Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry
We’ve been talking this Lent about forgiveness and reconciliation, and sometimes, when you start thinking about a certain issue or topic, you start to notice every time it is mentioned, every time it comes up in conversation, and suddenly, it feels like everyone is talking about what you’ve been thinking about. I read a couple of interesting articles recently. One of them talked about the issue of shame, and in particular the practice of public shaming that we engage in in our social media-focused culture. The article talked about weighing the benefit we have through social media to draw attention to abuses that otherwise stay covered up, with the way we can destroy a person’s life over one mistake that used to be just something someone could recover from. For example, a young woman recently complained about the new job she was about to start on twitter. Her boss found out, and fired her, also on twitter. But since this all happened on a public forum, it went viral – it was trending, meaning everyone was talking about it on social media. So, some unwise choices were made, but in a normal context, the young woman might have been able to apologize, and the boss might have forgiven her, and everyone could have moved on. Instead, this incident will probably shape this young woman’s life forever. (1)
Another article outlined a psychology professor’s forgiveness strategy, which he calls REACH: Recall the incident, Empathize with the person who wronged you, give them the Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit yourself to public forgiveness, and then Hold on to that forgiveness. The psychologist found that practicing forgiveness is good for your health. It reduces anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Forgiving people improves sleep, and decreases dependence on medications. (2) Practicing forgiveness is good for you.
Of course, we come to our study of forgiveness and reconciliation from the perspective of Christ-followers. What do we know about forgiveness from the scriptures, from the example of Jesus, from our relationship with God? How do we, in the church, practice forgiveness and reconciliation? Today we turn our attention to a probably familiar parable, usually known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that we have come to think of as meaning lost, because of this parable. But actually it means extravagant. Someone who is prodigal in their behavior spends lavishly and wastefully. In this parable, we find two sons. The younger asks for his inheritance – basically he asks for what he would get from his father in the event of his father’s death. It was just as rude a thing to ask as it sounds like. But the father assents, and gives the younger son his portion, and the younger son wanders off and lives a prodigal lifestyle – he spends all his money in lavish living. When a famine hits, he realizes he is in trouble. He gets a job, but it isn’t enough, and he finds himself thinking he wishes he was fed as well as the pigs. So he decides to go home, and beg his father’s mercy, offering to be treated like a hired hand.
However, when his father lays eyes on him, he is filled with compassion for his son, a word that means literally that his insides are twisted up with feeling for his son, and he embraces him, kisses him, and orders the best robe, and a ring, and sandals, and a fatted calf to feast on, and a general celebration to be held to welcome this son back home. As he says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
The older son, however, isn’t so excited at the turn of events. When he hears what has taken place, he’s angry and upset with his father, and he refuses to join the party. His father pleads with him to understand, but the son won’t listen. He says he’s been on his best behavior all along, and he’s never gotten this kind of celebration. And yet, the younger son, who squandered everything in selfish living, gets the best of the best. It isn’t fair!
His father answers his complaints saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what happened after this in the parable Jesus tells. What do you think? Did the older brother ease up? Did he join the party? Or did he hold on to his anger? What would you do?
Figuring out why Jesus tells a particular parable can help us understand the meaning we’re meant to glean from it. Jesus shares the Parable of the Prodigal in a series of teachings about lost things that are found – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then, the lost son, found again. And he begins telling these parables right after we hear that tax collectors and sinners have been coming to Jesus to listen to him, and that the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day, were grumbling at Jesus, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” At the end of the first two parables about what is lost being found, Jesus says something like, “And so also there is this much joy in heaven when one sinful person repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” I’m not sure there are any among us who need no repentance, but many of us, at least, have an existing, ongoing relationship with God. Certainly the scribes and the Pharisees would have fallen into this category. But why does Jesus eat with the sinners? Because he’s on a quest to find the lost, not the found! And though this phrase isn’t repeated at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, we get the idea. When someone is found by God when they’ve been lost, God is overwhelmed with joy. But, are we? When someone who was lost is found by God, do we rejoice?
