Exodus 32:1-14; Luke 15:11-32
“I will NEVER forgive him!” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that. Then it continues: “And I don’t think I SHOULD forgive him. Some things should never be forgiven.” So goes the common wisdom of our day. I hear it most often in the divorce recovery group – every time we come to the topic of letting go and forgiving. But it shows up elsewhere. Like in discussions of horrific events. This past week was the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This is another place we hear unforgiveness as not only acceptable, but justified, appropriate, … some would say, righteous.
Even God is prone to unforgiveness, according to the writer of Exodus! God was so mad at the people he saved from slavery that God wanted to destroy them all. And they deserved it! I love how God and Moses are in reversed roles in this story. It is Moses who has to convince God to be merciful. And how does he do it? “God, what will people think?” Moses doesn’t even get that deep voice and say: “Remember who you are!” He just asked God to think of God’s reputation.
Jesus called us to take the high road. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). It is not easy to love – equally and at all times.
We cannot build bridges without forgiveness. And we are called to build bridges, to reconnect the broken places of our world, eventually all to be one in love. Jesus called this the Kingdom of God. And Jesus’ teachings called followers to a higher road, a more difficult way, and a way which is never alone, never without help, because Jesus is yoked to us in the journey.
Forgiveness is central in our shared prayer on Sundays: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We pray for our own forgiveness, and commit ourselves to forgive those who hurt us.
I have come to believe that one of the most unique and difficult teachings of Jesus was to forgive. Even the disciples had trouble with it. “How many times should we forgive a person,” they asked Jesus. “Seven times?” “No, Jesus answered, that doesn’t begin to cut it! Try seventy times seven – so many times, you cannot count” (see Matthew 18:21-22). There is no keeping track in forgiveness. Because if you are keeping of how many times you have forgiven, you haven’t forgiven at all. If you are keeping track, the hurt is still dominating your relationship with and your perspective of the other.
Part of the reason forgiveness seems so difficult is that we don’t understand it. We tend to think that to forgive means saying it is okay. It isn’t okay and the thing we are forgiving will never be okay. Forgiveness is more like ending our demand that the past be different than it was. It is our choice to live forward, with the loss, into a new future. And finally to wish the person well.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. That is completely different. I believe that in the safety of God’s complete presence one day, we will be able to experience complete reconciliation. I live in that hope. And if I live in that hope, it will help me to wish the other well. Part of wishing the person well is praying for them to see the error of their ways and to repent and reform.
Forgiveness is not the denial of justice. Forgiveness is something we do, which allows us to release our resentment and wish the other person well. It is the foundation of bridge building.
Now this brings us to the parable. This parable is so familiar it would definitely be in the category of “gone viral” on YouTube! We are most familiar with the first part about the younger brother who leaves with the inheritance to explore life. In fact, we often stop reading after the father embraces the returned son. But we miss the point if we do this. The fact that God is all about love is relatively easy to swallow. We can all see ourselves in the kid who just had to leave home, test his wings and learn the hard way about life. We all want to hear the message of God’s loving embrace.
Granted, it was a bit of a stretch for the score-keepers who believed that for the kingdom to come it required every Jew to keep the law perfectly for a full day. My guess? Even the score keepers could identify with the younger brother as well as each of us in this room. They just didn’t want to be wrong. And Jesus was saying that their way of keeping score was wrong. God was not bound by their rules. And that stung.
But the disciples had heard and experienced the divine embrace from Jesus. They knew and accepted (most of the time) that Jesus was just gonna love you – old, young, liar, saint, adulterer, innocent, healthy, sick or outcast. Didn’t seem to matter much in Jesus’ book.
So, in a sense, the rest of the parable is for the in-crowd. It is told for the disciples and crowd of followers. It was told for those who dreamed of sitting at Jesus’ right and left hands in the Kingdom of God. It was for us.
We are like the older brother in this case. We are church members. We come to worship services on a regular basis. We support the church financially. We – many of us – were raised in the church. And while so many others have wandered away and found other paths, we are the faithful. We are still here. We are loyal to this church and the God we worship here.
Like the older brother of the parable, we have stayed home and given much of our lives doing God’s work as we are able. We have stayed home and managed our father’s farm. We have watched the younger generation wander away. We feel abandoned and left to carry the weight on our own – while they are off having fun (and I am sure we can all name some of the misguided paths we think they have gone down!)
At MTPC, we have chosen to be a bridge-building congregation. In a city full of bridges, it is a useful metaphor. There is our neighbor to the north – Vancouver. Who wants to cross that bridge? Yet thousands do it every day. Or, look west, numerous bridges span the east and west side of Portland, but there are many people who will not travel to the other side. Something about it is so unknown that it is frightening. And no one wants to be in traffic that long! It takes a big commitment not just to build the bridge, but to cross it.
The only way for this parable to end well is for the older brother to build a bridge to the younger brother. The father can’t force the boys to reconcile. The younger brother can ask for forgiveness. But he cannot force the brother to give it. So, again, it is up to the older brother. Will he build a bridge by forgiving his brother?
Forgiveness is critical to building bridges between people. Like it or not. It is the work we are called to do. It is the only basis for possible reconciliation, and that is what we are about – reconciliation between humans and between humans and God.
Do you ever wonder how the parable story ends? Does the brother come in to the party and embrace his brother, or not? Jesus leaves us hanging. It is pretty clear that the right action would have been to go in and make peace. But we are not told what happened.
What would you do? That is intentionally the question left hanging. Are there some things which should not be forgiven?
We know about hurt feelings and distrust and building walls and getting even. These are the survival fight-or-flight reactions built into our animal nature. But when we get connected to Jesus, we are asked to do the more-than-human things. We are asked to do the things of God. And it is not easy. Remember, Moses even had to talk God out of over-zealous vengeance. So we know it isn’t easy.
I believe the Kingdom of God will come and some day, all people will be one with each other and with God. So, I believe that the older brother did forgive the younger and that they were able to be brothers in the same household. How were they going to work out the money thing and who supported whom after their father died? I don’t know. But I believe that because they had built a bridge between each other, they could work out a way to live in peace.
So may it be among us. May we learn to release our hurt and resentment, and wish each other well. Last week we called that “blessing.” Forgiving and blessing – what a great foundation for bridges between people!