The parable of the prodigal son is one of the favorite stories told by Jesus. This parable is one of forgiveness:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger son asked that his father divide his property between his older brother and himself. He then took his share of the property and went away to a foreign land where he squandered the property in reckless living. By asking for his share of his father’s property, this younger son treated his father with disrespect. In effect, he treated his father as dead. This son turned away from his father and all that his father valued. But then, after this son goes out into the world, he lost all that he had and became so desperate that he did work that no proper Jew would do – feeding and living with pigs.
Soon, this son realized his sin and returned to his father. His father graciously accepted him back into the family with joy and celebration. The father’s forgiveness is profound. None of us can hear this story without being reminded of our own sin and of the magnitude of God’s forgiveness for us.
But there is more to the story. This story is not just about a father and a son. It is also about a brother. The older brother followed all his father’s rules. He lived the life his father expected. He worked so hard that he probably thought that he had earned everything that he had. So when his wayward brother returned, he refused to celebrate. Unlike his father he could not forgive. He had worked hard all these years. He had obeyed. He had sacrificed. He felt wronged by his brother.
He didn’t think his brother deserved forgiveness.
At the end of the story, we don’t know how the situation was resolved but we hear the father’s words to his elder 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. It’s not just God’s gift to us. It is also the gift that God wants us to give one another. It is the gift God expects us to give.
I remember at one time in my life forgiveness seemed impossible to me. I heard someone say that forgiveness was an action. But to me forgiveness seemed like an emotion and whenever I tried to forgive, anger and resentment would overcome me. I thought in that moment that I had failed to forgive.
However, forgiveness is an action, not an emotion. Forgiveness means giving up my right to retaliate for a wrong done to me. It means that I refuse to take revenge or get even. It means letting go of what I am due – what I am owed. Instead it means seeking reconciliation.
This isn’t easy.
But this is God’s way. God forgives us. We have all sinned. We have turned away from God and that turning has caused destruction. But God offers us forgiveness, offers to welcome us back into his family. But that family isn’t just me and God. That family includes all God’s other children too. In order to live in relationship with God we have to live in relationship with each other. We must be willing to forgive – to let go of what others owe us. We are reminded of this when we pray the Lord’s prayer. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words we are asking God to forgive our sins in the same way that we forgive others.
This isn’t easy. It’s countercultural. Some may consider forgiveness a weakness. It may be tempting to refuse to forgive. We may think we deserve it. But refusing to forgive is destructive. It eats away at our soul. I’ve heard it said that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
As painful as it sometimes feels, forgiveness is the way to life. It unites us to God. It reunites us to God’s people. The more often we practice it, the more natural it becomes. At times forgiveness is difficult. At times we will fail. But as we practice it again and again, our ability to forgive will grow. And as we practice it, we will discover that forgiveness will bring life.
The Rev. Sally Franklin is pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Mill.