The Prodigal Son: What It Doesn’t Mean
I want to spend an extra day with this parable because, as wonderful as it is, painting such a beautiful portrait of a son’s repentance and his father’s forgiveness, yet I am also aware that it has been a source of agonizing questions for heartbroken parents who have wayward adult children. And I didn’t think it right to ignore what I know are real issues. Yes, it is a beautiful story – when it goes the way Jesus painted, as it should.
But man’s disobedience is such that it often does not go this way. So let us begin with some standards of interpretation, especially as this applies to Jesus’ parables. A parable in the Bible is a story told to illustrate a spiritual truth. In this case, the spiritual truth we are to consider is the need for repentance and the obligation to forgive the one who repents. After all, God forgives us. The story only serves that purpose. In other words, if your son comes to you and wants you to give him his inheritance right away, and even has the cheek to use this parable as his justification for asking, feel free to kick him in the seat of the pants. That is not the purpose of this parable. The characters are simply actors in a play; Jesus could have illustrated the same point using a different story with different characters.
But I also know of aging parents with an adult child who, well, never grew up. They are constantly having to pay his bills, always having to bail him out of some self-inflicted jam. Often there are grandchildren involved so they feel compelled; they can’t let the kids go hungry. The wayward adult child may even slyly use the kids as bargaining chips (“Oh, I don’t think you will be able to take them to church this week”). These poor parents read this parable and are stricken. They know that they are only enabling their son (or daughter) to become ever more dependent. “Yet, am I not supposed to be like this father? After all, he gave the son his inheritance!” And siblings grow cold towards their deadbeat brother.
Well, I don’t think that this parable teaches that parents are to allow themselves to be taken advantage of in this way. If anything, the parents should tie any further aid to some measurable goal, to help the adult child become responsible, and hopefully repent. Proverbs 19:19 tells us: “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.” I think that applies here. But siblings must still pray for their wayward brother, as their heartbroken parents do. A parent naturally measures him or herself by their worst child. Comfort them.