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One who loves to forgive

The story of the prodigal son is well known and its basic message of forgiveness and reconciliation is clear. What it means for each of us personally will differ from one to another, and for some of us it will be deeply significant, recalling a time of estrangement from God which has been followed by a heart felt reunion with God and with others whom we love. That is, of course, the core meaning of the parable: the father represents God, the one who loves to forgive. There is more to the story, especially in the reaction of the elder brother, but it all depends on that understanding of God as the loving parent.

See how Luke introduces the parable along with two other short stories:

Then follows the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The answer to the critics about being friends with sinners is then:

And, for the woman who had lost her dowry coin,

There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. That is not a careless disregard of sin. It is an entirely different matter than behaving as if people can do as they wish and it does not matter. There is joy now where before there was grief. There was cause for rejoicing because there had been a genuine feeling of loss and now it had been made good. Had the sheep or the coin not been lost, the experience of finding the sheep or the coin would be quite different. So also with the prodigal son, the sense of grief is clear. It was like death:

Sin, the breaking of a relationship

As the young man had grieved his father, so we grieve God when we go our own wilful ways and become separated from him. Indeed the basic sense of sin is one of separation from God, and forgiveness is experienced as restoration of a loving relationship. So Paul spoke of our being reconciled to God, and we will look further into the meaning of that, but first let us see how the story illustrates in various ways the grief and the love of the Father.

There was a problem to begin with in the request of the younger son. The father was more generous than the law required or custom normally allowed. The younger son had no right to ask for his share. The old law in the scriptures laid done what provision must be made for the two sons in the father's will: According to the law the elder son received twice the younger son's share:

If the distribution was made as a gift before the owner died there was room for greater flexibility, and we do not know what share the man in the story might have given, but judging from the older brother's attitude the younger brother might have been treated more generously than he had any right to expect. That was certainly true in regard to how he realized the assets, presumably turning them into cash which he quickly wasted. It was normally required that the son who received the gift did not sell the property while the father was alive; indeed the father had a right to a life interest in it and could collect the rent as long as he lived. In this case the younger son must have made an extraordinary request also to be allowed to sell his share. The usual situation is reflected in the position of the older brother to whom the father said 'all that is mine is yours' even while the father clearly still managed the farm. What the younger son did would have been like wishing his father were already dead. So the father was much more generous than he needed to be, but that had no affect on the son who soon spent it all 'in riotous living', a clear sign of lack of respect for the father; so in his behaviour in a foreign land he sinned against his father and against God.

Recognizing our poverty

The wasteful or prodigal use of his inheritance soon brought the young man to a sorry state, to a degree of degradation in which he was reduced to working in the most loathsome tasks. There was a Jewish proverb: 'Cursed is the man who rears swine, and cursed is the man who teaches his son Greek philosophy'. He was probably excluded from the synagogue as a result, as one ritually unclean. Even then he could not earn enough to live on and felt like eating the pigs' food.

The husks or pods in the story were the seed-pods of the carob tree, which were commonly fed to animals, but their use as human food was a mark of deep poverty. Hence the rabbis had a saying, somewhat disparaging of the poor motivation of the people they taught, when they said, 'When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob-pods, the they repent'.

So when the young man 'came to himself' [a common saying, found in Latin, Greek and Hebrew,] he saw himself as he really was. That is when his restoration begins. Our failure to recognize our poverty, to see ourselves as we really are can have the opposite results. Compare his realization with the message to one of the seven churches in Revelation chapter 3, to the church at Laodicea:

Robert Gribben, Professor of Worship and Mission in Melbourne, and for some years previously the Executive Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches, tells of how in his ecumenical work he once found himself at a dinner with a group of Eastern Orthodox bishops seated next to the Bishop of Laodicea. Remembering the Biblical reference to Loadicea he asked him, 'And how many churches are there in your diocese?' And, of course, the answer is that there is no church now in Laodicea. Good reasons can be given because of the Moslem conquest, nevertheless I see it as something of a parable in itself for the church that was described nineteen hundred years ago as luke-warm, and thought itself well off and did not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. The prodigal son was at least realistic.

