Articles from the Religious Research Journal
No Forgiveness for the Prodigal Son
By Tom Hemphill
A few months ago I attended an international music festival in Denver. While there I had the good fortune to meet a retired Methodist minister named Rev. Fred Venable. Over lunch, Fred shared with me his fascination with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (St. Luke chapter 15, verses 11 – 32.)
As Fred said, “I’ve preached on this parable from the point of view of the Prodigal, the Elder Brother, the father, the servant informing the Elder Brother, the farmer who sent the Prodigal to feed the pigs, and even his mother, who was not even mentioned. I've preached on this parable from the point of view of everyone in it, except the fatted calf. And I can tell you, he thought the whole affair was a bummer.”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is probably the best known of all of the parables of Jesus. As long-time readers of this Journal know, Dr. John used the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for the presence of evil on the physical planet Earth. Dr. John said that evil itself is the “prodigal son,” which has left its father’s house (living in the presence of God). God has permitted this so that evil will, although feeding off of human misery in the material world (living “in a far country”), recognize that its true nature is to be one with God, and will seek to “return to the father’s house” (re-enter a relationship of eager alignment with God’s will and God’s values).
Much of the spiritual research work of Dr. Franklin Loehr, founder of Religious Research, together with Dr. John Christopher Daniels, Religious Research’s primary Spirit Guide, focused on the purpose of human existence and the role of incarnate souls (human beings) in the redemption of evil. The Parable of the Prodigal Son serves as an excellent basis for a human understanding of the redemption process – and our role in it as incarnate souls – in the great plan to redeem evil.
The point of this plan for the redemption of evil – which Dr. John taught is the direct responsibility of the High Spiritual Being commonly referred to as the Christ – is that, as much as possible, evil will be redeemed and fully reunited with God, rather than have its individuality destroyed and its energies recycled. Life in matter – particularly human beings, though also animal life and to a lesser extent plant life as well – is the “food” upon which evil thrives while it is in the “far country” of the physical universe. As we humans choose individually again and again to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s values, we diminish the food supply of evil, thus aiding evil to face starvation in this far country and to choose to return to glad companionship with God.
I have read, preached, and written about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But Fred Venable brought me a totally new insight into the role of the father in this parable. I was taught as a child that this parable is about forgiveness and demonstrates the great forgiveness of God toward those who willfully and foolishly turn against him. But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not at all about forgiveness!
While feeding the pigs in a distant land, we are told, the Prodigal Son “came to himself” (what a wonderful expression!) and acknowledged that he had sinned with his decisions to leave his father’s house and waste his inheritance on foolish and lavish living. The son returns home and humbly confesses: “ Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The forgiveness the son seeks is to be allowed to be a lowly servant in his father’s house.
Now, most of us earthly parents can just feel the righteous indignation rising within us. It is time for this young man to have a “come to Jesus meeting!” We can almost feel ourselves selecting Parental Lecture No. 117 – the one about respect for your parents and making good decisions and not besmirching the family name and avoiding loose living. We can feel ourselves getting all churned up for a, “Well, young man! You’ve got a lot of explaining to do before we discuss your future!”
When the father in the parable does not lecture his son, we perceive that as an act of forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness is not even mentioned in the parable. Rather, the father totally dismisses what the son has said – dismisses it as though it is of no interest at all. He orders a lovely robe for his son, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and that the fatted calf – a calf specifically fattened to be slaughtered on a feast day – be killed and a celebration be held. He says, “My son was lost and is found.” And that appears to be all that he cares about.
No lecture. No reprimand. No guilt trip – “Do you realize how much you’ve hurt your mother?!” Indeed, there is no judgment at all. None. The abject son says, “I am an unworthy sinner,” and the father immediately responds, in essence, “Hey! You were lost and now you’re found. You’re home! Fantastic! Let’s party!”
I thought this parable was about the greatness of the father’s forgiving this wholly disreputable, offensive, miserable failure of a son. Years ago I was taught that this parable tells us of God’s great willingness to forgive the sins of all of us who turn to him in penitence. But for there to be forgiveness of sinning, there must be a judgment that sin was committed. And the father of the prodigal son simply does not go there.
By not judging the son’s behavior, the father is saying that there is nothing to forgive. The father does not go to forgiveness because he has not gone to judgment. Rather he dismisses the son’s confession of unworthiness as uninteresting and irrelevant. Wow!
In the society of Jesus’ day, this son is about as despicable as he could be. Insulting his parents, leaving their home, rejecting his own people, spending money foolishly, indulging in pleasures of the flesh – there was little more this boy could do to deserve the loathing of the community and the wrath of the father. No wonder he begged merely to be a servant – a life of abuse and hard labor was better than starving to death. Surely Jesus’ listeners were ready to fully condemn such an ungrateful, irresponsible, profligate offspring. They would have been impressed if the father in Jesus’ parable had judged the young man and then forgiven him.
But in this story there is no judgment and no forgiveness. This parable is not a story of God’s great forgiving nature. It is a story of grace. Grace, simply put, is when something incredibly wonderful happens to you that you truly do not deserve. The classic demonstration of grace is when you are clearly at fault and deserve to be judged and found guilty and punished accordingly – and instead the whole matter is dismissed as something of no interest and no consequence. Rather than rejection, punishment, humiliation and pain, you get compassion. That’s grace!
