Forgiving Love

Luke 15:11-32

There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said, "Father, give me my share of the property." And so the father divided his living between his two sons. A few days later the younger son turned everything into cash and left home for a far country, where he squandered his money in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country and he began to be in need. So he went and attached himself to a local landowner who sent him onto his farm to mind the pigs. And he would gladly have filled his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. Then he came to his senses: "How many of my father's hired servants have more food than they can eat, but here I am, starving to death! I will go at once to my father, and say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.'" And so he set out for his father's house.

But while he was still a long way off his father saw him, and he ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said, "Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again." And they began to make merry.

Now the elder son had been out on the farm; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And the servant said to him, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound." But the elder son was angry and would not go in. His father came out and pleaded with him; but his son answered, "These many years I have served you and never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours turns up, after running through your money with his women, you kill the fatted calf for him!"

And the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry, for this your brother was dead, and is alive." (Luke 15:11-32)

The New Testament tells us that Jesus taught his followers to love one another, to enter into a new life together. He sent them out among the peasants of Galilee, two by two, perhaps a woman and a man together, without bag or food or extra coat, to heal and to share his teachings with those who offered them hospitality. The love of Jesus for his followers was astonishing: he asked them to trust completely in God and to turn away from false hopes.

Jesus had first embraced the hope of John the Baptist. John proclaimed the coming of the end of time and the great judgment of God. Jesus  turned from this apocalyptic hope, but John's message lingered among the followers of Jesus and shaped the understanding of the early church. Matthew interpreted many of the parables of Jesus as descriptions of the last judgment, Paul believed that his experience of the resurrected Jesus marked the beginning of the end time and the resurrection of all the faithful, and the Book of Revelation portrays the apocalypse in vivid and powerful images. Yet, the New Testament tells us that this is not the teaching of Jesus.

Nor, the gospels record, did Jesus embrace the hope of his people for a political revolution freeing them from Roman rule. In first century Galilee peasants were sorely oppressed by Roman rulers and collaborating Jewish landowners, priests, and tax collectors, who in rent, interest payments and taxes took two-thirds of the peasants' income. In the time of Jesus, the wealth of the ruling elite was increasing even as large numbers of people were being dispossessed of their land and made homeless. Many became bandits and terrorists, and those who sought to bring about the kingdom of God by violence were popular with the poor. The New Testament, however, makes clear that this was not the way of Jesus.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was a present reality, not a future time of final judgment or triumphant revolution. Moreover, he showed his followers how to discover and create the rule of God in their lives by sharing, in a community of faith, a love that ignored the social, economic, religious, family, and gender discriminations of first century Mediterranean society.

The prophetic vision of Jesus was most powerfully expressed in his table fellowship. The New Testament records that he ate with women as well as men, with those who were considered sinners, with tax-collectors and possibly even with Gentiles. Moreover, when he ate with these persons, he acted not only as their host but also as their servant. He took the bread and blessed it as a host would, but like a servant he also broke the bread and gave it to them to eat.

As host, he assumed the man's role in his culture; as servant, he took the woman's role. Jesus broke the social and religious rules of his culture as a way of creating a new egalitarian community in which the presence of God was made available to each person as she or he was able to receive it in faith and trust.

In John 15:12 Jesus tells his disciples to "love one another, as I have loved you." And the author of 1 John writes: "let us love one another, because the source of love is God." (4:7) The New Testament calls us to love God with all our heart and soul and strength (Deut. 6:5) and to love one another as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10:27-28), because God is love. (I John 4:16) Loving God and loving others is what it means to follow Jesus.

The parable Jesus tells about the prodigal son shows us what love means. The father forgives his younger son, completely and unconditionally. We do not know whether the son has repented or only devised a strategy to improve his situation. Yet, this is of no concern to the father, who runs to embrace him. He welcomes his son home and forgives him.