There was another old Rabbinical saying, 'When a son (abroad) goes barefoot (through poverty), then he remembers the comfort of his father's house.' We could regard it as an unworthy motive for the young man to return and seek reconciliation, and it is important to notice that his return was not at first prompted by a sense of guilt about his sinning against God and his father, although he may well have felt ashamed of his condition. So he came back because he was hungry, hoping to be treated no better than his fathers hired servants.

The father's extravagant welcome

For the father to run and behave in this spontaneous way was, for the people of his time and place, most undignified. The kiss with which the son was greeted was no mere formal greeting. What is said there means 'he kissed him much' or 'he kissed him tenderly'. It is like the occasion in Genesis when Jacob returned after many years and met Esau (and remember that Jacob had cheated Esau out of his birth right):

Surely Jesus and his hearers must have known that part of Scripture. They might have thought also of how a few verses further on we read of Jacob seeing the face of God in the face of his brother:

Then the son begins his confession. See how much easier it is when the son knows that he is loved. But no sooner had he begun to declare his unworthiness than the father breaks in with orders to show that he is still recognized as a son:

The robe signifies that he is received as an honoured guest, the ring is a sign of authority and the sandals that he is a free man not a slave. The listeners to the story that Jesus told would have recognized these signs, and in spite of the father's extraordinary generosity, they would have seen such a human father's love as showing that with God too loves even sons who are foolish, or untrustworthy, or vicious.

[This too had been known in the old Covenant:

They are still recognized as children of their father, just as God remained faithful to the children of Israel even when they had forgotten or rejected him. The 'broken' relationship is not annulled by sin. In the second part of the story Jesus brings this out with strength in reference to the elder brother, who like Jesus' critics failed to see that the sinners were still their brothers.

The extravagant welcome, the feast with the fattened calf, music and dancing, is like the joy before the angels of God, in the other two parables of the lost that are found. That is really to say that God himself rejoices....for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. -- Luke 15:24

All who return are welcome

The second part of the story is just as important. It is really a story about two sons both of whom failed to understand their father. The younger son had no idea how much his father loved him, and the elder son who sulked outside did not understand him either when he called his brother 'this son of yours' and had to be corrected with 'this brother of yours'. The father remained just and fair to the elder son, he got all he deserved, but he needed to learn that the one who loves to forgive is always ready to give far more than his children ask or deserve.

A few things to note in summary:-

1. The father's love is one which cares about broken relationships. God's love is not that sin does not matter. There is rejoicing when people repent precisely because sin does matter.

2. The young man knew that he had offended, but he came back only when he realized his poverty. He had no higher motive than to see that he could improve his lot by going home, though he was led nevertheless to confess.

3. He was greeted with great affection and restored to a status he no longer deserved. His father was generous to a fault. The elder son did not understand the free undeserving nature of the father's love any better than the younger one.

There are implications for us.

1. We can always go home and have our relationship with God restored. It is not something we earn. It is a free gift. It only has to be accepted. It is always on offer, but we do need to turn to God to receive the blessing.

2. We need to be ready to accept others whom God accepts. It does not matter what they have done. They do not have to prove themselves worthy. They are our brothers and sisters because they are the children of our heavenly father.

Forgiveness in human life

In a book of prayers offered by martyrs(1), from the earliest times until recent years, I found this expression of forgiveness:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us:
Instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering --
our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.
When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of those fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
[ANONYMOUS -- found in the clothing of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp](2)

It is difficult for us to be reconciled on our own, so God gave us a way of returning to himself through Christ:

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APPENDIX -- Introduction to Hymn 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'

People, aware of their spiritual nature, try all sorts of things to bridge the gap which they know separates them from God, even if they do not call that separation 'sin', and even if they do not name God as the goal of their reaching out. The sad thing is that such efforts, while they might sometimes remove a barrier to knowledge of God, can never provide the spark to jump the gap. That always comes from the other side.

