and lo, at the Outback they rejoiced

The owner of a prominent small business in his small town had two sons. The younger son asked one day if the father could lend him a substantial amount of money. The father was a little bit puzzled, but he did it. The younger son took off for a distant big city where he spent everything and ran up a big credit card debt on top of that. The economy in the big city went south and he had trouble paying for his overly pricey midtown loft. 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 Australian-themed steakhouse and threw a party.

outback steakhouse

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? 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.

(picture by jetalone)

30 Replies to “and lo, at the Outback they rejoiced”

  1. You know, maybe because it’s so true to my life, I have to say that I think it is worth rejoicing that the son realized his mistake and is trying to make good. Everyone finds their own way. There is no guarantee that every person will be as fiscallly responsible as the next. ANY person seeing the light and changing their ways should be celebrated, I think.

    And that love of family should come above love of money is no question in my mind.

    It’s an interesting parable and I understand your sentiment. I just have a soft spot for the one who was astray but found their way home eventually.

  2. Emily, I’m not saying I’m not sympathetic to the sentiment at all… it just mystifies me a little! I do think people who incur heavy debt then decide to dig out should be celebrated. How does that compare to someone who never did in the first place? I’m not trying to judge, I was really just asking the question…

  3. I’m no theologian, but I’ve always interpreted that parable in the greater context of the Bible. As in… “look how much you screw up every day and God has infinite patience and forgiveness for you”, so why should this father not forgive his son for something as “trivial” as money.

    Maybe now the younger son will have the understanding of stewardship of his resources like the elder apparently already does.

  4. It’s certainly understandable that the elder son feels that the younger’s bad behavior is rewarded. I think the big message is that parents have to be aware that perceived parental favoritism (especially regarding money) can cause intense jealousy among their children.

  5. Steve, I didn’t read judgement from you. It is a very interesting question. A lot of it comes down to expectations. There’s always that bit of jubilation when someone exceeds an expectation. I’ll compare my brother and I for sake of an example. I was a good student and got great grades in school. So As and Bs were expected of me and no confetti was thrown when report cards came. Now, my brother was not a great student. If he got an A or B, it was cause for celebration. Why? He’d exceeded everyone’s expectations. We also both ran x-country. He was an excellent runner and won many races. I…was not. I was mediocre.So a top 10 finish for me from time to time resulted in much more fanfare than many of his wins.

    In your modern day parable, isn’t the responsible son’s reward that he has money and a business to keep that money flowing? That’s what being financially savvy comes down to, right? Rewarding yourself in the long term. The son who came back home to a party has a long way to go to reach the same point his responsible brother is at and maybe never will, thanks to compound interest.

  6. One thing I’ve noticed on TV today is that getting out of something is very popular. Maybe losing weight or getting out of debt. Our society loves the story of someone coming back (Kirstie Alley comes to mind). As someone said earlier it should be applauded that a person makes their life better but maybe there should be more focus on having a good lifestyle in the first place. Could be that’s just a boring story.

  7. For me the key line has been “everything I have is yours”. This isn’t ignoring what’s gone before, it’s taking one meal to celebrate the return to the fold. In the morning, everything will still belong to the elder brother, and the younger will have to start from scratch.

    But, I also think that once you get started, it’s actually easier to get out of debt than it is to build wealth. There are inbuilt milestones and a real target to aim for. I just need to keep reminding myself that I would rather start the future here today with my small positive net worth than try to do it handicapped by debt.

  8. I think it is good to forgive and accept your children as they are. But I don’t see the need to throw a big party in the younger’s son honor.
    Besides, good behavior need to be praised too, so the elder son deserved a party or a thank you once in awhile….

  9. I agree with Jason K. As the oldes of 3, my youngest sister is allowed to be EXTREMELY demanding and irresponsible with money. However, I also have to remember that my parents are making quite a bit more money now then when I was in college (and put myself through)…hm….oh well!

