You remember the parable of the Prodigal Son.
After the son has left his father's home, his father anxiously awaits his return, watches for his coming, and rushes out to meet his son when he finally appears on the road back home.
The father barely even listens to his son's prepared apology, but instead restores him fully, immediately, and wholeheartedly. The father kisses his son, embraces him, and leaves no room for even a shadow of a doubt as to whether the matter is resolved.
It is done. The son is home.
In a lesser-known story, another prodigal son finds himself in a homecoming that is much less clear or comforting, in fact, highly ambiguous and open for interpretation.
King David, like the father in Jesus' parable, also kisses his prodigal son Absalom, but the kiss does not convey resolution or completion, but an ambiguity that leaves open the door for the worst disaster of David's reign.
The story begins in II Samuel 13, when King David's daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. This bizarre and disturbing incident ends with King David being "furious", but doing nothing, and Tamar retreating in shame to the home of her brother....Absalom.
In the absence of any reaction from the King, Absalom's heart is allowed to nurture a vengeful grudge against Amnon, and Absalom resolves to carry out his vengeance when the time is right.
2 Years Later:
After everyone else has apparently moved on and forgotten about the rape of Tamar, Absalom arranges to murder Amnon in the middle of a high-spirited feast, and makes good his plan. With Amnon dead and Tamar avenged, Absalom flees the country. King David then "mourned his son every day", but still apparently does nothing in response to what has now evolved into a series of heinous events.
3 Years Later:
King David's feelings have now moved from grief over the death of his son Amnon, to longing for his prodigal son Absalom. David still does not act, but leaves the situation as it is. Joab, the head of David's army, realizes the king's heart will not be at ease as long as Absalom is estranged, and devises a scheme using an emotional story from a widow to persuade David to allow Absalom to return to the kingdom.
But David still will not erase all doubt. While he grudgingly relents to Absalom's return, there are stipulations: "He must go to his own house; he must not see my face." So, Absalom returns to Jerusalem, three years after sinfully avenging a rape that is now five years old, but still has no place before his father.
2 Years Later:
Absalom's resentment grows over his continued status as an outsider, and he twice sends for Joab to appeal for an audience with King David. Joab twice ignores Absalom's request. The increasingly bold Absalom responds to this rebuff by burning Joab's field, forcing a response from the chief of the army. Joab finally hears Absalom out, and finally arranges a meeting between father and son.
Read out of context, this reunion after seven years of separation might sound heartfelt: "...the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom." (14:33) But, considering the reasons for the separation, and the resentment surely felt by Absalom by this time, this scene is more likely forced and awkward, so very different from the scene described by Jesus when the prodigal in His story returns home.
So much that had needed to be said was never said, and now so many things that might help are so hard to say, perhaps impossible to say.
4 Years Later:
After Absalom's ambiguous reunion with his father, he immediately sets upon a deliberate campaign to undermine his father's authority and win the hearts of his father's people. For four years this goes on, without a word from King David. And all at once, it happens. Absalom overthrows King David, and it takes a bloody battle and Absalom's demise to restore David's throne again.
All this, in 11 years. 11 short years. 11 long years. Imagine having your life turned upside-down by a chain of events that had gone unchecked, with their origin in a wrong left unresolved, eleven years before.
It was a very different story for David and Absalom than the story Jesus told about the Prodigal Son.
Both stories feature a son gone astray, and a father facing the painful aftermath of the sins of his son. Both stories build up to a moment of return for the lost son.
But only one story's reunion is happy, fulfilling, or lasting.
These stories speak to what can happen when a person needs to be restored, and when a person needs to forgive.
The son in Jesus' story repented completely of his sin, and threw himself at his father's mercy. The father forgave immediately, restored fully, and left no room for misunderstanding, in sharp contrast to David, whose responses to Absalom were marked by delay, procrastination, and grudging, conditional compromise. While Jesus' prodigal knew where he stood, it's clear Absalom did not.
We're not told exactly what Absalom's attitude was about his sin. We tend to think poorly of him all around, but one has to wonder how the story might have been different had David intervened from the beginning. Is it possible Absalom's vengeful spirit might never have taken root? Is it possible this father might have been able to guide his son to the God whose heart he knew so well?
We'll never know.
But we do know that this relationship was never restored, and this prodigal was never brought home.
When the story is told by Jesus, the way home is clear.