“This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Lk. 15:24).
“I told you so”: for some, these are the most satisfying words in the English language. You know the context: someone gave you good advice, and then you went on ahead with your plan in spite of what you were told. Maybe it was a case of wishful thinking on your part, or maybe you honestly thought you knew best. Then things didn’t work out. Afterward, maybe you’re still in denial, even when your plan didn’t work: “It was a good plan. It should’ve worked!” Or maybe you are ready to eat crow, and go ahead and admit you were wrong. It doesn’t matter. What you end up hearing is, “I told you so.”
The world of “I told you so” is actually a pretty bleak place. No mercy, no compassion, and an endless reckoning of fault. In the world of “I told you so,” mistakes are subject to compound interest, and are always rounded up. The only satisfaction available in the world of “I told you so” is the limited satisfaction that comes when your worst expectations for others are met. There’s nothing very satisfying about being right when what happens is a disaster. The sun is never really shining in the world of “I told you so”: it’s always overcast with a drizzle.
Notice that these words are not found in our Gospel reading today, the parable of the prodigal son. You’ve heard the story: the son cashes out his inheritance, and heads for the big city. He forgets to put his capital into prudent investments, and instead just has a good time. Then it’s all over, and the money’s gone. He’s destitute, and gets a job slopping the hogs, which is a humbling task indeed for a Jewish boy.
It says in the story that the son, after all that had happened to him, and the difficult straits he had arrived at, “came to himself” (Lk. 15:17). It’s the same sort of expression in the original Greek as it is in English. The idea is that you suddenly come to your senses, realize what’s going on, and take stock of your actual situation. The fantasy of who you thought you were is dispelled, as you come to grips with who you actually are. You come to yourself. You arrive where you are. The silver lining in all this is that you’re finally dealing with your own reality, even if the situation is really bad.
So, the son in the story is not in denial. He knows he’s messed up, and he repents. Coming to himself and realizing his dire straits is part of the road back. He returns to his father’s country, to his own hometown; even working as a day laborer beats the pig sty! “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk. 15:18-19). Maybe his father will give him a job.
Do you know what he doesn’t hear from his father? That’s right: “I told you so.” Instead, his father sees him coming while he’s still far away, and he goes out to meet him even before he arrives home. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20). The father’s not having any talk about serving as a hired hand. Instead, the son is welcomed home with rejoicing, and why not? Any parent here can understand the sentiment. “Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Lk. 15:23-24).
Jesus’ story comes from a world very different from the world of “I told you so.” We should note that in this story, the world of “I told you so” is well-represented by the perspective of the older son. He’s disturbed by the welcome given to the prodigal; his sense of justice and of what’s owed him makes him unwilling even to acknowledge that this is his brother. “This son of yours” (Lk. 15:30) is how he puts it. The older brother is busy keeping track of every injury.
If “I told you so” is a bleak world of reckoning, in which faults are compounded and never forgotten, the world of Jesus’ parable is a different place. It’s the world of “Welcome home,” where messing up doesn’t destroy us, and there’s always a road back. In this world, satisfaction doesn’t come from seeing one’s worst expectations met, but instead flows with compassion and mercy from the heart of God’s own love for us.
Lent is a time for us to come to our senses; to realize our true situation and to make the journey home. We’ll be traveling on the broad margin of God’s grace, free and unearned as it is. God is coming out to meet us himself, extending himself to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, who took human flesh for our sake, dying on the cross and rising again. He came to this distant country, the world of “I told you so,” so that we could return to God. And when we arrive home there will be nothing but joy in heaven, because what was dead is now alive; what was lost has been found.