Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things to do.
Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, is about forgiveness and yet it’s not a neat and tidy story, mind you. For that matter, I’d say true forgiveness itself isn’t neat or tidy either.
Jesus tells this story in a string of parables. In Luke’s fifteenth chapter, there’s the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and then this one about a lost son. A woman lost a coin, Jesus told the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and she turned her whole house upside down until she found it. When she found it, she threw a great party. Or have you heard the one about the shepherd who had ninety-nine good sheep, but there was that one who ventured off by himself? The shepherd left the others and found the lost sheep and brought him home. And then this story about a son who broke his father’s heart but wound up penniless and broken. He dragged himself home but not as a son, only in the hopes he might get a job on his dad’s farm as a day laborer. With the same abandon as the woman who threw a party because she found her missing nickel, matching the joy of the shepherd who organized a block party to celebrate that an errant sheep was found, the father rushes out, embraces and kisses his beaten, broken younger son and plans an all-out banquet. This is a story of redemption, the best kind of forgiveness.
Why bother including the petulant, whiny, bitter, resentful – yet faithful, steadfast – older son? Doing so breaks the string of parables. It’s unlike the previous two. And if the parable of the Prodigal Son was only about a bad boy and his loving father it would’ve been good enough, it would’ve been a great story, in fact. Why ruin it, then, by including the older son?
Because if forgiveness is just about me and thee, it’s good but not enough. Not enough to be called fit for the Kingdom of God.
At this point in Jesus’ ministry, his fame had spread so far and wide he was being courted, it seems, by the powerful elite, the teachers and scribes. Days earlier, Luke tells us at the start of his fourteenth chapter, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s home for dinner on the Sabbath. If you were trying to show off your power or intelligence, your prestige or wit, Jesus would be the worst possible guest to invite to a dinner party. That night in the Pharisee’s home, Jesus told the esteemed guests they should sit at the lowest place, and that they’ve invited all the wrong people – rather, he said, they should’ve welcomed all those whom that group regularly excluded. Not only did Jesus make a mockery of the function, but he pierced that crowd to the one place where it struck the most: their pride. Jesus saw through all of that. And he called it out.
Jesus was such a bad dinner companion that he was not only removed, for ever, from the social roster of Galilean soirees, but they came to hate him. They wanted him gone. They wanted him silenced for all time. So much so that days later, by the beginning of Luke’s “lost parable” chapter, those whom he shamed are grumbling on the edges while Jesus’ time is now filled by throngs of those whom he said should’ve been invited to that swanky party.
When Jesus begins to describe, for them, what the Kingdom of God is like, he not only describes a God who searches for those whom the world would otherwise ignore but Jesus also includes them, those scribes and Pharisees who grumble at him and want him silenced and, more than that, want him dead. The story of the Kingdom of God is that they, too – yes, they who have not and likely will not forgive Jesus – they, too, are included; they, too, are a part of the story; they, too, are loved. That’s why the older brother is included. Because all are included.
Like it or not, all must be included. Forgiveness is about community, although it may not be a community in which each member recognizes him or herself as a constituent part. True forgiveness is more than simply me and thee. It involves self, God and, yes, other.
For ourselves, forgiveness is getting to a place where you know yourself to be loved, protected, whole and treasured. Forgiveness is a realization that the hurts and harms which have been inflicted on you do not define you. It is self-love.
Forgiveness also involves the other, like it or not. Forgiveness demands we walk that much longer road towards placing genuine hope in the bonds of common humanity which unite us with one other, even if the other has been mean or vindictive or cruel. It’s tapping into that deeper love which awakens your own spirit and, surely, must do the same for the other, even if you feel they’re going about it all wrong. Forgiveness is hoping, indeed loving the basic essence of the other.
It’d be good to admit that this is made more difficult because of the economic view of human interaction too many of us share, too fundamentally: if you love me I will love you; to the degree that you harbor hope for me, I will hope in you. There’s very good chance that our loving the other, especially the one who has walked away, will not change them. Perhaps the other may not love you, but love them, still. Perhaps the other may not rejoice in you. Rejoice in them, nevertheless. Scripture isn’t a psychology textbook, distinguishing between forgiving and forgetting. Like I said, forgiveness isn’t neat or tidy or easily summarized into quick slogans. This is where it gets hard.
I suspect that for this very reason, then, the parable of the Prodigal Son is left unfinished. The brothers never unite. In fact, the older son never calls his sibling “brother”. The slave calls him “brother” (“…your brother has come”, verse 27); the father, when speaking to the older, calls the younger one “brother” (“…your brother was dead and has come to life”, verse 32), but the older does not recognize the younger as a part of him. To him, there is no brotherhood. There is only brokenness, anger, divorce.
That’s how the story ends, not a summary but an offering – asking to be made complete in your hearing. To the degree that we, ourselves, try to live into God’s free offering of full and perfect love and, yes, try to love self, other and God we make good news out of the raw material of our lives.
That’s why there is always that third component of forgiveness, the love of God, by which I mean two things: first, our love for God and, second, God’s love for us – inviting God’s love into our admittedly feeble attempts to be nice and get along. Like the brothers in this famous story, we, too, on this side of heaven, are not reconciled with everyone with whom we should be. Ours, too, is an incomplete story. The love of God is that which brings the possibility of completion. While we are still far off from one another, on roads set apart by resentment, bitterness and mistrust, our Father God walks alongside all of us, in a sense holding all in a profound yet subtle embrace, holding us until we find our way back home, until we find our way back together.
In the Nicene Creed, if you’ve noticed, we don’t confess that we believe forgiveness, as if it’s a neat and tidy and straightforward thing. No one believes forgiveness. Everyone has a story of brokenness in which they truly cannot heal, not yet at least, an experience they fear they may never forget.
What the Creed asks us to confess is that we believe in forgiveness. Believing in something is more like hope, more akin to trusting in the possibility of something, even something far off and remote and seemingly impossible. So we believe in it, we hope in it, we strive for it, as hard as it may be, saying boldly with the universal church “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”