If you now have a Gin Blossoms song playing in your head, welcome to my world! Robin Wilson, singing Doug Hopkins lyrics, says, “The past is gone, but something might be found to take its place.” When people talk about the story of the prodigal son, they usually focus on the son who takes his inheritance and runs off. Sometimes, people talk about the father who waits patiently but concerned until he sees his son coming while he’s still a long way off. I think we also have a lot to learn from the “good” son who stayed home and honored his family and father.
When the prodigal son comes home, the father is so happy and relieved that he is okay and has returned that he throws a party. A significant party. He gives his son fine clothes to wear, a ring for his hand, and they kill the fatted calf. All tangible indicators of his joy over his son’s return and of the way he values him.
When the older brother finds out about the party, he is incensed. He goes on a tirade about how he stayed when his brother left. He has worked hard, done what he was told, never refused to do what his father wanted. He’s jealous of the party and the way his father is treating his brother. He refuses to participate in the celebration.
This is the part that intrigues me. The father is overjoyed that his son is back. The older brother seems to be more concerned with what he hasn’t gotten than he is about the fact his brother is alive and home safe. He doesn’t want his brother to receive good things because of the way he has acted in the past. He wants to be treated better than his brother and is angry with his father that this is not the case.
Sometimes, I think it is easy to act like the older brother.
When someone believes they have done the “right” things most of their life and they see someone who has done a lot of “wrong” things being given a second chance, it can create negative emotions. If that person is celebrated for “recovering” from their mistakes and poor choices, then we can experience jealousy and animosity towards them.
If we feel we have “paid” the price of self-sacrifice and self-control to achieve our situation and status, then sometimes we feel people who haven’t should be required to pay for it now by being less than and even held back or waived off. It can make us mad that they are being given a second chance.
The father’s response gives us clues to the truth of the situation.
First, the prodigal son will never have the things or the opportunities the older brother has. He squandered his inheritance, and that can’t be regained. People in our lives that have fallen and then find their way back will have permanent scars from their fall. Even a second chance (or a third, fourth, etc.) is not a perfect replacement for not having fallen.
Second, people are intrinsically valuable and equally so. If someone is lost and then gets found, however that happens, we should be overjoyed. Just like the father. We need to acknowledge that it is strikingly petty to be unhappy that someone gets a chance to live in relationship and do life in a healthy community just because they screwed up. If we really care about others, we should not only be glad when they find their way back to us, we should actively help them and celebrate when they do.
Third, and this is perhaps the most important, I need to understand that no matter how good I think I have lived my life, I have been given many second chances. No one succeeds on their own. We have all been forgiven and granted another try too many times to count. There may be a difference in scale but not in principle. Imagine if your community had decided that one of your mistakes was the “one” that you couldn’t come back from.
I’ve been the prodigal son (more than a few times). I don’t want to be like the older brother. I don’t want to be jealous of other people getting a second chance, and I don’t want to be self-righteous about my own life. I want to be like the father. I want to look for people making their way back and run out to meet them. I want to put a robe on their shoulders and a ring on their hand and kill the fatted calf for them. I want to celebrate when people choose health and recovery regardless of the nature or scale of their fall. I want to give other people that because they are worth it and because it was given to me. Allowing the past to be gone and finding something better to take its place is the Bison Way.