In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Forgiving Father, there is, curiously, no moment in the story when the father forgives his son. When taken as a parable of forgiveness, we may be seeing what we expect to see rather than something even harder to imagine – unwavering compassion, which is even more fundamental to the life of love.
The purpose of forgiveness is to return us to a base of compassion when our bond with another has been damaged in response to an offense. Forgiveness allows us to return to full participation and collaboration with others in the work to be done, the work on the farm or the needs of love and justice. Because the father in this story is so consistently gracious toward his son, we assume it must be because he keeps forgiving him, offense after offense. We assume the father’s bond toward his son would be damaged by these offenses. But there is no evidence that it was.
When compassion does not waver, there is no need for the repair that forgiveness supplies even when an offense has taken place. One person’s bond with another can remain remarkably intact in circumstances where most people would experience great harm to their bond with the other. There are such events in this parable where we might expect the father’s bond with his son to falter or even break into disowning the son. but there is no actual evidence that it did. This points to a quality of love that results in more consistency in love of neighbor and love of self.
Let us explore the absence of forgiveness in the story and the unwavering compassion that it reveals. The son came to his father one day with the unusual request for his inheritance so he could pursue his own life rather than remain on the farm. There is no indication that the father was insulted or angry due to the request. The father simply carried out the son’s wishes. No emotions are conveyed in this exchange. No blessing and no curse, as there was with Noah toward Ham for a much lesser provocation.
It is commonly understood that the Prodigal Son’s request would have been insulting and hurtful to the father. He wanted his inheritance while his father was still alive. He wanted to leave his father, his father’s way of life and his father’s homeland. While most fathers might take this personally and be hurt, we see no evidence of that. The son’s decision would have brought shame to his father in the eyes of his community, but, again, while this may have occurred, there is no indication that the father internalized it.
Perhaps this is a father who knew his son very well and knew that he did not belong on the farm. Then the son’s request to have his financial resources and his freedom would have made sense to the father, and he would have responded empathically.
Compassion and joy are the only two feelings attributed to the father toward his younger son. When he saw his son coming home, he felt compassion and ran out to meet him. There was no barrier to overcome. This is not as remarkable as we might think. When a child brings harm to themselves and experiences failure, parents often respond compassionately. Their attention is focused on the feelings of the child. Their compassion helps the child recover and re-orient. Other parents respond with self-focused anger and shaming. “How could you do this to me! How dare you show your face!” Then the hole gets deeper for both child and parent.
In contrast, from seeing his son in the distance, the father’s compassion activated joy they could both experience when they met. When the son expressed how unworthy he felt, the father ordered the servants to clothe him in the finest clothing and shoes and even put a ring on his finger. From the point of view of unwavering compassion, worthiness and unworthiness are irrelevant, even meaningless. We are neither worthy nor unworthy of compassion.
The father’s actions conveyed to his son, “We’re good,” and moved the attention toward joy and celebration. Many of us have used this or similar expressions toward others when they expect our feelings toward them have been damaged by their actions. “We’re good,” relieves them of that concern, while “I forgive you,” tends to put attention back on the offense.
For the sake of completeness, the story also describes the effects of allowing our bond with others to be broken. This is when we need to engage forgiveness for the sake of repair. The setting of the story is a family farm with hired hands. Full functioning of the farm requires collaboration and cooperation among all involved. The older son must become able to work with his brother and his father. His inability to do so would be disruptive to accomplishing the work that needs to be done.
And so it is with God’s work. When a bond is damaged, we use forgiveness to return to being able to collaborate. Forgiveness, though, tends to be a transaction between apology and forgiveness. Worthiness easily comes into play, even when we believe it should not. Are you sufficiently remorseful? Do I deserve your forgiveness? We may even feel that with our apology the offended person is morally obligated to forgive us, and if they do not, we have the right to fault them for it. It is quid pro quo. While we may have been taught that forgiveness is a gift to be freely given, the ability to do so requires compassion. Even as a gift to oneself, forgiveness derives from the more fundamental quality of compassion.
From “We’re good,” it is much easier to avoid the quagmire of worthiness and unworthiness. “We’re good,” draws us away from self-focus. When someone tells us, “We’re good,” we experience it as a positive reflection on the other person, since they are focused on our wellbeing. It is easy to move on from there, in this story, to a grand celebration.
Relationships are not a two-way street. We each construct and alter our own street toward the other. Those constructions may have very different features. They may not be symmetrical. Love can be unrequited. Ill will may not be mutual. Parent’s often experience their child being upset with them, but they are not upset with the child.
Exceptions to symmetry are genuine mutuality, like mutual admiration, and mirroring. These have very different qualities. Mirroring can occur unconsciously, that we match how the other is treating us. What is happening to one is also happening to the other. If you are upset, then I am upset. If you are not good with me, then I cannot be good with you.
As natural as mirroring is, it does not lead to living the life of love Jesus calls us to live. Many couples discover the helpful agreement that “only one of us can be upset at a time.” One must provide stability, preventing things from getting out of hand. Fortunately, when infused with the stable love of God, one person’s regard for the other becomes stabilized. And it can remain stable even when the other person’s interaction with them is agitated.
In this parable of unwavering love, we see both the benefits of it and the damage caused when good will wavers with conditions, as it did with the older son. He took his father’s joyful welcome and generosity toward his brother as an injustice to himself. He was unable to be happy for his father and his brother in their reunion. The father pleaded with him to join the celebration. This is a sensitive moment when we seek to share our joy with someone. This is when symmetry matters. When they do join in, it amplifies our joy. If they do not, our own joy is hard to sustain.
