Retelling a Parable: The Prodigal Daughter

What is a parable? The word parable comes from a Greek word for “comparison”. So a parable is a comparison, or a little story containing a comparison, used for a religious or ethical purpose. The story line of the parable you have just heard is simple, even though it is the longest parable in the four gospels. This is a Bible story for everyone, not just for Christians. But let’s update the story, bring it out of the country into the city, and for good measure, change the gender of the characters.

Let’s imagine a woman in Fairbanks with two daughters, Claire, a successful child, and Janet, the younger one, who got into trouble in high school but graduated from UAF with good grades and landed a well-paying job in Anchorage. Janet married, they bought a house, and had three children. But she and her husband were constantly looking for thrills and excitement. They got hooked on cocaine, gradually gambled away their life savings, and lost custody of their children. Janet’s husband went to prison. Janet lost her job and is now at the end of her rope.

We can imagine that Janet has not written or phoned her mother for weeks. But now, like the son in the original parable, she compares her present situation with her previous prosperity, and thinks that any living situation her mother could provide would be better than living on the street. So she takes a bus for Fairbanks.

Here she is now, knocking on her mother’s door, tired, distraught, and feeling very guilty and contrite. She even wonders whether her mother, who knows she was on cocaine, will let her come in.

And here’s her mother, who sees Janet’s haggard face through the living room window and is shocked and repulsed by this face, this face which shows the effects of Janet’s foolhardy lifestyle.

Mother opens the door and Janet says “I’m home, Mom. I’ve made a mess of my life and am no more worthy to be called your daughter.” Mother hesitates, hugs her, and then, more by mother instinct than by conscious thought, says “Janet, I love you. I was so worried about you. Come in and get warm. Let’s have a cup of tea.”

Janet says “Forgive me, Mother. I’ve done everything wrong. I hate my life.” And mother replies, “Janet, I’m your mother. I hate what you’ve done. But I forgive you.” Mother is surprised to hear herself say that, but having said it, she feels better. In a way it seems to the mother very natural to go ahead and forgive Janet. After all she forgave her two girls a dozen times a week in the difficult years of raising them, especially when they were screaming at age two and rebels at age fourteen. A forgiving character is a necessary qualification for parenthood. But she had thought the hard years were over, since she had tried to raise her daughters to be responsible and provide for themselves. Her older daughter, Claire, had fulfilled her mother’s hopes. But with Janet, bad, bad Janet, what should Mother do?

If the mother had been a Unitarian-Universalist, I suppose we could imagine her being very rational and saying “I will thoughtfully and thoroughly weigh the pros and cons, including theological and ethical arguments, before making the decision to invite you inside and forgive you.” But this is subzero Fairbanks, and you are warm, compassionate UU’s. You would at least bring the daughter in out of the cold, and CONSIDER forgiving her.

Let’s return to the story.

The next day the mother decides that Janet’s return should be celebrated, and so she calls up some family friends and her older daughter, Claire, who lives in town, and she invites them all to dinner at Pike’s Landing. And that brings Claire into the story. She is resentful. She says “Hey, Mom, why all the hullabaloo and celebration for Janet, when she has made a mess of her life? Sure we’re glad to see her back, but how can you forgive her for neglecting her children and using cocaine? And why haven’t you ever thrown such a party for ME, good old reliable ME, who sticks at my boring job and always pays my credit card balance? I even wash the coffeepot at the UU fellowship!”

And Mom replies: “Don’t take it badly, Claire. I thought we had lost Janet completely, but now she is back home safe and sound. Isn’t that a reason to celebrate? Janet has made big mistakes in her life but I love her and forgive her as I love you and forgive you. I’m hosting this celebration to show her that we’re glad to have her back. Join us at the restaurant so that we have the whole family together.”

In the gospel parable the story ends there, and we don’t know whether the older child attends the celebration. Perhaps the parable should be renamed “The Parable of the Opposite Siblings”, one who was adventuresome and reckless, the other who was hardworking and responsible, even a bit dull, like a Unitarian minister. We know humanity well enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of both types.

So far as I can unravel it the parable seems to be saying, loud and clear, that forgiveness is the glue that holds families and society together. The parable goes even further in suggesting that the act of forgiveness can be a joyful event, to be celebrated with a feast. So perhaps the best title for the parable is not “The Prodigal Son”, but “The Joyful Forgiving Parent”.

In the original parable the father tries to teach the elder child to forgive. We can imagine that the parent might also need to teach the younger child to forgive herself as well as to reform her lifestyle.

