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The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 4:19-5:1, 9-12; Psalm 34:1-8; II Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:11-32
Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she and her twin sister were torn from her mother in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where for 9 months they were experimented on mercilessly by the monstrous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Her parents both died in that time, and shortly after being liberated, her sister died from her ill treatment as well. In 1980, John Paul II, pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, was shot 4 times by a Turkish man named Mehmet Ali Agca. What does a a Romanian woman who survived Auschwitz and a nearly assassinated pope have in common? They both forgave the people who did them harm. Kor forgave Mengele, and another surviving Nazi doctor who was present at the experiments in person. She chose to let go of resentment and hate. John Paul II forgave Mehmet, visited him in prison, and even advocated for his pardon and release from Italian jail.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most powerful, visceral story of forgiveness in the Scriptures, and its lesson was not lost on the two examples I just gave. While much has been said on this parable, let us take a moment to review it and refresh it in our minds. A son, young and foolish, wants is inheritance now rather than when his father dies. This is, in a fairly direct way for them, like saying he wished his father were already dead. It is shameful, insulting, and thoroughly selfish. He then takes that inheritance, goes to a foreign land, and spends it all on drink and prostitutes. Once he runs out, a famine hits the land, and the only work he can find is herding pigs. Just to remind you, pigs were seen as unclean animals by the Jews, so this is effectively rock bottom. This is living in an abandoned house because of your meth addiction. This is losing your job, spouse, and home in the same week. Hitting rock bottom, the son finally says, being the lowest servant in my father’s house is better than this. So he returns home. Once arrived, he says such to his father, expecting nothing but hoping beyond hope for the lowest job. His father, on the other hand, overjoyed at his son’s return, slays the finest calf for him, puts on the finest robe, and welcome him home.
That is the climax of the story, not its end. For the older son, the one who was always faithful and did what he was supposed to, is resentful that his father would honor the reckless youth, and says so. The final note is this line: ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
The story of the Prodigal Son is familiar to us, and it should be, for it tells us in a simple story so much about who we are and who we ought to be. It tells of forgiveness that restores, not just the forgiven, but the forgiver. It also tells us, so keen to put ourselves into the most flattering light, that we can be any one of the characters in this story. At its base, this is a summary of The Gospel. We are all in a sense all the wayward son, and God is the father who welcomes us home. We have rejected God and gone our own way, but in our repentance and return to him, seeking at best the crumbs under his table, he restores us to beauty and wholeness and seats us at the feast he has prepared.
In the case of the older son, in context Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. He wants them to see themselves as the elder son, being resentful when God welcomes in all peoples, all the wayward of the world.
We all are the older brother, begrudging another the love of God because we have been faithful and we believe we deserve it more. We might see someone in the church who is wayward, who goes back and forth with their sin, and struggle with believing that they deserve grace. But then it wouldn’t be grace, and when they repent and turn to God, our response should be rejoicing. It might even be that those who die without acknowledging God now are still received somehow into the loving embrace of God in eternity; and if that is so, it’s cause for rejoicing.
We are all the father of the story as well. We all have people who have wronged us, hated us, effectively wished us dead. Do we forgive them? Can we? We pray every week and every day “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” God has played the part of the father in the story; now it is our turn. We must forgive, because if we do not we allow ourselves to be enslaved. Enslaved to our resentment and hatred and anger. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, or that everything is always as it was before; life isn’t that simple, and actions have consequences. I have a family member who I have taken some years to forgive. I have many things that hurt me that I was resentful for. Coming to forgive them did not mean we have the best kind of relationship we could have if those things had not happened. However, it does mean that we can have a better relationship now than if I had not, and that I am not holding on to things that cannot be changed.
But it does mean that you, enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, have let go of hate, broken those bonds, which frees you from them and frees you to love even those who hate you. Forgiveness restores not only the person forgiven, but we who forgive, filling that empty hole left inside by the person who wronged us.
We are each person in the story. But we are meant to see ourselves first as the son who sees their brokenness and seeks the restoration of God, and then as those who are able themselves to forgive, extending that restoration out wherever the name of Christ is proclaimed and present. In this way we are what Paul says of us, and may it be our prayer: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.“Amen.
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