The older son's resentment reminds us that love is often unfair. He is not the only son in the Bible to resent love for his brother. Cain, the first son of Adam  and Eve, cannot accept that God favors the offering of his brother, Abel, over his own, and so he kills his brother. Jacob steals the blessing of his older brother, Esau, with the help of his mother, Rebecca, who favors him, because his father, Isaac, favors Esau. The brothers of Joseph sell him into slavery because they are jealous of the love of their father, Jacob, for his gifted young son. The Bible is full of stories of love and injustice and resentment.

We know, too, from our own experience, as sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers, that love is not always fair. Who among us has not felt loved more or less than another and resented that fact? Who among us has not loved one friend more than another and known that the one loved less resented it? We know, too, from our experience in the world that life is unfair and unjust, that hatred and greed often seem stronger than love, that the suffering of the innocent is great.

The parable, however, doesn't allow us to conclude that there is nothing to be done in the face of the unfairness and injustice of life. The parable challenges us to confront wrong with right, to love and forgive those who harm and oppress us.  

In the film "Jesus of Nazareth" Jesus tells this parable while he is a guest in the home of Matthew, the tax collector, before Matthew has become a follower. Peter is standing outside the house, because he refuses to associate with sinners like Matthew who work for the Romans and make a good living off the misfortune of the peasants. As Jesus tells of the prodigal son, he looks at Matthew; and as he speaks of the older son's resentment, he turns to face Peter. Then Peter, despite his misgivings, slowly enters the house and embraces Matthew.

The life of Jesus and the lives of those who have sought to follow him, including people of other faith traditions like Gandhi, bear witness to the power of forgiving love. And I know of this power as well from my work with members of other faith communities. I recall staying in the home of a Japanese Buddhist who, with tears of joy, told me that by eating and praying with me he had been freed from his hatred of Americans for killing his father in World War II. And I remember a Dutch Christian, whose parents had suffered at the hands of the Japanese during that same war, saying after he heard a Japanese Buddhist chant a prayer during an interfaith prayer service, he was no longer able to hate the Japanese.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the older son is right to argue that his father has been unfair. But the father is right to urge his son to forgive his brother, because applying the standards of fairness will not open the way to the kingdom of God. In the face of unfairness and injustice we must turn from judgment to forgiveness, for love reaches out to the enemy even as it overcomes our resentment.

Love is a way of resisting injustice by embracing life and trusting in God. Love is a way of transforming us and our enemies into friends. Love is a way of entering and creating the kingdom of God now, in the world as it is. And so love is a way of changing the world, by offering an alternative to unfair and unjust social, economic, religious, and family relationships.

Of course, love does not always succeed. Forgiveness may fail. Unfairness and injustice will continue. Laws, courts and government will remain necessary.

Yet, if we forgive, we will be changed, even if those we forgive are not. If we forgive those who wrong us, we will be assured of God's forgiveness, and we will be freed from the anger of resentment. We will be free to reach out in love to those who remain angry and to those who refuse to forgive. We will be free to discover and create the community of faith that Jesus described as the kingdom of God.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the older son represents all those who understand the kingdom of God as judgment. We often feel as he does. We expect to be rewarded for being good, and clearly we have not yet received our due. We resent that others, who are less faithful or do not even share our faith, enjoy more of the benefits of this life. So, for our reward we look to the kingdom of God as life after death in heaven or with God at the end of time.

But Jesus calls us to enter the kingdom of God now. There is life after death and at the end of time, but not because of any final judgment by God. As Paul affirms, "nothing can separate us from the love of God" (Rom. 8:39), which we have known in Christ Jesus as God's supreme act of forgiveness.

The kingdom of God is the spirit of love "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), the freedom to live that is present in this moment and every moment, the gift of forgiveness that frees us from resentment and enables us to love others as we would have them love us. The kingdom of God is after death and at the end of time and now as well, for it is eternal. The kingdom of God comes as God's gift to those who love and forgive one another. Amen. © Robert Traer 2016