take an honest look at himself or herself, and to examine what role he or she has played in the disunity currently experienced. Such honest self-examination may be uncomfortable, and may not come easily, but it is essential in genuinely seeking to be reconciled with the other(s). Where at least two persons are involved, at least two sides of the story always exist. When disunity characterizes a relationship, each party to the relationship must be willing to recognize and acknowledge the part he or she has played in the breakdown of the relationship.
In the parable, the prodigal son is, without question, guilty of presumptuousness. Early on in the narrative he is a picture of self-centeredness. He clearly lacks the proper regard for his father, and for the rest of his family as well. In the early part of the parable, his actions reflect concern only for himself. His untimely leave-taking will affect each member of his family for as long as they live, yet his concern is only for himself, what he wants, what he is due.
In separating himself from his family, the prodigal exhibits an immature desire for momentary satisfaction and immediate pleasure. He wants his due now, unwilling to wait to receive his proper inheritance at the appropriate time. He has his role to play in the family, yet he wishes to separate himself in order to satisfy his desire for independence and pleasure on his own terms and on his own schedule. The prodigal frames his request for his own terms and on his own schedule. The prodigal frames his request for his inheritance in terms of what will be due him. In his view, he simply requests what is rightfully his. But in his presumptuousness, he separates himself from his natural place in the larger family unit.
In seeking reconciliation with another person or persons, we must be willing to take a long, hard look at our own actions. Have we acted presumptuously or selfishly? Have we, perhaps unwittingly, placed our own desires ahead of the needs of the larger group? However uncomfortable such introspection may be, any genuine reconciliation is dependent upon our willingness to be honest with ourselves, and with others, regarding the role we ourselves have played in allowing estrangement to take the place of unity.
Verse 17 is crucial to understanding the full import of the parable. Here it is made clear that the prodigal does, in fact, take a good, hard look at himself and his situation. As is stated in the parable, “he came to himself.” In John 8:32 Jesus teaches, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Having hit rock bottom, the prodigal acknowledges the truth of his situation. He has made a terrible mistake. He is truly in a foreign country in the deepest sense of that word. He belongs at home. His leave-taking was premature and wholly selfish. Acknowledging the reality of his desperate plight, he comes to himself. He remembers who he is. He remembers whose he is. In coming to himself, he reclaims his true identity as the beloved son of his father. He reclaims his true identity as a member of a loving family, a family in which he holds a rightful, honored place. Blessedly, rather than remaining in a state of defiant self-centeredness, the prodigal has the wisdom to come to himself, to come to his senses, and to courageously determine: “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you.'” (Luke 15:18) In verse 20a, we see that the prodigal follows through. He has the courage of his convictions. He is willing to repent. In returning home, the prodigal confesses the error of his ways. He has the humility to admit that he has made a terrible mistake. Having chosen to go to a foreign country, the prodigal now comes to realize where home truly is. He now knows that he does not belong by himself, isolated from those who love him. He has truly come to himself. He longs for home. His arrogance is gone. He is no longer defiant. He now desires his true and lasting inheritance – to be reunited with his father. “So he set off and went to his father.” (Luke 15:20a)
It takes more courage to admit having made a serious mistake, than to remain defiant in our isolation. True reconciliation requires us to give as well as receive. The truth does, in fact, set us free. Admitting one’s own part in the breakdown of the relationship opens the door to reclaiming one’s rightful place in the relationship. Having served as a model of arrogant self-centeredness, the prodigal, in the end, models one of the most important steps in the journey toward reconciliation. He teaches the importance of absolute honesty, of a heartfelt repentance, and of the willingness to take the first steps in the journey back home to a relationship characterized by love rather than by alienation.
In addition to his example regarding honest introspection and repentance, the prodigal’s story reminds us that in relationships we simply must take into account the perspectives and feelings of others. The prodigal’s self-centered leave-taking affects not only himself, but his entire family. If we belong to a larger group, then in considering our actions we are obliged to consider their effects on those with whom we are in relationship. In enjoying the benefits of belonging to a larger group, obligations regarding our place in the group and the group’s overall health and well-being must be considered. In taking his leave from the family, the prodigal fails to recognize what he is giving up. Once in a foreign country, however, and having gained the independence he once sought, he realizes that he is truly alone. By leaving home, he has lost so much more than he has gained. Fortunately, he comes to himself, both recognizing and acknowledging his terrible mistake. He then has the courage to return home to the loving family in which he rightfully belongs.
When a relationship breaks down, it is very easy to focus on the role others have played in the loss of unity. It is all too tempting to throw stones at those who may well have participated, and are in some way responsible for, the growing estrangement in the relationship. Yet the prodigal teaches us not to be too hasty in throwing stones. An honest assessment of his place in the parable reminds us to be willing to come to ourselves, to be willing to take an honest inventory of our own thoughts and actions and to be willing to examine the role we have played in growing apart from those whom Jesus calls us to love.