  10. I think, and it could be because I come from a different religious perspective, that the point is more that good behavior (actions, etc) are their own reward. The elder son doesn’t get a party, because he gets rewarded by living a good life every day.
    The younger son is rewarded by finding the right path (eventually), and ideally would at some point be like his older brother.

  11. If the younger son had worked his ass off and became a restaurant manager and recovered financially then throw him the party. Not a second before.

  12. Brad wins the prize I think. The whole parable is about how us as children of God can drift away, succumb to sin and always return t0 our Father and receive his “riches” and all that He has.

    Plonkee, in this parable, things don’t return to the way they were the day after. It’s all about a clean slate.

    Good article Steve, and very nice modernization…wish I would have thought of it!

  13. Some good answers, everyone! I think that one thing that’s clear to me is that you can certainly come at this story from a lot of different directions. Personally, I have always felt virtue should be rewarded and vice tolerated or forgiven – to a point. It’s interesting to see that so many of you think of this as a parents-children parable, directly relating to the relationship between a parent and (in this case) his children. I always saw the parent-child story construction as incidental – it could be friends, a nephew, etc. The importance of the story wasn’t the family dynamic but the good-no-reward, bad-reward dynamic.

    It is interesting that people see this playing out in their own lives, as well. I have a followup question: do you think the elder son forgave his brother? It’s not made clear in the parable. The father asks him, but whether he does isn’t all that obvious.

  14. Like all good parables, this one has many different facets and nuances that can be really fun to explore and think about. But I think that one very important question to ask here is who do I want to be like? Does the father, or the prodigal, or the other guy strike me as someone I want to emulate? I think I know in my heart that I want to be like the Father. There is something about his generosity, love, and passion for his children that draws me to his example. Now I know from personal experience that I am a lot like both sons, at times I waste and at times I resent the generosity of others – but being like the Dad definitely seems like the better life to me.

  15. Since this parable comes from the New Testament, we surely must look at it from a religious point of view (whether we are religious or not). So, from a Christian point of view, this parable is entirely defensible. Of course we forgive the “wanderer” and welcome him/her back into the fold. But having seen this dynamic played out in my local church, in families, and on the national scene, I can say that it bothers me to some extent that the prodigal gets to resume life just as if nothing has happened. God may have the magnanimity to do this, but it’s awfully hard to be the one plodding along, doing the work, going to the meetings, never taking a day off, and never to get some sort of acknowledgment. Or, from a religious point of view, it’s hard to be the one who never drank or gambled or took drugs or had multiple affairs, and be totally ignored and taken for granted or, even worse, be considered a boring person. There’s a big difference between what God can do and what works with people. Most people need encouragement. They need a reward, be it a bonus or a day off, or your name on a plaque. The parable was meant to show that God will forgive, but was meant to be a lesson in family or business dynamics? I’m not so sure about that.

    And do I think the elder brother forgave his younger brother? That all depends on the younger brother’s attitude. He might if the younger brother is willing to start over, really start over from the ground up. If the younger brother expects to come back as an equal, then no, there’s going to be resentment. Again, there’s a big difference between the theological interpretation and the real-world interpretation. Theologically, sure, if they both died the next day, they would both go to heaven, i.e. get the same reward, but on earth, I think the elder brother would rightfully expect that the younger brother should start in the shipping department and work his way back up to a corner office!

  16. In the story, it’s not made clear what happens to the younger son after the celebration. He certainly gets more than he thinks he is worth, but whether that continues beyond the one day or not, is not exactly stated.

    I’m aware of how it is traditionally interpreted, but it’s a story, you should interpret and apply it as you read it. And I actually think that it’s right to celebrate people (including me) overcoming their own mistakes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you then give them the family farm, or whatever.

