Most of us grew up calling Jesus' story about a man and his two sons the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it is not. Jesus did not begin his tale by saying, "There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother."

"There was a man who had two sons," he says, letting us know whom the story is really about-a father who loved his two children to distraction and wanted them to love each other too. This is a comforting story until you notice something odd in it: the father does not wait for a confession or a promise of better behavior in the future. Instead, he rushes out to embrace his son and kisses and forgives him before the son can even get a word out of his mouth.

While this image may be excellent news for the prodigals among us, it is also disturbing news, because forgiveness is one of those gifts of God that cuts both ways. We all need it, and when we get it from God or from one another we know what new life is all about. But forgiveness is forgiveness of sin, and sin is wrong, right? In order to be forgiven, someone has to have fallen short of the glory of God, which may be as simple as having failed to be kind to someone, but which may also be as complicated as having killed someone.

Whatever the crime, very few of us would deny the possibility of forgiveness, but most of us would insist on penance, on the sinner's heartfelt confession and willingness to pay for the wrong that has been done. Then along comes this story of instant forgiveness with no strings attached, and we cannot miss the point: that the extravagant love of God both fulfills and violates our sense of what is right.

Preachers and teachers often insult this parable by turning it into a cartoon in which a sulking, mean-spirited older brother begrudges ...

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