Prodigal Stories, Forgiveness Stories

03.14.2013, 4:51 PM

There once was a man with two sons….and they ALL lose…”

My sermon this last Sunday based on the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 began on this note.  A story that shows what life looks like when we allow ourselves to defined by what we have lost.  It’s truly the story of all stories.  Where does a preacher even begin?  I consulted my friend, who is sharing preaching duties with me at this congregation, and I explained my temptation to preach one minute of each of the dozen sermons swimming in my brain.  She tactfully hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, they’ll be lost! And being lost is a theme but…”

To recap, the Prodigal (Lost) Son is a story of a father with two sons, the younger of whom requests his share of the inheritance long before its due, leaves home and loses all his money in dissolute living.  The older brother remains at home, earning his inheritance through daily work in the fields and by caring for his father as he ages, as is expected.  The father loses the story he might have told about his younger son, and even presumes he is dead.  The younger son eventually must lose the story he has told himself concerning what is of value in this world, including his pride.  And by the end, even the older brother is left contemplating what he must lose in order to remain in relationship with his family: will he lose the story of self-righteousness and fairness he has been telling?  Loss permeates every phrase.

I was tempted to share the insights from Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds data where adult children of divorce were asked to reflect on this story of loss.  They expanded our perspective of parental loss by sharing that they tend to relate to the father in the story and not the sons.  When children of divorce lose the story of living in one home and begin telling a story defined by moving between two worlds/two homes, they tell a story not of prodigal sons but of prodigal parents.  Like the father, they have spent much of their lives waiting, searching the horizon for the other parent who is lost at that moment.

My thoughts on loss continued as I listened to Krista Tippett’s recent On Being interview with Minnesota storyteller and poet, Kevin Kling.  He was born without the use of his left arm, withered, and in his forties he was in a motorcycle accident that left him without the use of his right arm.  He speaks most powerfully about the role that loss plays in life. He says:

“When you are born with loss you grow from it, and when you experience loss later in life, you must grow towards it.  After a loss, you are now a person you haven’t become yet and we use story to become the person we are.”

We may not all be born with distinguishable losses such as a withered arm, but our common mortal path, by definition, will include loss.  So, how do humans respond to loss?  He talks at length about the power of story to help us reframe and make sense of the losses we experience in life.  He shares that for him, storytelling is empowering:

“by telling a story, things don’t control me anymore, it’s in my vernacular, it’s how I see the world and I think that’s why our stories ask our questions, our big questions, like, where do we come from, before life and after life, what’s funny or what’s sacred, and even more importantly by the asking in front of people and with people, even if we don’t find the answers, by the asking, we know we’re not alone, and I have often found that that is even more important than the answering.”

He reflects on how loss can leave us defined by the word: disabled.  He wrestles with this word and reclaims it by defining disability not as un-ability, but as ability learned through shadow and reflection.  Through loss, all in the Prodigal Son become dis-abled and are faced with what they learn through shadow and reflection.  Some come to their senses, some learn to celebrate, and some remain faced with the eternal choice of finding a home in the world that lies before us.

These thoughts on loss reminded me of past conversations had here concerning forgiveness.  I recently read Dr. Fred Luskin’s Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.  He is the Co-director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project (part two of the book addresses the different studies conducted and their outcomes) and right away in the Introduction he lays out how forgiveness always begins with a grievance.  He explains that a grievance arises when an undesirable occurrence happens to us and then we think and talk about it in a certain way.  He defines a grievance as:

1)      the exaggerated taking of personal offense

2)      the blaming of the offender for how you feel

3)      the creation of a grievance story

As I’m sure you can imagine, he then defines the steps in forgiveness to be the reverse: learn to take reasonable offense at what has happened, take responsibility for your feelings, and create a forgiveness story.  The rest of the book talks about the interventions he uses to help train people in forgiveness (guided meditation and breathing play a large part), but I was especially drawn to the storytelling aspect.  He shows how the story we tell can have powerful implications not only for how we feel emotionally, but for long term cardiac health and overall well-being.  In other words, if we always tell a story of loss, eventually we will be lost.

I closed my sermon with this beautiful story from Kevin Kling’s collection, The Dog Says How:

“When Pots and Pans Could Talk”

There once was a man with two pots.  In order to have water, he had to walk down the hill, fill the two pots, and walk them home.  One day, it was discovered that one of the pots developed a crack.  As time wore on, the crack widened.  Finally, the pot turned to the man, “Every day you take me down to the river, and by the time you get home half the water has leaked out.  Please replace me with a better pot.”

The man said, “You don’t understand, as you spill, you water the wildflowers by the side of the path.”  Sure enough, by the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried beautiful flowers grew while the other side was barren.

“I think I’ll keep you,” said the man.

In life, we are all losers, but through story new life can grow from loss.

9 Responses to “Prodigal Stories, Forgiveness Stories”

  1. Diane M says:

    Oh dear, I hate this way of looking at grievances and forgiveness.

    “He explains that a grievance arises when an undesirable occurrence happens to us and then we think and talk about it in a certain way. He defines a grievance as:

    1) the exaggerated taking of personal offense

    2) the blaming of the offender for how you feel

    3) the creation of a grievance story”

    This is fine if you’re talking about how your sister-in-law tries to make sure you catch your plane on time even though you are over 50.

    But what if you’re talking about rape? Being personally offended is entirely appropriate. Blaming the offender for how you feel is not only accurate, it’s an important part of healing. Creating a grievance story is also a way to figure out what happened and take care of yourself.