  17. I think that whether or not the other brother forgives the prodigal (or even if he ‘forgives’ the Father for that matter) is something that is meant to be left open in this story because I think the answer is supposed to be evident to the hearer. The other brother _should_ forgive the prodigal and he ought to learn from his Father. The reason I think that this is the case is because of what the original story seems to say – in getting his inheritance early the prodigal was acting like the Father was dead already. It was like saying, “Hey there pops, your as good as dead to me so please give me my good stuff now.” How offensive!

    This makes how the Father responds all that more beautiful, and that is the main lesson – I think – of this story. It teaches us that love conquers even the stupidest of mistakes. Love rejoices in people more than it does in things. And Love’s affection never flags in zeal, despite whatever stupid, wasteful thing we do or even when we sit in unrighteous indignation at the actions of others.

  18. “even when we sit in unrighteous indignation at the actions of others.”

    Sometimes I think that righteous indignation is a myth.

  19. Actually, plonkee, I think the opposite – “nonrighteous” indignation is the myth. Everyone tends to feel righteous when they feel indignified. Boy, if that wasn’t a string of made-up words…

    I don’t think the parable is attempting to show “familial” love per se. It’s attempting to show religious love – i.e. God’s love for all, regardless of past history of sin, forgiveness is granted equally and fully. That’s a religious interpretation that is not really up for debate. The bigger question is if you apply a secular lens to the question. I say a parent has an obligation to the elder son TO show favoritism. Otherwise people go insane, the system breaks down and things get hairy. I think the elder son is right to be angry, in the secular interpretation. I think the parable has to continue – as Ruth said – with the father slamming the younger son into the mail room to work for peanuts paying room and board for his bedroom. I really couldn’t imagine complete forgiveness in this case (again, from a secular point of view).

    It’s really a fascinating story the more you think about it. Human history would be much simpler if everyone offered complete and unconditional forgiveness for all errors, wouldn’t it? If you need an example, look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A horrible bloody civil war never happened there. It’s a simple, clear concept that it seldom put into action – and that’s a pity. I am not sure if it’s lack of capability for forgiveness or simply too much horror to be forgiven sometimes…

  20. “Human history would be much simpler if everyone offered complete and unconditional forgiveness for all errors, wouldn’t it? ”

    It sure would!

  21. I think I agree with Ruth and Steve in that in continuing the parable we would find the younger son working for an honest wage, just like anybody else would. But I think that I may disagree slightly in that I would see it as an expression of complete forgiveness and as the most loving thing that the Father could have done for his son. What would it have profited the prodigal if the Father does not use the circumstances to cure his boy of his waywardness? It would be a terribly unloving Father who would overlook his child’s fatal errors – so I think that both love and complete forgiveness are very consistent with the idea that the prodigal will have to work and work hard once he is restored to his father.

  22. @Steward: Very good point – in a sense, the father’s celebration for his younger son might be sending the wrong message to the younger son. Complete rejection would be sending the wrong message, too, though. Finding the balance would of course be one of those terribly difficult things that spring up from time to time during our lives…

  23. I could never quite fathom this parable either.
    True, the lost son comes back, but the father could have INCLUDED the responsible son in the celebration from the beginning, letting him know why he was celebrating, rather than ‘assuming’ that he would feel the same way.

    The father was happy his lost son came back, the brother only saw that his irresponsible brother was back in town.

    I think the father did appear to be playing favorites as well. If I were the dutiful son, I might be more inclined to act more like the lost son to get some attention.

  24. @Randall: True, I haven’t ever really isolated that one point – why doesn’t the father go round up the elder son and bring him to the celebration? Why does he have to find out about it secondhand? I suppose if the father told the elder son to take the day off and come with him to celebrate his brother’s return, it would have seemed less harsh. Good point.

  25. Thanks for participating in this week’s Carnival of Family Life, hosted by Karen at Write from Karen! Your post is a great contribution. Be sure to stop by tomorrow and check out all the other wonderful submissions for this week — we have a wonderful selection of articles from some very talented writers.

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