Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The problem with stories like the Prodigal Son is that we know them too well; we’ve heard them too often, understood them too clearly. The name, Prodigal Son, invites us to consider that maybe we don’t know it so well after all. Isn’t it more accurate to speak of the prodigal father?
Jesus was provoked to tell this story because some people complained that he was too easy on sinners – he welcomed them, ate with them, and forgave them. Even though many complainers end up in churches they tend to identify with the younger son. They delight in the generous forgiveness offered by the father.
Could it be that understanding this story too quickly has taught us some dangerous lessons about forgiveness, which don’t always make us healthier? Nothing is more central to Christian faith and a healthy life than forgiveness. It’s the most important gift God has given us. The one who fails to learn forgiveness is destined to a life of bitterness and superficial relationships.
Yet, precisely because forgiveness is so basic, getting it wrong gets us in big trouble. So there’s threat and promise in forgiveness. As a pastor I’ve seen the consequences of unhealthy forgiveness:
- Folks who have turned hate in on themselves because they forgave someone too quickly.
- People who live in a fantasy world because they spend their energy convincing themselves they have forgiven when they really haven’t.
- People’s lives shrivel up by marrying someone they thought they’d hurt, so they dedicate their entire life to earn the person’s forgiveness.
- In what has been called cocktail-party forgiveness niceness fails to diminish the pain; it leaves the wound raw but covers it over with the cosmetics of civility waiting to erupt again. Don’t let it bother you is not an answer to sin. Just don’t pay attention to it doesn’t erase the pain in the heart. Just forget it. dismisses both the sinner and the sinned-against.
That’s why it may help to hear this story in a new way altogether. Maybe this story isn’t about the younger son – the one we so blithely call prodigal. It’s not even about the older son as Luke makes it appear by tying the story to the Pharisees’ complaints that Jesus eats with sinners. Nor do I believe that it’s about the father who loves both sons.
Only when we consider all three characters together do we begin to understand. Even then the story is incomplete. The true subject of the story is outside the story; the true object of the story lies beyond the story’s ending.
The story is not really about three separate people at all -- a parent, a prodigal child and a faithful one. Who has really met a parent who always loves, a child who is always well-behaved, a son or daughter who is always reckless? No, it’s about the tug of each of these identities in our center. It leaves us asking which one of them we’re most like, which is strongest right now.
Jesus poses questions about the ambiguities of choosing and being chosen; forgiving and being forgiven.
*The question for the father part of us is: What if I give and forgive too much too soon? What if my generosity masks my intent to remain in control? If a father gives the inheritance too soon, his sons may fail to grow up.
*The question for the younger son is: What
if, given and forgiven too much too soon, I
fail because I am afraid that I cannot make
use of what I already have?
*The question for the elder son: what if I discover
myself feeling deprived because my initiative can’t overcome my having received far more
than I should?
What is Jesus doing here? No one has actually been chosen or dismissed; rather each remains caught up in the other's distress. Each may hold some resolution for the impasse of the other –which may allow each to discover larger areas of his own responsibility:
The father may need the elder son's anger to grasp the real meaning of the younger son's absence. The elder may need the younger's capacity to flee what cannot be changed by even the most loyal compliance. The younger son may need his brother's cynicism to remember why he left in the first place – his father was always comparing him to his brother. The father seems unable to relate well to both sons at once and acknowledge both the absent and present abilities of either one.
Entwined in a complex web of misunderstanding none can get disentangled alone. There’s no hero just different pieces of the puzzle. Like a puzzle missing some pieces, we have to go beyond the end of this story to truly understand forgiveness
Do you remember when you got tired of being "It" in Hide and Seek and having no luck finding the hidden ones, you would yell, "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" This phrase might shed light on the way the father responds to both sons. Maybe the goal of the father's love is not that the younger son will see the error of his ways and find his way home or that the father will see him in the distance and run to him in.
Instead, the climax is not in the story at all: the climax is the community that will be formed when the two brothers are finally together. Any-thing less is just same old, same old: little brother isolated from big brother, thoughtlessly partying while big brother feels isolated by his own sense of responsibility and all the work that needs to be done. This outcome is the theological equivalent of little bro saying, "I like to sin. God likes to forgive. What could be better?" That’s not the gospel!
God hates sin so much not because God is a peevish scorekeeper, but because sin harms those that God loves: namely, you and your neighbor. Little bro's sin started a long time before he spent all that money in dissolute living. He made a mess of his relationship with his brother, and let his father know he couldn't wait for him to kick before he got his mitts on the inheritance. That’s why the father had to find the older son and try to convince him that reconciliation does not mean, "No harm; no foul." The old, unfair relationship between brothers is not the only possible future for them.
What makes reconciliation between siblings possible? The parent says to the older child, "This brother of yours was dead and has come to life" (Luke 15:32). The past isn’t the only factor shaping the future of the two siblings; the past does not have all the power in this relationship. If the past defined things, little brother would still be dead to his family and maybe not so far from really dead from starvation or HIV or the violence that so often accompanies life in the fast lane. It’s not totally in our control. But when the opportunity to let go of the past and grab the future presents itself, we must go beyond calculation.
The word for the older son is: When the grave throws up a son, there’s a commotion of love, a proper father malady. We have a different present and future than anything in the past has led us to expect, in which we’re together without old patterns of harm inflicted and endured over and over. That’s the reason for the party. We dance, we sing, we lift our cups because we must.
This is the forgiveness that Jesus from the cross orders God to put in effect. Jesus doesn’t offer forgiveness on his own. He remembers how essential it is to creation. So, spinal column anchored fast, limbs secure against the wood, Jesus marshals the last bit of incarnated flesh that he can move. In breath traveling vocal cord and lung, he flings the force of forgiveness across heaven and earth. “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they do."
Forgiveness is a force, an energy. It has power, is power. In the stories of resurrection, the energy and force of God's forgiveness whistles in the empty tomb's wind. For us to offer or receive forgiveness, our bodies and minds must empty, like the tomb. That is why premature forgiveness is dangerous. Emotions and feelings need time to be experienced, time to subside. Expectations are often unknown until they are not met. Secret desires are sometimes slow to rise, until leavened with disappointment.
At the end of WW2 someone came upon a dead child in a concentration camp. Beside the child was a piece of paper with a prayer written on it. It expresses the both/and of forgiveness: “O God, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but all those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all of this; and when they come to judgment, let the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.