Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2004
The Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
Sermon: "Forgiveness, The Choice is Ours"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'" 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. 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.' 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'"
Forgiveness, The Choice is Ours
Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 21, 2004
Ten years ago a young girl ran away from home. She took off with a girlfriend and left her parents, her brother, her friends, and her school. She turned her back on everything and everyone that loved her because she wanted to be on her own. She wanted to live her life her way by her rules.
Now her family had a choice. They could turn their backs on her or they could pray and wait patiently and hopefully for her return. The first years were very hard. It seemed like she was growing farther and farther away from everyone. The parents kept praying, kept hoping. In fact, they often talked about this story of the prodigal son. This story was their touchstone when it got hard. This story was their continuing hope.
As a result the parents lived by this story. They kept the lines of communication open. They saw her when she and her friend settled down. Finally, in the fifth year their daughter realized the person she was living with did not love her. She began the journey home. Her parents were waiting for her. In fact, the story of the prodigal son was lived out in real life. It was lived out with one major exception. In the Biblical version the brother had a problem with the return of his sinful sibling. In this true story, the brother welcomed his sister home completely.
There are many aspects to this story. We could concentrate on the sinful child and repentance. We could concentrate on the forgiving father. I think one very interesting aspect is the reaction of the brother. When the younger brother comes home the father welcomes him. In fact, the father runs to meet him. He dresses him and places a ring on his finger. He prepares a feast for the safe return of his child. The father represents our understanding of God. God is always more ready to forgive than condemn. In fact, God will run to us when we repent and return. I believe God prepares a feast for us when we return. The older brother responds with anger and frustration.
I talk about the father because I believe the father's actions play a part in the brother's anger. The brother has been faithful to his father. When his sibling ran away he stayed. He took on whatever tasks his sibling left behind. He probably tried to please the father more. He may have even attempted to console the father to some degree. Yet, when his wayward sibling comes home the father does not punish him. The father does not tell him about the hurt that has been caused in the family. The father does not make him work with the hired hands. The father does not disown him. The father welcomes him and prepares a feast. The brother gets very angry. His actions and statements tell us how he feels. It isn't right. It isn't fair. He can't just come waltzing back in here and expect everything to be like it was. He doesn't like what is happening. He won't come in to see his brother. He stands outside in disgust, in anger, in absolute frustration. He is upset with his brother and with his father. Forgiveness is the farthest thing from his mind. Instead he wants justice. He wants retribution. He wants punishment.
Now, if we are really honest with ourselves we know what it is like to be the older brother. We may not have felt like this toward one of our family. Have we ever felt this way towards someone who sinned against us or someone we loved? Sure we have. We have wanted justice against that person. We have wanted retribution. We have wanted them to suffer as much as we have or our friend has. Even when the person has asked for forgiveness we have wanted our pound of flesh. Even if that pound of flesh is just a personal apology, it is still a desire for personal justice and retribution. The problem is our personal desire for retribution clouds the issue so we can not see the reality.
When the person is sincerely repentant, they are asking for forgiveness from their heart. They want to know they are still loved. They know they can not restore the time lost. They can not take away the pain they have caused. They do not expect any special treatment. They only want to be accepted and loved. They only want to return to the one place where they know love exists in their world. All the way back they are praying for that acceptance.
We are so afraid we will lose something if we forgive the person. We are afraid we will get hurt again. We are afraid they might somehow take our place. These fears are unfounded. Look how the father responded to his faithful son. He recognizes his faithfulness. He tells him he will receive all of his inheritance. His place in his father's heart is secure. He is loved. He is accepted. He has no reason to fear the loss of his position or the loss of his father's love. Likewise, our fears are unfounded. When we accept someone home we need not fear any loss. Instead we should rejoice. We rejoice because the lost are indeed found. We rejoice because we have followed in the footsteps of the father. We rejoice because love abounds. Where love abounds God is present and the peace of God reigns.
One final note concerning this parable is important. At the end of the parable we are left with a question. After the father and the faithful son have their discussion the father returns to the party. We don't know what happened to the faithful son. Did he stay outside or did he go in? Did he forgive or did he hold onto his anger and frustration at his brother? We don't know. We are like the brother. There will be times when people will sin against us or hurt people we love. When that happens and the person asks for forgiveness we are then required to respond. There is no halfway here. We either forgive or we don't. We can go in or we can stay outside. We can follow the example of the father. The father forgives. God forgives. God accepts. We can choose not to follow the father's example. The choice is ours. Whatever we choose it is important for us to remember that the message of the Gospel is forgiveness. That message will not change. That message will not change because the nature of God is love.