Today I thought I’d try a little thought experiment. Imagine with me…


A man had two sons. The first was an ideal son – the kind of son any parent might want to have. I don’t mean in terms of appearance or academic achievement; I mean in temperament and behaviour. Right from being a toddler, he was even-tempered and easy-going. His parents couldn’t remember ever having to raise their voices to him or discipline him. Everyone agreed that he was always a pleasure to be around and a credit to his family. In short, the perfect son.

The second son, however, was a very different kettle of fish. As soon as he was old enough to be mobile, he seemed to find ways to get into mischief and make mayhem. At school, he quickly gained a reputation for rabble-rousing, fighting and generally being obnoxious. His parents showed him just as much love and affection as they did his older brother, but for some reason he just seemed to throw it back in their faces. At some point he began to do drugs, and from there moved into petty theft. The downward spiral continued, and he ended up spending a year in prison after being caught breaking and entering.

The contrast between these two sons could not have been more stark. Both came from the same loving family, both were given the same benefits and opportunities; yet while one grew in wisdom and stature, the other veered off the rails and seemed determined to blow up his life. And it seemed that the more the parents tried to reach out and help their wayward younger son, the more he resented them and their affection. By the time he received his prison sentence, he could barely stand speaking to them or even being in the same room with them.

At last came the day when the reckless younger son was released from prison. He had had plenty of time to think about his many sins, and was sincerely sorry. With no money, no friends and nowhere else to go, he returned to his parents’ house, hoping against hope that he might be able to convince his father to give him another chance.

His parents were not sure what to expect, not knowing whether their son’s prison sentence would have softened him or merely served to further harden his heart towards them and everyone else.

Surprisingly, he was repentant from the moment he knocked on the door; so ashamed of his past behaviour was he that he could barely bring himself to look his father in the eye. Stumbling over his words and with tears in his eyes, he poured out a gut-wrenching apology for all the heartache he had caused the whole family over the years. Finally, with his heart in his mouth, he pleaded, “Is there any way you can forgive me?”

The father paused for a moment; he had not been at all sure that this opportunity would arrive. But his prodigal son had showed genuine repentance, and he needed to respond.

“Son”, said the father, “you know I’ve always loved you and wanted only the best for you. It’s broken my heart to see you hurt yourself and others all these years and reject our love for you. But, even after everything that’s happened, I’m so glad you’re back. I want to forgive you…”

A wave of relief began to wash over the repentant son. Perhaps everything would be okay after all.

The father continued, “…but the thing is, you’ve done so many evil things and caused so much damage that justice needs to be done. I can’t just welcome you back as if nothing has happened, just because you knock on the door and announce that you’re sorry.”

The son looked at his feet and waited, not sure what was the right thing to say or where this was going. A few moments passed, and it became clear his father was awaiting a response.

“Dad…”, he mumbled, “I know I’ve been awful and made your lives a misery all these years. I realise what a disappointment I am, and how much I don’t deserve to be forgiven. All I can say is I’ve had a lot of time to think, and I’ve really learned some lessons. I know I’ve hurt you and mum, and if you’ll give me one last chance, I really want to make it up to you. I promise you things are going to be different this time.”

“Well, that sounds great, son”, said the father. “I believe you, I really do. But can’t you see the problem? Someone has to pay for all the wrong you’ve done, all the hurt and pain you’ve caused. It can’t just be wiped away; that would be a travesty of justice! Can’t you see that?”

Again, not too sure what to say, the son looked away and muttered, “I guess so”.

It was time for the father to unveil his master plan.

“Son, like I said, I really believe you and I want things to work out between us. So, in light of all that’s past, I have a plan. Actually, I thought it up a long time ago so it would be ready if and when this day came.”

“Okay…”, said the son, wondering what was coming next.

“It’s all been arranged, and everything is taken care of. I so want you to come back into the family that I’m willing to make a great sacrifice for that to happen. So, as from today, your mother and I are going to disown your brother, throw him out of the house, cut him off from the family and make sure all his friends turn their backs on him. I know that seems harsh, but like I said before, someone has to pay for all your wrongdoing, and you’re clearly in no position to do so. I’ve talked it through with your brother in detail and he’s happy to go through with it. He knows it’s going to be hard, but he’s doing it for you. We’re all doing it for you, because we love you so much.”

“But”, exclaimed the son, hardly believing what he was hearing, “that’s not fair! He doesn’t deserve that. When did he ever do anything wrong?”

“Son, that’s exactly my point. Ever since he was a child, he’s never put a foot wrong; he’s completely innocent. What more ideal person is there to take my punishment in your place? This way, you can come back into the family and justice can be done. Everyone’s happy.”

The younger son wasn’t sure what he was feeling, but happy certainly wasn’t the word that sprang to mind. Bemused, maybe; dismayed, certainly; but happy? How could he be happy?

His father opened the door wide, smiled warmly and held out his arms. “You really shouldn’t take this the wrong way. Remember, your brother’s doing this because he loves you, and because he wants you to know how much I love you. I told you, everything’s taken care of, and we have a great future ahead of us. Now come inside and give me a hug.”

[ Image: Michael Grimes ]