Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
Jesus’ “parable of the prodigal son” is one of his most famous. There are a few ways to read the story, but I’d like to offer one that is less common. We know the first part well: the son, after taking his father’s money, sets off for a “distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.” He finds himself out of money, out of food, and working in the filthiest conditions. The common reading is that, under these circumstances, the son recognizes his pitiful state, repents, and returns home into his father’s forgiving arms. But if we look closely at the text we’ll see something altogether different.
Let’s look at the story in sequence. While living that “life of dissipation,” we see that he was not even able to eat. At this moment, he thinks to himself, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’” Do you see what he is doing? It has dawned on him that, if he can just get his father to let him live among his hired workers, he’ll have enough food to eat. This isn’t exactly profound remorse for the sins of his past. Look closely: it never actually says he repented. He simply wants to eat. And confessing to having “sinned against heaven and against you”? That is merely the ruse by which he intends to trick his father.
This should totally reframe how we read what happens next: “while [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” The father’s unrepentant son has come home in order to trick him. He owes him nothing. Yet, overwhelmed with compassion, he leaps off the porch to embrace him. Notice now that, upon being embraced, the son is moved to true repentance. He does say “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son,” which was his rehearsed line. But he does not ask to be treated as a hired servant. He has abandoned the ruse. He now means his confession. But he has only been brought to true contrition upon this encounter with the extravagant compassion of his father.
It’s significant, I think, that we typically assume the son has repented before he returns to the father’s house. It is true to our basic conception of how forgiveness should work. We might be ready to offer mercy when people seek our forgiveness. We even think ourselves heroic and Christ-like for offering our pardon in these situations. If my son was the unrepentant prodigal son, I would not have leapt off the porch. I would probably have waited for an explanation and a sincere apology. But the mercy Jesus describes is nothing short of excessive. Real mercy makes the first move. It forgives those who have not sought our forgiveness. It forgives even those who are “still a long way off” from seeking our forgiveness.
The behavior of the father might strike us as disordered, as “too much.” But this is the character of the God we worship. Let’s be clear: you have not yet adequately estimated God’s mercy. It is reckless, immoderate, and unreasonable. But it’s the encounter with this radical mercy that bursts open the human heart. Indeed, it was only when the son encountered the extravagance of the father’s compassion that he found a reason to live differently. It was only when he encountered the sheer excessiveness of the father’s mercy that he was able to repent. It is this mercy ― and only this mercy ― that can, to use father’s words, bring the dead back to life.