Luke 15:11-24 – ‘How God is loving, forgiving, and living’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

Dan has a plan for the preaching over the next while but today he set me free from that and was brave enough to tell me that this Sunday I could have the last word!  He didn’t tell me how many last words I could have though!  Anyway, that got me thinking.  One last sermon at The Village, what do I want to say?  You might have picked up, over the years, that I am rather fond of the parable of the prodigal and his brother, which I will, very soon, suggest could benefit from a new name.   I think I might have shared before that I was told on finishing my training at Knox that I should remember that there is a whole Bible full of texts to preach on, not just this one parable.  My lecturer agreed with me about the importance of this parable, but he was worried, for you and any future parishes, that you might never hear of anything else!

You might have also spotted that the reading of the story finished today before we heard the elder brother’s reaction to his father’s exuberant welcome to his wayward younger brother.  I had it stopped at that point because I think that the older brother’s lack of grace is often a distraction from the character the parable is really all about and the one that I want to dig deeper into today, the father.  As I mentioned, if I could, I would rename this parable and call it the parable of the forgiving father, because, to me anyway, it’s his monstrous act of forgiveness that is the truly shocking aspect of this parable.  The father fascinates me, perhaps, because I am now at an age and stage in life where I understand more fully just what it takes to put forgiveness before righteous anger.  Perhaps, by now, I have been the recipient of enough forgiveness to know how life-changing it can be. 

Today is a day to bring out all the favourites, so the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, is also with us, because conveniently, he was talking about this very subject in what he offered each day this week.  He said this: “When all is said and done, the gospel comes down to forgiveness. If we don’t “get” forgiveness, we’re missing the whole mystery. We are still living in a world of quid-pro-quo thinking, of performance and behaviour that earns an award.”  He goes on: “People who know how to forgive have known how good it feels to be forgiven, not when they deserved it, but precisely when they didn’t deserve it.”

Have you ever watched as someone is shown forgiveness when they least deserve it, and how it changes the air in the room?  It takes the wind out of the sails of the one forgiven; it melts hearts; it opens the door to a possible new future.  It is a transforming and powerful way to change a situation from tense and angst-ridden to calm and future-focussed.  Rohr continues, “I have often found people in 12-step programs or in jail who were quite forgiving of other people’s faults because they’d hit the bottom themselves. They knew how much it hurt to hurt. When someone with a generous heart and a loving spirit entered their lives and forgave them, it was like being reborn.”

You see the thing is, none of us ever knows the full picture in any situation.  That’s why God is the one who can forgive all, God has the whole picture.  Our struggles with offering forgiveness are usually because we are offended by the little bit we can see.  Someone hurts us and we feel that, but we seldom know enough of the offender’s story to know why they have acted or spoken as they have.  Forgiveness is an act of trusting beyond what we can see, because there will be more to what has happened, than we can know.  Of course, it is true too that none of us gets everything right all of the time, none of us are all good or all bad, we weave our way between these extremes.  As Rohr also says, “None of us have loved as we could love, or as we have been loved by God.”  You know how it is, most of us can talk about love better than we can live it.  So, we are immersed in a broken state, and because we ourselves are not perfect, we’re enabled to have empathy and compassion for others.  If we were perfect, we might expect perfection from ourselves and others but we are not perfect. We have no right to expect others to be, (even if they are your ministers)! 

Forgiveness is not doing nothing, it isn’t a passive state, its task is to take the blows because the forgiver has chosen to let go of the barriers that existed between them and the forgiven.  There wasn’t much more they could throw at Jesus when he was crucified but he took what they handed him and then asked God to forgive them.  The task is not to defend ourselves, or seek retribution, or to demand our own way.  The Queen did it with a ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude which is often dismissed as a stiff upper lip stoicism, but she knew Jesus and the manner in which he graciously took the blows and then asked God to forgive the perpetrators.  The decision to forgive someone is an act of trust in God who we know does things differently than how we might do them.  It’s an invitation to join in God’s re-ordering of things; the upside-down kingdom way.  Now I am not going to pretend it’s always an easy thing to do.  There are some hurts that we might forgive but we shouldn’t forget, lest we enable them to be repeated. But by forgiving we are to lean into God with trust.

In John’s gospel (15:5) we hear Jesus say those all too important words, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’.  We are as joined to God as the vine is to the branches, and it’s only when we are cut off from the source of life itself that we become resentful, unforgiving, and untrusting.  In, and with God, we are enabled to love and forgive everything and everyone – even those who hurt us.  Alone, through our own willpower and intellect, we will seldom be able to love like this when situations get tough.  It gets harder too, the longer we leave it.  Our wounds might callous over but they don’t necessarily heal.  The longer we persist in not forgiving, the harder it becomes because we have more and more years of resentment to get past.  Some people become more bitter as they age because the hard wall of unforgiveness becomes impenetrable.  The good news of the gospel is that in forgiving and being forgiven we can be free.

I wonder if forgiveness is so difficult for some because they have not accepted that they too are capable of doing the very worst thing.  Until we know, beyond doubt, that we are no better, and no worse than anyone else, we will be stuck in some superior place of judgement.  The hope is that we become aware of the fragile state of our goodness, without actually having to do the worst we could do.  Discovering the depths of the evil we are capable of is the great leveller, it’s what gives us empathy and compassion for others who are finding this out for themselves.  ‘There but by the grace of God go I’, is how it is sometimes expressed.  None of us know the full story in anyone else’s lives so we are in no position to judge and therefore we have every reason to forgive and thereby be released from both self-righteousness and judgementalism.

