One of the endearing traits of Jesus’ parables is that they can be interpreted in multiple and varied ways. The conventional interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son says that the parable is about sin; most commonly, it is interpreted as a parable about the sin of the younger son who acted irresponsibly by squandering half of his family’s wealth.
The conventional interpretation is by no means the only possible interpretation. One can say with equal validity that this parable is about the sin of the father who acted irresponsibly by allowing his younger son to abscond with half the family’s property. Alternately, one could interpret the parable as being about the sin of the elder brother who acted irresponsibly by refusing to forgive even after his younger brother had repented.
I’d like to suggest an alternative to the conventional interpretation of the parable. I’d like to suggest that we look at the parable as an illustration of three distinct approaches to repentance.
The younger son, who is so often excoriated as a wastrel, found that his great wealth did not last. As is the case with anyone who trusts in material wealth or worldly success, the younger son eventually found himself in great distress. After the money ran out, he faced starvation. He said, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.” (Lk. 15:17) Immediately, he concocted a scheme to get back home and into his father’s good graces. He decided to confess, “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.” (Lk. 15:18-19)
While this act on the part of the younger son is often credited to him as repentance, I am not convinced. Would the younger son have ever repented or returned home if his money had not run out? If the money had lasted longer, would he have ever apologized to his father? I tend to think that the younger son’s repentance was based more on self-serving motives than real sorrow for his sins.
The elder son is often blamed for being unforgiving. When his younger brother returned home, the elder brother became angry, refused to enter the house, and refused to participate in the “Welcome Home” party. (Lk. 15:28) The parable doesn’t tell us whether the elder son relented in his anger, although it does leave open the possibility of his repentance. If the elder son did repent, what would his motive have been? Would he grant a grudging forgiveness only in order to please his father who had been so passionate about welcoming the prodigal home?
Lastly, what about the father? All of the family drama could have been avoided if the father had taken his parental responsibilities more seriously and simply refused his younger son’s inappropriate request. What kind of repentance does the father exhibit?
I’d like to suggest that the father in the parable is the only one who repents sincerely. The father welcomed back his scoundrel son, and he did so happily. His motivation was clear. He said, “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.” (Lk. 15:23-24) In keeping with the theme of the two parables that precede this one, the father rejoices that his family has been made whole again. The undeserved welcome he gave to his son was based on the fact that the family could be together again under one roof.
The younger son repented in order to avoid starvation. The elder son might have repented, but only to placate his father. The father, on the other hand, did what was necessary to restore normal relationships within the family; this act constitutes real repentance.
Repenting of our sins because we’ve hit rock bottom and no longer want to suffer the consequences of our own selfishness is something less than an actual change of heart. Repenting in order to comply grudgingly with a commandment we find to be burdensome is likewise somewhat less than real reform. On the other hand, repenting in order to restore our relationships to normalcy, and to help others do the same, measures up fully to Jesus’ definition of repentance.
The penitential disciplines of Lent do not exist in order to be temporary, arbitrary burdens. The fasting, almsgiving, and prayer of Lent offer us the possibility of seeing more clearly what true repentance means. The only valid reason to repent, and the only reason that God creates the possibility of repentance, is that we might be faithful to our baptismal promises to live at peace with God and one another. The temporary penitential practices of Lent deserve our full and wholehearted participation because they can lead to the sort of repentance that results in what is dead in us coming to life again and what is lost to us being found. (Lk. 15:32)