This parable, the way we know it, the way we label it, puts the focus on the prodigal son, the younger son. But the names of parables aren’t part of the scriptures themselves – they’re just what we’ve named them later on. And I think we got the name wrong here. I think this parable might be more aptly called “The Parable of the Self-Righteous, Unforgiving Brother.” And I can say this because I related so much more to the older brother than to the younger. Maybe some of you really connect with the younger brother, squandering away his blessings, and returning to God after leading a wayward, wandering life, feeling God’s open arms welcome you home. But for many of us who have long been rule-followers, church-goers, trying, if imperfectly, to follow Jesus for as long as we can remember, we’re really more like the older brother than the younger. And so I wonder, how do we react when the younger brother shows up at home, and the father bends over backwards to welcome him? Do we want others to receive forgiveness? From us? From God? Do we want others to be let off the hook? Or does the forgiveness they get lessen what God has given to us? One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. You might think of him as the guy that ends up swallowed by the whale. But the reason Jonah ended up there is what strikes me. Jonah was told by God to warn the Ninevites to repent. And Jonah heads the other direction. Why? Because he knows if he tells them to repent, they will, and God will be merciful and show them forgiveness. And Jonah doesn’t want them to be forgiven! He thinks God is too easy on them. And when, indeed, God does forgive them, Jonah basically throws himself onto the ground to pout. And this is one of God’s prophets! Truth is, I don’t think we’re so excited when God showers other people with forgiveness. Why is that?
I think our reluctance – sometimes our unspoken or unacknowledged reluctance – to see the wholehearted, joyful forgiveness that God offers someone is first because we forget, like with many things God offers us, the difference between a gift and a reward. We treat forgiveness like it is something that we must earn. A reward God will give us if we are good enough and deserve God’s forgiveness. And we believe this because this is how we try to forgive others. Only if they deserve it. Only if they have earned it. Only if they make it up, repay us, woo us, appease our anger, do enough to get back into our good grace. Then, then, we forgive. And so we expect God’s forgiveness to be like ours: imperfect and conditional.
Forgiveness is a gift. A gift. Free. Offered freely. Not because it is earned or deserved. But because it is a gift that the giver chooses to extend! Forgiveness is a gift! When we attach strings to our forgiveness, as reasonable as they might seem, it isn’t really forgiveness. It would be like cancelling a debt but not really cancelling it – still requiring repayment after all. Forgiveness must be a gift. If we think we can earn forgiveness from God, we’re in trouble. And of course, God deeply desires us to learn to forgive others in the way that God forgives us. I think that’s mentioned in one of those prayers we like. Something about forgiving our sins as we forgive the sins of others? If we’d like to receive God’s forgiveness as a gift, we also ought to offer it is as one. I know that’s a challenge that will require extraordinary strength. But thankfully, we know a God who will help us learn to extend it.
Because God loves to forgive us. That’s what these parables tell us. God loves to forgive us, and we do our best when we learn to love what God loves. God never seems to have the attitude of “you should be so grateful to me” when extending us forgiveness. Instead, God says “I’m so excited to renew this relationship with you.” God loves to forgive us.
I think it breaks the father’s heart a little when the older son is so upset about the forgiveness extended to the younger son. Because of course, the father has been showering him with kindness and love and gifts his whole life long. But none of it seems to matter in light of the welcome home party for the younger son. The older son acts as though everything he’s been given up until this moment counts for nothing.
Are the gifts that God gives to us only valuable in comparison with what God gives to others? Is the grace and love and forgiveness God gives to us only valuable if no one else receives it? I worry that sometimes we treat God’s gifts, and God’s forgiveness like it is a limited-edition item that loses value if too many people get it. But friends, our God is a God of abundance. There’s no scarcity here. Nothing that will run out. And the value of the gifts we receive are in no way diminished when everyone gets a piece. On the contrary. In the way the Kingdom of God works, everything is just right when everyone is welcomed home. The puzzle is complete when the coin is found, and the 100th sheep rejoins the fold, and our younger brother who drives us a little crazy is welcomed home. Nothing makes God so full of joy then to welcome someone back. God loves to forgive, and charges nothing for it. Thanks be to God! Let us go and learn to do likewise. Amen.