Bible commentators have suggested that this parable is really an allegory about the relationship between God and humanity, with the forgiving father in the story being God. If it is an allegory about God then it carries a distinctively Universalist message. You may remember that the founders of Universalism, which is one half of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, were reacting against the hellfire and damnation preachers of their time, who said that most people were sinners and were going to hell for eternity. The Universalists preached that God is forgiving and merciful, not harshly judgmental. They thought God might mete out some punishment to evildoers in the afterlife, but would not send anyone to hellfire for ever and ever. Other Christians thought that too much talk about God’s mercy would encourage people to sin more than ever. Actually Universalists behaved as well as anyone else, but many people believed they were a threat to decency and morality. You should probably be prudent and NOT tell your God-fearing friends about the very merciful, very forgiving Universalist God, or you will never be invited to their potlucks.

In the parable there is no mention of ANY remedial action to be taken by the prodigal child,, who, in my version of the parable, neglected her children and snorted cocaine. Should forgiveness come so easily? Shouldn’t the daughter have to do something to merit forgiveness?

In the Catholic and Jewish traditions God a person seeking forgiveness from God must take it seriously. For Catholics God’s forgiveness is obtained by doing three things: first, penance, which means feeling contrite, then confessing your wrongdoing before a priest, and finally, taking some action prescribed by the priest. At least that’s the way it was two generations ago, before most Catholics in the U.S. and Europe stopped going to confession regularly. In the Jewish tradition you are expected to feel remorse, make restitution and then renew your relationship with God. After those steps have been taken you can ask for forgiveness from the person wronged, and finally, ask forgiveness from God.

The priest and the rabbi will tell us that we can become better people by following this process. The Jews even schedule a special day each year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in September, for everyone to think back over their last twelve months and go right away to ask forgiveness of people wronged.

But what if you are being asked by your daughter for forgiveness and the daughter is contrite, as in the parable? Is contrition enough? Are you going to ask for more than that? Confession, reform plan, restitution, whatever? Or could you joyfully forgive and even prepare a feast? At least a pizza party?

Let’s not forget that forgiveness has a positive effect on the person who does the forgiving. Being able to let go of resentment and grudges is usually a very liberating experience, particularly if you have suffered greatly. Perhaps you have heard about those families of murder victims who have spoken out against the death penalty and have shown compassion for the families of the condemned murderers. For both types of families this has been a welcome healing process. In people who are unable to forgive, by contrast, resentment often feeds on itself and sometimes leads to depression. At the very least resentment and anger “take up space…in our psyches….”, as one UU minister expressed it.

To be honest we have to admit that asking for forgiveness OR granting forgiveness is often painful. The same UU minister, Scott Alexander, wrote this about repairing his relationship with one of his friends:

…I cared enough about the relationship and found enough courage within to arrange for a confrontation between the two of us. Not a nasty, one-way confrontation where I spewed out my anger toward him, but a creative, healing dialog where first I said how hurt and angry I was, and then together we engaged in genuine conversation about his feelings and perspectives and how together we might close the painful breach between us. Let me tell you [that] this process leading to forgiveness was uncomfortable for both of us. He acknowledged his betrayal and disloyalty, but, as I listened to his own hurt feelings, I also faced ways in which I had contributed to the weakening of our friendship, and stood myself in need of forgiveness.

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From Scott Alexander’s story we are reminded that forgiveness within relationships often requires that both parties do some forgiving. We can imagine that all three parties in the parable had some responsibility for the failure of the prodigal child, and would need to ask forgiveness of each other. Indeed I can imagine the parent, especially the modern one, asking herself, “How did my actions as a parent contribute to the irresponsible behavior of my daughter?”

Much more could be said here about the subject of forgiveness. I imagine that each of you has a story to tell or a dilemma to ponder. We’ll have a moment of silence and then time for comments.

I want to close with some advice from a UU minister in Massachusetts, Stephanie Nichols: “The invitation of [this parable, she says] is to never give up on home, to stay in relationship with those people and those parts of yourself that have been lost, and to remain ready to rejoice when someone or something that has been lost is found again. It is an invitation to live with open arms rather than with clenched teeth.” 2

Original sermon given at Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, January 23, 2000

1 Rev. Scott Alexander, “This Day Holds Other Things for You…” CLF, Sept. 1991.

2 Rev. Stephanie Nichols in Mar. 99 Quest (CLF), p. 5, sermon on the Prodigal Son entitled “With Open Arms or Clenched Teeth?”. In sermon she quotes Henri Nouwen, Prodigal Son.

See article in Christianity Today, 1/10/2000 for summary of the new research and references to the International Forgiveness Institute.

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