I have experienced grace in my lifetime and, if you were paying attention, you know that you have also. This whole parable is about grace. Grace receives back the son who was lost and is found. The words to a popular hymn state: “I once was lost, but now am found.” Not surprisingly, the hymn is titled “Amazing Grace.”
I am saying that just as the father in the parable completely dismissed his son’s sinfulness, so also does your heavenly father (or whatever image you carry of God or Spirit) dismiss your sins. Many of us were taught to be in great anguish about our sinfulness. Many adult Catholics joke ruefully about the trauma of going to confession as a child. But Catholics don’t have an exclusive on guilt; we Scots Presbyterians do our share of it too, as do so many other belief systems.
In the Christian tradition, we’ve been taught to believe that God’s primary focus is our sinfulness, that his heart is broken by how bad we are. I remember, as a young man, telling my minister that I felt I had committed an unforgivable sin. He immediately interrupted with, “What? Do you really think you are so powerful that your ability to sin is greater than God’s ability to forgive? How arrogant you are!” He was right, of course.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus dares to suggest to his followers that while we may get very concerned about our sins and sinful nature, God isn’t really interested in all that. He is focused elsewhere, on a different paradigm. God’s concern is: are you far away from me, in a far country of your own choosing, or are you here with me? That’s what matters to God. And it fits precisely with what Dr. John taught us about God’s concern for the redemption of evil.
But there’s more. The parable goes on to speak of the older brother. He is thoroughly irritated when his sinful, miserable excuse of a younger brother comes home and gets a party for it. The elder brother is the “good boy” in this family. He has always stayed at home, dutifully tending to his fathers crops and flocks and daily concerns. He is not a big sinner; he is a faithful, hard worker – the kind of son any parent should be proud of.
When the father throws a feast to celebrate the return of the prodigal, the elder brother has a fit of self-pity and self-righteous indignation; he refuses to attend the party. When the father goes to him to urge him to join the party, the bitter elder brother tells him: “For all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you. Yet you never gave me even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
Now this is interesting: the father now treats the elder brother exactly as he treated the younger bother. He does not say, “Yes, you’ve been faithful and loyal. You’re a fine son, dutiful and responsible, and I really appreciate it.” No, he dismisses this son’s recitation of his virtues precisely as he had dismissed the younger son’s recitation of his sins. He simply replies: “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”
For those of us who’ve worked hard to be “good Christians” or “good Jews” or “good Muslims,” this is a hard, hard message. Maybe it’s OK if God chooses to dismiss the sins of really bad people, as though those sins are unworthy of consideration. But how can he dismiss the virtues of us good people? How can all our hard work at trying to please God be unworthy of consideration? Isn’t God pleased when we knock ourselves out to please him?
This parable is telling us simply that: God is not keeping score. Nor is he interested in whatever the score may be. If you are a sinner, God is dismissive of your sin. If you are a virtuous person, God is dismissive of your virtue. God loves us – all of us – regardless of our sinfulness or virtue. God loves us not because of our worthiness but because it is God’s nature to love us. Period. And that is what grace is all about.
We often carry an assumption that, when our lives go pleasantly it means God is rewarding us for being good. And when things go quite badly, it means God must be punishing us for our sins. Not so. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus presents grace not as something warm and fuzzy and angelic, but as evidence of God’s presence in the raw, gritty, in-your-face reality of earth living.
My friend Fred put it this way: When a preacher says “God loves you ‘in spite of’” and you still have a lingering, “Yes, but . . . .,” you still have a long way to go to grasp what Jesus was saying.
I am reminded of the day a spiritual counselor challenged me with, “But Tom, what if God isn’t hung up on judging you? What if God isn’t focused on the rightness or wrongness of your actions? What if God simply loves . . . and loves, and loves, and loves . . . because that is the nature of God?” Indeed, what if all this focus on judging, together with punishing and/or forgiving, is a human activity in which God has no interest at all?
Jalal-e-Din Mohammed Rumi, the great Persian Sufi (Muslim mystic) poet wrote:
“Out beyond the borders
Of right-doing and wrong-doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
Rumi recognized that our focusing on what’s right and what’s wrong – and on who’s right and who’s wrong – stands as a barrier to our truly connecting with each other, knowing each other, and caring for each other. Only by leaving behind this obsession with right and wrong, this compulsion to judge rather than to love, can we truly meet and know each other.
Judging focuses on an artificial construct of “which of us is better than the other.” Grace focuses on our true nature as children of God, beings of Light, and invites us to be “here” with our Father, rather than “there” in our adjudged sinfulness or virtue.
Rumi would have understood that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is about grace. God’s grace simply dismisses our darkest sin and our proudest virtue as uninteresting, unworthy of consideration, irrelevant. God accepts us and loves us totally just as we are, right here and right now. All of us.
Fred points out that just as there is a “dismissiveness” to God’s grace, there is also a “hereness” and a “nowness” to God’s love. As Fred put it: The “hereness” is that God’s spirit is within each of us with a truckload of grace for us, if only we will acknowledge God’s presence and accept the grace. The “nowness” is in this moment – which is the only moment there is. Your past sinful life does not count against you; your past virtuous life does not count for you. What counts is whether you are willing to let it all go and accept the presence and the grace of God, and to be at home with God, in this moment. Nothing in your life is more important than that.
Amen! Amen indeed! I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks, Fred.