The futility of human effort to put ourselves right with God, rather than simply seeking forgiveness in the name of Christ, is described in a powerful poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a great advocate of freedom for the slaves in America, a Quaker who combined the deepest commitment to social justice, writing such hymns as 'O Brother Man', with the inner certainties of quiet communion as in 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'. [I hope we can ignore the form of language for the moment even though it is now amended in the latest edition of our Hymn Book.] That hymn does not stand alone as a poem in publications of Whittier's work. It is a few verses selected form a much longer poem which begins with that fruitless effort people so often make to find their own way to God:

John Greenleaf Whittier The Brewing of Soma [selected verses]

The fagots blazed, the caldron's smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
"Bring honey from the hollow oak
Bring milky sap," the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
And shouted, with one voice and will,
"Behold the drink of the gods!"

They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
The gray of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.

"Drink mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy."
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma's sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.

............ [four verses]

You see here that long striving to climb up to God or bring him down to us, by our own effects, when no such contriving is necessary because all that we need is available as a free gift.

As in that child world's early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger's keen delight of pain,
The Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant's yell, --

The desert's hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, hashish drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir's torture show!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian lane
The heathen soma still!

We brew in many a Christian lane, The heathen soma still! The sickness constantly recurs and leaves humankind in need of renewal and forgiveness. So the poem comes to the part we know as a hymn, when we recognize the need to seek forgiveness, and to rely solely on the grace of God in Christ:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!    ..... [AHB hymn 519, except for one verse incl. in MHB 669, see order of service.]

It is in following Jesus that peace is found in the new relationship with God:-

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
beside the Syrian sea,
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us like them, without a word
rise up and follow thee.

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1. Prayers of the Martyrs compiled and edited by Duane W H Arnold, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991 [return]

2. What had a parent or friend of the dead child gone through? Who could leave such note? If it was possible for the victims of horror in Nazi Germany to find forgiveness in their hearts, without ignoring the reality of evil, surely it is possible also for God. That is really what Jesus was saying in the parable of the Father's love. You, sinful as you are, recognize the kind of love the father showed. It was a human experience. Not every father would have acted that way, but we know some would. Then you can expect that God will be no less generous. And if he is prepared to receive the sinner so should we. So Jesus taught us the prayer: And forgive(1) us our debts(2), as we also have forgiven our debtors(3). -- Matthew 6:12

(1) "FORGIVE" 863. aphiemi, af-ee'-ay-mee; from G575 and hiemi (to send; an intens. form of eimi, to go); to send forth, in various applications (as follow):--cry, forgive, forsake, lay aside, leave, let (alone, be, go, have), omit, put (send) away, remit, suffer, yield up.QV3 Strong's DictAphes: 2 imperat. aor. 2 of aphiemi.Amphiemi: to send forth, to discharge; to send away, let go,throw away; to let go, set free esp. from an accusation, to remit (apienai tiva: to acquit); to dissolve, disband, break up (of and army or council); to put away, divorce; to give up, to let pass, neglect; to let, suffer, permit to do or to be done. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon.

(2) "DEBTS" 3783. opheilema, of-i'-lay-mah; from (the alt. of) G3784; something owed, i.e. (fig.) a due; mor. a fault:--debt. QV3 Strong's DictOpheilemata: pl. of opheilema: tha which is owed, a debtOpheilo: to owe, to be indebted for, to be due; to be liable, in danger of a penalty; to be under an obligation, to be bound to do a thing; of anything binding upon us, a debt due. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon

(3) "DEBTORS" 3781. opheiletes, of-i-let'-ace; from G3784; an ower, i.e. person indebted; fig. a delinquent; mor. a transgressor (against God):--debtor, which owed, sinner. QV3 Strong's Dict.Opheiletais: opheiletes: debtor(s)

The need to relieve others of what they might owe to us, was emphasised by Jesus, when he added one thing by way of explanation of the Lord's Prayer:

Its relevance to the message of the parable of the lost son is not so much the requirement of our being ready to forgive for our own sakes, as it is of seeing that if God is prepared to receive back those who have wronged him we should also welcome them. The older brother represents those critics of Jesus who spoke of his keeping bad company. That, in the way Luke tell it, was the reason why he told the three stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and lost son:

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