What Made the Prodigal Son Go Bad? Part 2 of 2

Last week, I reviewed Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son as some readers today might interpret it. In short, I pointed out that a few may explain the prodigal’s choice to leave home, and the trouble this got him into, in a modern way. They might suggest that he went wrong because his family situation was defective. They might even paint him as a person victimized by life.

Then I asked why Jesus told the story without any of this kind of excuse-making, and I suggested that I’d give my opinion this week.

I grant that when it comes to the less-than-perfect environments we parents create for our children, we are all in the equation, without question. But — after secondary reasons are considered — the ultimate reason for the bad turns children sometimes take can be traced to what goes on in the command center of their own inner beings. It is that deliberate, out-of-sight, self-determining choice-maker over which they alone have a limited but still deciding authority.

There’s a story about identical twins who, it is said, were drawn into a study of what affects people’s outcomes in life. One twin, a homeless man was camped out near a sidewalk grate in a large city. He was asked how he explained this outcome. He said, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.” The other twin, a businessman who had overcome great odds to succeed, was asked how he explained the outcome of his life. He answered, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.”

Identical twins. A common parentage. After factoring in possible slight temperamental differences, and possible subtle relational differences, we come to the critical factor of personal choices. There, the differences are vast.

If the Christian Scriptures teach us anything about outcomes for this world or the next it is that in the final analysis we are all accountable for our choices. That’s why Jesus told the story the way he did.

The son appealed to his father brazenly for the big handout. That was a choice. He packed up and left home — a direction-setting choice. He took up with bad company, also a choice. Each choice came easier; each choice tilted the trajectory of his life toward a downward spiral.

Years ago when I began to hear the heart-breaking stories of children who had wandered into the “far country” of dissolute living I grew tired of the question, “What did the parents do wrong?” I grant that it can be an admissible question. We parents by our teaching and example can make it easier or harder for our children to make good, life-enhancing choices.

But I felt impatient with the question when it seemed to overlook the direction-setting choices the children themselves had made. After all, God created us to make choices! Vocational choices have vocational consequences, marital choices, marital consequences, moral choices, moral consequences, and faith choices eternal consequences.

There is bad news and good news in the story of the Prodigal Son. The bad news is that he chose to follow a path that led down the road to gnawing hunger in a pig pen. The good news is that in his impoverishment he came to his senses, took responsibility for outcomes, and started the long trek home to his father. He was moved to say to his Father (forgetting all the assumed offenses he might claim were committed against him) “Father, I have sinned.”

The Bible calls it repentance — the radical changing of the very set of the mind; the acceptance of personal responsibility; the big turn-around with resolution; and the pointing of life in another direction. It is the grace-enabled I word — a choice that arrests the downward spiral and turns the trajectory of life in an upward direction again.

(Note: I have taken from the story of the Prodigal Son only one element in the story to make one point. In this blog I have not explored the deeper and more complex theological question of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the primacy of grace. Save those for another day.)

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