    So it starts to sound to me like either forgiveness has nothing to do with serious offenses, or people who have been truly wronged have to talk as though they haven’t.

  2. Diane M says:

    However, I am intrigued by the finding that adult children of divorce related more to the parent than the child in the story of the prodigal son.

    I wonder, though, were they parents? I think growing up I identified with the good kid – most of us have sometimes felt like a sibling who didn’t deserve it was getting a break. As adults we might change our perspective because we have to deal with children and figuring out how to be both fair and merciful.

  3. Amy Ziettlow says:

    Thanks Diane-the Between Two Worlds data set for the children of divorce was with young adults in their 20′s and I believe for the most part NOT parents, but Elizabeth could probably speak to that better than I can.
    The Forgiveness Project is far more nuanced than I present it and the only stipulation for the study cohort was the timeline for the griaveance (it had to have occured at least 6 month prior to the study) but there were no limits to the type of grievance. The third co-hort was with mothers of young people killed in Ireland during all the religious unrest there.

  4. Diane M says:

    I don’t see how the mother of a murdered child can take too much offense. I think the murderer is responsible for how she feels.

    I always hate the idea that people should take responsibility for how they feel as though the outside world has nothing to do with it – and I think that one part of redemption must involve taking responsibility for how you made other people feel.

    I can’t really get past his language. I am very inspired by people who have been immensely wronged and managed to forgive someone, but I am more put off by people who haven’t been in that boat promoting forgiveness as something people should do.

  5. Diane M says:

    So back to the prodigal son – if you aren’t a parent yet and you identify with the parent in that story, I do think something unusual is going on.

    Perhaps it’s not just about loss, but about the feeling that you have a prodigal parent. They are not doing their job properly, but you still love them and want them to come back. It’s something you want so much, that you will be willing to forgive them for the past.

  6. Matthew Kaal says:

    The father in this parable is an interesting character. He obviously loves both sons, and treats them with liberality. When the younger son demands his inheritance prematurely (basically telling his father that he’s worth more to the son dead than alive) he respects that son’s wish to be independent and to exit out of their community and family. [It is important to note that in the context of Jewish culture, this son's actions are arrogant, insulting, and unthinkable].

    Yet, when that son returns poor, humbled, and chastened the father is overjoyed. Why? Because in spite of his son’s arrogance and insults, his father has a rightly ordered understanding of what it means to be in community – the opportunity to begin again with his son, to show the unwavering love he has for him because of their relationship as father and son. The relationship is given its proper value when contrasted with the lost material wealth and damaged social reputation his son has cost him.

    This is what makes the older son’s reaction somewhat tragic. He is jealous of his brother when he witnesses his father’s liberality. Yet, the father makes it clear that everything he has belongs to this son also. This son has been living alongside his father all along, waiting patiently for his half of the inheritance (he’s not so different from his brother after all), and yet hasn’t grasped the fullness of relationship his father is offering now, and that it is worth more than what he covets.

    I think that for those who have suffered loss, there is a shadow of recognition that the father’s response is the best response [I say shadow, because ultimately this parable is about God's relationship with his peoples, and his desire to be in relationship with them] For someone experiencing loss – the value of what one is missing is strongly and clearly felt; less important distractions fade away.

  7. Matthew Kaal says:


    I am not sure this parable is particularly helpful with regards to cases of violent assult (sexual or otherwise) and murder – where the ultimate good outcome wouldn’t be ‘being in community’ with the offender. Even in these cases, I think the saintly response is to forgive and love (and hopefully experience freedom as a result), but ultimately I think the goal a survivor or family here is different from simply forgiving, it is seeking to see justice done.

  8. Amy Z says:

    I realize that placing the Prodigal Son story in conversation with the Luskin Forgiveness project maybe confusing the roles of forgiveness. Matt–you are right, ultimately the parable is about God’s longing for reconciliation with all of humanity (and to keep in mind Luke hammers this home schematically with three parables of “lost things” the lost coin, the lost sheep and here now, the lost son.) I love that God see that sacred reconciliation happens on human terms through shadow and reflection and mercy.
    Diane, it would be fascinating to hear what you think of the Luskin book which I am poorly presenting. He is a psychologist and I am still wrestling if “forgiveness” is the right word for his project. Keep in mind it’s the reconciliation project–thus the end goal is not reconnection with any offender.
    I do find the goals of the project compelling: 1) to take reasonable offense (have you ever asked that question? I find I haven’t but I think it could help me be healthier!) 2) to take responsibility for my emotions (which means, I am not going to allow someone else to define how I feel about myself and I am not going to expect someone else to define me) 3) tell a new story.
    Also, keep in mind these studies (and church for that matter) are voluntary–so no one is saying–you should do anything. Our bereavement counselor used to stay “Don’t should on me.” She was a hoot.

  9. diane m says:

    I don’t think we’re going to agree on this. I have for a long time refused to “take responsibility for my own emotions.” If you cut me I will bleed, if you hurt me I will cry to paraphrase Shakespeare.

    It is a causal relationship. I want to see the blame / accountability put where it belongs.

    If you look at it the other way, it becomes if you bully someone you make them feel bad versus if you bully someone and they feel bad, they have chosen to feel that way. (I’m not big on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote either.)

    I don’t see this as allowing others to define me, I see it as refusing to let people tell how I should think about my feelings. :-) Anyhow a different perspective, although I am not sure how different the end result would be.