Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: Is it Fair? 3-10-13

Do you know what ‘prodigal’ means?  Prodigal means ‘given to reckless extravagance; characterized by wasteful expenditure; lavish.’  When this story is called, the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is referring to the younger son who wasted all his inheritance and ended up eating with the pigs.
But you may remember that, we have suggested that the story might just as well be called the story of the Prodigal Father.  The father is also given to ‘reckless extravagance,’ throwing a party for this son who wasted his fortune, who threw away all his wealth and ended up with nothing to show for it.  The father, who forgives the young man, and throws him an outrageous party when he returns home, is clearly going beyond the bounds of decency and good sense.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11b “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ 20 So he set off and went to his father. 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. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  32 But 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.’”

March 10, 2013

Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: Is it Fair?

“I can’t believe you’re going to let him get away with that!” I was absolutely incredulous sometimes at how my parents treated my younger brothers. “You would never have been that way with me!” I would think, or say. “If I tried to flush a whole roll down the toilet, I would have had a spanking! You’re going to let him off with just a talking to? You’re going to let him have dinner!?”
Any decisions my parents made regarding my younger brothers were subject to evaluation and critique, but particularly any that involved grace, forgiveness, or insufficient corporal punishment! That must be why I identify so easily with the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.  As an oldest child, who tried to do the right thing, it never seemed fair what my younger siblings got away with.
I ask the question in my sermon title this morning, “Is it fair?” and as you may have sensed when you first heard the title, the answer is “No.” No, forgiveness is not fair. We could end the sermon right there. Forgiveness is not fair. But there is, of course, a little more to say about it than that.

The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables – almost over-familiar to the point that we may be too confident that we know what it means. As Preacher Tom Long says: “Countless repetitions have transformed what was once a parable with trap doors and mysterious and unexpected depths into an Aesop’s fable, an anecdote with a prosaic moral tag… [which] coos a little cultural wisdom in our ears: ‘Hey, no matter how badly you have messed up life, pick yourself up. A ready supply of forgiveness is waiting, and you can start over where you left off.’”
That may be the case with our whole sermon series on forgiveness. Unless we wrestle a little with our assumptions, we won’t really get how profound God’s forgiveness is for us all. The problem with turning the story of the prodigal son into a predictable self-help advice column, Tom Long says, is that the celebration of the return of the son becomes his due. The father is obliged to throw the party, because that’s what good people do.
That’s why I find myself concentrating on the big brother, aside from the fact that I’m a big brother myself: the big brother gets how grace, unmerited grace is not only surprising, but at least a little bit offensive, sometimes a lot offensive. Unmerited grace offends us as much as it does the big brother.  We want our right behavior and right belief to count for something! We want to think we are doing something to gain God’s favor and grace. Especially we religious people think we should somehow be able to earn God’s forgiveness.
We know that’s not really how it works. But for us, we want to be able to earn it, and for others we think maybe they haven’t really earned it.  We want to see them repent before they get forgiveness.  Let me state this as clearly as I can.  There is not a single instance in the Gospels where Jesus requires repentance before he extends grace or healing or hospitality. Not once! It doesn’t seem fair.  It isn’t fair. Repentance is a response to God’s grace, not a prerequisite for it. Grace always comes first. Grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, God’s love is what enables us to repent. It’s what enables us to forgive. [Which Comes First, Grace or Repentance? the Rev. Dr. Robert Dunham, Day 1, 2010]
We accept God’s forgiveness; we accept God’s grace, God’s love, by repenting, by forgiving. If we don’t turn our lives toward God, if we don’t show God’s forgiveness to others, then we haven’t really accepted the gift God has given to us. But that gift is there to be accepted.
More than any other story in the Gospel the parable of the prodigal son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love.  (Nouwen)  God is full of pardon, and unexpected forgiveness.  We cannot expect that kind of loving from other human beings, or even from ourselves.  In this story we need to identify with one of the sons – the younger son when we realize that we left home and have lost our way and need help getting back on track – when we need forgiveness — the older one when we need to learn a lesson about our self-righteous refusal to forgive.
We cannot hold ourselves to the standard of the father.  We don’t have that capacity for unlimited forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is boundless.  Ours is much more limited and has to be. We left home a long time ago, but God, even today, welcomes us home with open arms and a party of reconnection.
Despite the fact that that love is always available, it is always outrageous. It is always surprising, sometimes disturbingly so, sometimes awesomely liberating.  We do the work of repentance in response to and because of God’s forgiveness surprising grace – always.
Lent is a time for coming to ourselves, of realizing the distance we have put between ourselves and God, realizing our brokenness. Notice the line about the younger son, “he came to himself.’  That’s what we get to do – to come back to ourselves and listen to God’s voice to realize how far from home we have gone.  Coming to ourselves prepares us to return home, where a surprisingly warm, extravagant, loving welcome awaits.  For this Prodigal God says to us, You belong to me.  I am yours.  You are mine. I am always there; I always will be there and hold you in my embrace.  You are mine. You are my child. You belong to my home. You belong to my intimate life and I will never let you go.  I will be faithful to you.”