In 2019 Mart and I arrived in Northern Ireland on July 12.  My mother grew up there, and I wish I had remembered more of her stories about what it meant to be there in July.  To be fair, she didn’t talk about it a lot; the memory remained raw and painful right to the end.  She just said that in the marching season (July) she and her parents would lock the doors, draw the curtains and wait it out.  They were Protestants as were the marchers; but they marched to celebrate the killing of Catholics in a variety of battles.  July 12 is the high point in the marching season.  After we got off the boat, we drove straight to my mother’s hometown of Ahoghill.  And poor Mart drove unknowingly into the town centre in a fairly big campervan.  There were people everywhere, a kindly but bemused policewoman said, you had better get out of here, so we did, after he negotiated about a 25-point turn.  We parked up the road, Mart was keen to see what it was all about, something inside me made me reluctant, but I went along.  It felt like there was a palpable evil in the air.  Children joined their fathers, banging drums with great passion – about killing people just like them, their own people with a different way of practising the same faith, who they never knew.  That was what got to me.  In front of our eyes, another generation was being trained in hate and unforgiveness.  I hated it and the land of my forebears took on a distasteful feel.  I don’t have any desire to return, but I would be very happy to go back down south where there is less hate in the air.  That’s unforgiveness aided and abetted by the state and civic authorities; religious fervour and unforgiveness encouraged and used for power.  God’s reordering has not been allowed there, the gospel has been distorted and used for human-ordered outcomes.  There will be many Northern Irish who can’t see it because they are so deeply ‘in’ it.  In this country there are many who can’t see the imbalance of power that has been the outcome of a Treaty that has not been honoured, and has instead been ignored or distorted to benefit the privileged.  This week is Maori language week and the emerging stories of how the state-sanctioned killing of the language was used to squash and overpower a culture are chilling.  A lot of effort is going into reversing that now, but it’s so much harder to get a culture back than it is to embrace, honour and value it in the first place.

The parable of the forgiving father opens up so much that I truly could preach on it every week.  The more you get into it, the more that opens up for discovery.  This week I discovered that the late Bishop Tutu and his daughter have written a book on forgiveness in their South African context.  I saw some extracts from it and now I’ll have to find the book, what they had to say is so good.  In it they talked about ubuntu, the African concept of ‘I am because we are’.  Ubuntu declares that the community and I are so inextricably and interdependently linked, that I don’t exist outside of the community.  Our Western individualistic tendencies have not always helped us to live well together.  Tutu’s daughter went on to talk about ubuntu peace.  She said that when the truth and reconciliation process was happening in South Africa the words that were used didn’t translate well.  The perpetrators thought they were saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘forgive me’, which is an individualistic way of asking for the slate to be wiped clean so they could continue to live their lives without guilt and continue to benefit because their crimes privileged them.  What the victims heard them say was, ‘I ask for peace’.  The victims expected different outcomes because what they heard would have included a making good, not just a wiping clean of the slate.  I’m sorry or forgive me, are a call to wipe the slate clean for me; a wiping of past injustices so the wicked can be released from their guilt and greed while keeping the benefits that their behaviour has bestowed on them and their children.  It sets the perpetrators free from all responsibility for those they have hurt.  But, I ask for peace is an ubuntu apology and it is all about ‘we’, recognising our interconnectivity.  It asks for a space to plant the seeds of a better future for the whole community.  This is quest for a peace that heals, it hopes for a better ‘we’.  It appeals for a healing of the fabric of life – it requires action.

This got me thinking about our approach to creation and the abuse that has gone on there too.  How do we stop blaming and shaming, judging and moralising the challenges around this issue and begin to work our how we can get to a better ‘we’.  How can we be part of the healing in community for a better ‘we’ for all, particularly those with less to fight with, the poor and the isolated.  I can be sorry for living as though it’s all about me, and live this out by doing something to help toward a better ‘we’.

We haven’t always been so good at the restoration elements involved in the forgiveness game.  We haven’t always ‘got’ the gospel and the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness requires we die to self, for the sake of the other, and there are costs in this.  But it brings life, to the forgiver and the forgiven; it brings hope of a better ‘we’.  It takes us beyond fickle feelings and intellectual exercises, to the heart of who and whose we are.  We are called to join in God’s ongoing redemptive work of forgiveness, love and enabling abundant life.  That’s who we follow; that’s our job.  The church is not a club for the like-minded, or a comfortable social gathering; it’s where the messy work of forgiving, loving and living is worked out over time – all of us are called into God’s restorative work.  I am often surprised at how difficult forgiveness can be in churches.  It should be where forgiveness is practised over and over until we grow into a better ‘we’.

So, finally here is my last word.  I wonder if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for the things I haven’t done, or have done, the things I haven’t said, or have said, the things I missed and the things I should have overlooked; that have led to anything less than what if God-like?  And, can I declare to you that I also forgive you for your trespasses?  It seems to me that the former far outweighs the latter, but in God’s reordering shown by the father in the parable, there is no hint that God is remotely interested in weighing anything.  It’s just a story about a respectable Jewish man who abandons all decorum, breaks the rules, runs to meet the one who has learned that he isn’t perfect, and hugs him and restores him.  I trust that God will work with whatever my time here has been or done to make a better ‘we’, a space where our hope for a better future can grow and flourish.