What would have happened had the prodigal son refused his father’s forgiveness?
A Lesson in Accepting Forgiveness
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is referred to often in sermons and messages. Tim Keller does a wonderful job in his book titled “Prodigal God,” explaining how the parable was spoken to the Pharisees who were portrayed by the older brother. The parable ends with the unspoken questions, “What is the older brother going to do when the Father offers both mercy and grace on the undeserving prodigal brother? Will he join the celebration and rejoice at a repentant brother, or will he remain indignant and feel justified that he is deserving more? What will the older brother’s response be?” These questions are left unanswered as it is a challenge Jesus leaves with the Pharisees explaining how God sees the ministry of Jesus.
For the remainder of this blog, I’d like to focus on the younger brother’s response. When the younger brother came to his senses and returned to the father, the father was eager to restore his relationship to his son. In love and grace, the father put the ring on the son’s hand, gave him a cloak and sandals, and was going to celebrate by killing the fattened calf. The son was willing to accept the father’s gifts and we don’t really hear a peep from him after his father interrupts his confession. My question is this: “What would have happened if the prodigal son decided not to accept his father’s grace and gifts? What would have happened if the son continued with his initial thoughts, refused his father’s grace and said, ‘No. I’m not worthy to be your son and the only thing I will accept from you is to be a hired hand'”?
Let me suggest a few things the returning son would be struggling through:
- He would have known he was forgiven by his father, but would not have embraced it.
- He would have lived life in the lowness of a servant, instead of freedom as a son;
- There would therefore be a distance between him and the father based on his guilt and shame; and
- He would have been like his older brother, living by the law of works (what is deserved) instead of living by grace (what is not deserved).
This “alternate ending” is one that frequently comes up in counseling, because many people live this alternate ending in their lives. They KNOW God forgives them, yet refuse to embrace the forgiveness and the restoration of the relationship with God because they “don’t deserve it.” So, instead of forgiveness and freedom, there is constant self-beratement, shame, and guilt that is carried throughout life. They may say, “I know I am forgiven by God, but I need to forgive myself.” They think, “I don’t deserve to be forgiven,” so they continue to punish themselves as that is what is deserved, and living the deserved life is living a life of works where you get what you deserve.
While focusing on the alternative ending, I typically ask, “what would it be like for the younger son to live like a servant versus living as a full son and heir?” Typical responses reflect that the younger son would be more miserable, unhappy, and distant from the father if he did not accept the father’s forgiveness and remained a servant. But as the young man accepted the forgiveness and reconciliation offered by the dad, the son would more likely be filled with joy, be free of burdens, and have a better relationship with the father. “So,” I ask, “which situation would you rather be in?” Every person would answer the second option.
Our inability to accept God’s forgiveness leads us to living the Alternate Ending of “The Prodigal Son.” Our living by the law of works and punishing ourselves for what we deserve is the reason we remain stuck. We take our sins seriously (which we ought to do), but fail to take seriously Christ’s death for our sins or the Father’s deep love for us. Forgiving ourselves is not the answer, yet humbling ourselves to receive and accept His gift of forgiveness and punishment on the cross for the penalty of our sins is. What about you? Are you stuck in condemnation living the alternate ending of the prodigal son, or will you embrace the forgiveness he offers to you and accept it, even though you, like me, are unworthy of it?
We need the Father’s love and grace. The path to receiving it is through accepting it. We can never earn it. We can not buy it. We don’t deserve it. But it is offered for us free of charge, yet costly for Him (Jesus’ death on the cross). Will you accept that which is offered? Will you accept the ring, the coat, the sandals from your Heavenly Father who wants to be close to you and free you from guilt and shame? Or will you decline and remain distant as a hired hand? The choice is yours, and there’s a fattened calf waiting for the better answer.