Forgiveness is not the ready rule of our culture. We relish revenge, and we pray to get even or to inflict more pain than was delivered.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which we’ve been praying throughout this afternoon and evening, we seen over and over that the father is the exemplar of forgiveness: not many people in our lives are so eager to welcome back into their lives people who have hurt them grievously. Clearly Jesus knows this condition of ours and so he tells the parable in such a way as to look beyond the younger son and the forgiving father. Certainly in the person of the father, Jesus teaches us about the immensity of the father’s love and of the father’s desire to have us return to him. But the second message of the parable is found in the person of the older son. Jesus makes that older son a mirror in which he invites us to recognize how our anger and resentments keep us out of the father’s house.
You see, in Jewish culture of the first century, their system of honor and shame did not allow much forgiveness. If someone brought shame on you or treated you shamefully, you walked away from that person and shook the dust from your feet. So, there was nothing more shameful than for a son to insult or embarrass his father. In fact, the law actually allowed for such a son to be stoned to death! Thus, the way Jesus described the younger son, the prodigal, made it clear that the boy was the absolute worst a son could be.
Remember: the share of the inheritance that would have eventually come to the younger son was not money. This was a land-based economy, so what the father would have given him was the son’s share in the family’s ancestral lands. And what does that son do? He squandered the property…he sold it! And so to sell the ancestral land was not only an affront to the whole family—who would have owned the property for generations—it was an affront to their faith as well (the Jews of the time believed ancestral land to be God’s gift to their families). Yes, this son truly did sin against both his father and God.
And the reaction to such a sin? The father’s running to meet his son and welcome him home broke every cultural norm that applied to a situation in which a son has shamed a father. The typical scenario would have been for the son to go to the home and seek admittance. The father would have stood close enough to the door to be seen by the son, but his back would have been turned. A third party would have told the father that his son was at the door and wished to see him. For all those present to hear—especially the son—the father would have exclaimed that he had no son. His son was dead!
So, can you imagine how Jesus’ listeners would have been flabbergasted and more than offended by how Jesus described the father’s behavior? His running to greet his son and the forgiveness he gave so freely and gratuitously? This son should have been rejected, if not stoned to death! Instead, through the generous gifts he gave the son, the father made clear to everyone present that he was more than delighted that his son was back in the circle of his family.
And now, we can better understand the older son’s anger when we understand how egregious the sins of his younger brother had been. But wait: this son, despite his apparent loyalty to his father, shames his father as well. The older son, by refusing to enter the house, has himself rejected his father. No Middle Eastern man would have pleaded with a son, as this was an absolutely shameful thing for a father to do, yet the father did just this. Again, we learn about the immensity of a father’s love, but in telling the story, Jesus invites us to see ourselves in the older son.
How is it that we love the idea that God is all-forgiving, yet we resent forgiveness when it is given to others? How is it that the model for how to live is the Forgiving Father but, like the older son, we refuse to respect what the Father asks of us?
- If we find ourselves to be like the younger son, then turn to God.
- If we find ourselves to be like the older son, then beg God.
- If we find ourselves to be like the father, then thank God.
In any case, may we—in all of our lives, our words and our works—continue to seek the Father’s will and serve him in our forgiveness.