Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.
In the last part we mentioned that the standard Middle Eastern patriarch probably would have responded with blows and verbal abuse to a request like the one the younger son made. But because he didn't, the son felt as though his plan to return home and work as a servant had a chance of success. He could believe in his father's love, having seen it demonstrated.
And her, as his father responds, we see him proven right. Jesus tells the story to try to illustrate to his listeners what God's love and forgiveness are like. In the two sons, he creates the least deserving and the most deserving caricatures he can manage, puts them in situations where no one could doubt what was supposed to happen to them, and shows how God's kind of forgiveness makes something completely different happen instead.
The father accepts the son even before the son can demonstrate he's come back changed. Remember, we know that he has "come to himself" or "come to his senses," but the father in the story doesn't. All he knows is that the boy left with a third of the estate in his pockets and it doesn't look like he's bringing it back with him. Is he here to ask for forgiveness? Is he here to ask for more money? Has he changed and realized the value of a relationship with his father far exceeds the amount of stuff he can get from that relationship? The father doesn't know, but welcomes him anyway. Jesus would tell us that the only difference between the father and God is that the father doesn't know if the son will disappoint him again, but God knows that we will fall short again and still accepts our repentance and return.
The father also accepts on himself the debt that the younger son has incurred. Any time someone wrongs someone else, a debt is created. Sometimes the debt is literal, like when someone takes something that doesn't belong to them. They owe the real owner his or her property back, or proper compensation for its loss. Sometimes it's metaphorical, like the loss of reputation or prestige, or of happiness and peace. If I insult you then I have tried to steal from your reputation, and in order for the scales to balance again I need to give you back what I've stolen. I owe you a debt.
Junior tells us he wants to repay his debt -- he will work for hire for his father until he pays him back everything he owes. But the father doesn't even let him make the offer before he calls for the robe and signet ring and the sandals and the party. He won't require the son to earn his way back in and he will assume the debt himself. Christian teaching tells us that in Jesus, God does the same thing with our debt of wrongdoing. The debt is real and can't just be pretended away, but God can and does say that he will take the loss on himself and welcomes us.
It's good to be clear here: That's not a plan that will always work with other people. Sometimes forgiveness can restore a relationship, but sometimes a broken human relationship can't be restored even when we forgive. If a person forgives someone who's regularly abusive, for example, we don't ask them to return to the relationship and endanger themselves.
But we sometimes take that guardedness too far also. We use it to excuse our unwillingness to forgive instead of as a prudent choice to get out of harm's way. We may focus on what we have to give up if we forgive, like a loss of reputation, physical property or the pleasure we have at holding our grudge and feeling superior to the person who's wronged us. You can sum it all up in the eternal proclamation of the self-justified: "Well, you don't know what they did."
To which God, of course, answers, "Really? I don't? Someone's been tinkering with the Webster's again, 'cause I'm pretty sure I'm still omniscient." The upshot being that the lack of knowledge seems to be on us -- God knows what wrong was done to us (or by us, for that matter), but we don't seem to be aware that whatever we lose when we forgive is made up for by the fact that we are in a relationship with God. Made up for more times over than we could count, for that matter.
Kris Kristofferson was right that freedom can come from realizing that
there's "nothin' left to lose." But it can also come from realizing that
what you lose is worth so little compared to what you can gain. Because the father forgives, he is free to take his younger son back without worrying about the debts involved. Because God forgives, he does the same thing. The father believed that what he would gain through his forgiveness was infinitely more valuable that what he would gain if he tok retribution and demanded payment: His son. God believes that what he will gain through his forgiveness is worth more to him also: Us.
Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we have been given something that is worth more than anything that has ever been or could ever be: The relationship with our Creator that we were made for from the very beginning. In light of that, it's hard to see why I might balk at forgiving someone when all it could possible cost me is barely pocket change by comparison.