This story encourages us to be more like the father. It helps to recognize that we have the seeds of God’s unwavering compassion already within us. When we think we are lacking some quality, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to remember a time we did exhibit that quality, even to a small degree. In doing so, Wayne remembered his response to his daughter damaging the family car. After she got home, she went into the house, found her father, and told him she had done a bad thing. Tearful, she led him out into the garage to show him the wrinkled bumper. She was very upset with herself and expected her father to be disappointed with her, even angry. To her relief, he was neither. He was also relieved and grateful for his response.
Wayne’s gratitude immediately extended to his father, who had treated him with compassion when he was in his daughter’s shoes. He had once driven his father’s prize car home with a broken headlight and damage to the bumper and grill. Chagrined, he described to his father how, on a snow packed road on the edge of town, he had lost control and hit a rural mailbox and wooden fence. When the car slid on a curve, he hit the brakes rather than accelerating out of the slide as his father had taught him. He felt ashamed. He also felt sick as he looked at the damage to his father’s immaculate car, fully expecting his father to be angry. His father, however, was unphased and hugged Wayne, saying, “We’re good. We’re good. We’ll look at the damage together tomorrow and see what we can do. Let’s go have supper.”
Now, Wayne hugged his daughter the same way and told her the story of her grandfather’s compassion toward him. She was touched by how this compassion had moved from her grandfather down to her.
While damaging your parent’s car is trivial compared to what is described in our parable, it is important to recognize that human bonds remain unwavering more commonly than we might think. Harmful actions do not always alter how the injured person relates to the one who did the injury.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there may also be some legacy effect for the younger son, having lived with his father for as long as he did. When asking for his inheritance and his freedom, the son shows no signs of ill will toward the father. When he returned having squandered his father’s wealth, he took full responsibility and had no expectations. When his father expressed joy in his presence, he was able to shift quickly from feeling unworthy to sharing in his father’s joy. He had either forgiven himself or his compassion toward himself was relatively stable.
Unwavering compassion can be cultivated. First, we must establish compassion as our base and then learn to keep it steady. I have helped many people connect with unwavering compassion through the following exercise. I begin by inviting the person to focus on the sense that they are loved, by the source of all love, fully and completely just as they are. When people object that they cannot sense it, I invite them to imagine what it would be like if they were experiencing it. Whatever little bit a person experiences it in this exercise, I encourage valuing it and enjoying how good it feels. This enhances the feeling. Then I have them notice where and how they sense this compassion in their bodies, their thoughts, and their feelings. Then I invite them to notice what this makes their bodies want to do. Very often, it is some joyful expression.
Then I encourage people to imagine doing ordinary things while in touch with this unwavering compassion, even just taking a walk, and noticing what is different about it. They usually report smiling, walking more relaxed and erect with more comfortable awareness of their surroundings, including other people.
This experience of compassion tends to generalize toward other people. We see them differently, through the eyes of compassion. A man with frequent road rage, for example, found that this spiritual practice changed his driving experience. Now, when other drivers disrupted his driving, he found himself making positive assumptions about them. When someone stopped quickly in front of him to turn left – “I guess she’s not familiar with this neighborhood.” To his surprise, the hostility was not there, nor was the need to forgive the other driver or forgive himself for his reactivity. Instead of the finger, now he gives them a wave and a nod: “We’re good.”
It is best to start this generalizing of compassion within easy situations and work up to the more challenging ones. When we get thrown off, as we will, it helps to take some time to explore your reaction with compassionate curiosity. One approach for digging down is to fill in the blanks: “When someone _____, I feel ______.” Say this aloud. Notice what happens inside yourself as you hear yourself and then adjust the statement accordingly. For a person with road rage, it might be, “When someone cuts me off, I feel like I have to teach them a lesson.” From speaking this aloud and hearing himself say it, one man noticed this come up: “When someone cuts me off, I remember how my dad ignored me when he came home from work.” Usually, going through this step five or six times brings a positive shift and makes it easier to sustain compassion in those situations in the future.
To live the life Jesus taught requires that this stable base of compassion be universally applied. We are not to approach people from a neutral stance. We are to welcome the stranger, without profiling, we might add. They should not need to earn our compassion. We are to sustain the base of compassion even when it is not reciprocated. Jesus taught such asymmetry when he said we should love our enemies, even when they are doing harm to us. This does not mean that we do not protect ourselves or that we tolerate ongoing harm. Far from it. The marriage vows do not read, “I will stay with you no matter how you treat me.” We can love and protect ourselves while having goodwill toward others, even toward our enemies. We can, as Karen Armstrong suggests, follow Jesus’ directive by vowing to not harm our enemies and to protect them from harm by others.
The suffering people Jesus cared for believed that their plight meant that God had turned against them. They did not believe there was unwavering compassion. Their suffering must mean that they were not in God’s good graces. It also meant that to others, who felt justified in mistreating them. Suffering people are easy targets for exploitation. They may not feel justified in standing up for themselves when they feel they do not deserve better. This is how being atheistic about unwavering compassion becomes a justice issue. Believing, experiencing, and participating in unwavering compassion leads to more just action toward ourselves and others.
In bringing his good news, Jesus campaigned to promote belief and participation in unwavering compassion. In his Sermon on the Mount, he informed suffering people that they were blessed by God, which would have been mind boggling. “God is good with you.” The Parable of Unwavering Compassion, as we might now call it, inspires us to learn greater constancy in our ability to live the life of love.