a money parable that doesn’t make sense

The owner of a successful small business in his hometown had two sons. The younger son asked one day if the father could lend (really give) him a substantial amount of money. The father, being the trusting sort, gave him the money without asking why he needed it. The younger son took off for a distant big city where he spent everything and then ran up substantial credit card debt on top of that. The economy in the big city went south and he had trouble paying for his pricey condo in a “hot” neighborhood. Things got so bad that he took a job in a restaurant and started eating food that people left on their plates.

The young man said “My father has so much money, and I’m starving! I’ll go back to him and apologize and even offer to work for him.” So the young man went home. His father was overjoyed to see him. The young man apologized for his wasteful behavior, and asked to be forgiven. He said he wasn’t worthy to be his son anymore.

The father instead took him to a fine men’s store and bought him a new suit. He gave his employees the day off and took his son and his employees to a fine chain restaurant and threw a party, ordering many delicious appetizers.

Now all this time the elder son, who also worked for his father, was attending to business with an important client. He had worked hard all of these years for his father’s business. He had never asked for anything – he had worked hard, lived below his means and saved for the future. When he checked his Blackberry, though, he noticed that everyone took the day off and was partying at the Outback.

He fired off an email on his Blackberry to his assistant asking what the occasion was. “UR bro is back & we R throwing a party :)” replied the assistant.

The elder son was furious. He drove to the Outback but sat outside, sulking. His father came out and begged him to come in. The elder son was in no mood to hear this. He snarled, “I’ve worked for you for years. I’ve never done the least thing to embarrass you. I’ve provided for myself and my family, I’ve grown the business, I’ve never gone into debt – and you never threw a party for me at Red Lobster, let alone the Outback.”

“But my little brother blew through YOUR money, spending it all on strippers and appletinis, and yet you’re throwing a party for him.”

The father considered this, then said “Listen, you have been a good son. When I retire, my business is yours. Everything I own goes to you in my will. But we should be happy. Your brother, who had disappeared, is back. He was lost, but now he is found.”

The end.

My story is (of course) a modernization of the parable of the prodigal son. My question is this: is the father’s debt forgiveness really consistent with what we expect as people who pay attention to personal finance? Isn’t it really unfair to reward the younger son’s debt? He’s not a bad person, maybe, everyone makes mistakes – but isn’t the elder son right to be annoyed? Why didn’t they even see fit to invite him to the party? Or is this the whole point of the idea of recovering from substantial debt – that, in a way, the battle to escape debt is worthy of celebration? I guess maybe it’s also about the fact that your love of family should be greater than your love of money (or hatred of waste), but it’s tough for me to grasp.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by missmeng

7 Replies to “a money parable that doesn’t make sense”

  1. I’m definitely on the elder sons side. I’m not against forgiving debt, but the debtor should feel more pain than the younger son did.

  2. (Lurker here, chiming in) I would argue this isn’t a Money Parable any more than The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a story about sheep. The Prodigal Son about forgiveness in a broader sense, not forgiveness of the debt of the money, or any kind of financial advice. The younger son took everything his father gave him, ran away from home, wasted it, and yet the father still celebrates that son returned, repentant. Of course that doesn’t make any kind of financial sense! It’s meant to be a shocking, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural story to emphasize how radical God’s love is for his children who run away and waste all he’s given them, then return, repentant.

  3. I’m with Joanna on this one. This story isn’t about money, it’s about about unconditional love and forgiveness. The fact that they used money (and loss of it) as the thing to forgive is what I find interesting, because it shows that even back then money was such an important thing in peoples minds.

    I can’t imagine anything my kid could do that I would be unable to forgive.

  4. I guess what I find tough about this story is the fact that there is no separate conversation with the elder son BEFORE all the hoopla celebrating Prodigal’s return. I would want my parents to tell me how much they appreciate how dependable I am and that they are thrilled to have young Proddy come home, but that those are two different ways of loving/appreciating a child. It really would feel to the elder son like he’d wasted his life being a good kid when he could have partied and still be rewarded in a way.

  5. Let me just add quickly that I understand that if you use the Bible as a religious reference, this parable is not strictly about money, but about the nature of unconditional forgiveness, which I find well and good, regardless of religion. Forgiveness is a universally admirable emotion. What I don’t get about the parable is the implication (as Emily touched on) that the younger son should be lauded moreso than the elder. Listen, forgiveness is forgiveness but celebrating failure, and wastefulness, etc. – not good! The elder son should have a party. He should have at least been invited to the party for the younger son. Main point is that the parable doesn’t make sense. TJ – I’d never hate my kids for doing anything like this .. buuuuuuuut…. I might give them a strict lecture instead of a trip to the chain restaurant du jour. I’ve just always felt that the prodigal son is a doofus, who deserves a lecture instead of a party.

  6. At that time, there were no wills according to Jewish law, so the father divided the inheritance to BOTH of them, not just the soon-to-be prodigal son. According to law the older firstborn had the right to receive double what the younger/prodigal son received. So, this just father had done right by his older son *even though was not required by law* to disburse the inheritance to either of them. The point therefore of the start of the parable is that the father is/was not a hypercontroller, had reasonable faith in his children, and at some expense to himself made it possible for BOTH his children to become what they would become without significant unwelcome interference from Dad

    ((Luke 15:12) . . .‘Father, give me the part of the property that falls to my share.’ Then he divided his means of living to THEM . .))

    Another key is that the prodigal “came to his senses”. This fact became clear to the Father and so he rejoiced as you yourself pointed out.

    When the Father is delighted to see the good effect of life experience on his son, he says ((Luke 15:23) . . .bring the fattened young bull, slaughter it and let us eat and enjoy ourselves…)) Note that the word “slaughter” in Greek also means “sacrifice”…therefore, the Father was sharing his joy with God and asking God to forgive his son since his son had directly admitted that he had sinned against heaven. So, the Father was again doing what should be interpreted as a spiritually good thing as head of his family – rather than solely a jealousy inducing major expenditure.

    At this, the older son ((Luke 15:29-32) . . .In reply said to his father, ‘Here it is so many years I have slaved for you and never once did I transgress your commandment, and yet to me you never once gave a kid for me to enjoy myself with my friends. 30 But as soon as this your son who ate up your means of living with harlots arrived, you slaughtered the fattened young bull for him.’ 31 Then he said to him, ‘Child, you have always been with me, and all the things that are mine are yours; 32 but we just had to enjoy ourselves and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and came to life, and he was lost and was found.’”

    Recall that the Father had already made the older son doubly wealthy. The parable finally makes sense when taken in context with the beginning of the sequence of illustrations in chapter 14:

    (Luke 14:1-6) And on an occasion when he went into the house of a certain one of the rulers of the Pharisees on the sabbath to eat a meal, they were closely watching him. 2 And, look! there was before him a certain man who had dropsy. 3 So in response Jesus spoke to those versed in the Law and to the Pharisees, saying: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to cure or not?” 4 But they kept silent. With that he took hold of [the man], healed him and sent [him] away. 5 And he said to them: “Who of YOU, if his son or bull falls into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” 6 And they were not able to answer back on these things.

    Jesus was saying to the Pharisees – who considered themselves the “elder sons” of God that they were wrong to resent that Jesus was using God’s powers helping sinners.

    Sorry for the long posting, but when you see that the Father had ALREADY been more than just all along the way toward the older son, it makes a whole lot more sense. At least it did to me – I had exactly the same reaction as you did when I first read it. So, I dug in and the above is what came out of the hole 🙂

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