Joshua 5:9-12; Luke 15:11b-32
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.’
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about an inheritance. There are many elements to the parable, but it begins with a man asking his father for an early share of what would have been left to him.
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.
This tale of inheritance did not go well. The son went far away from his family. Bad. To a distant land. Also bad. And there he squandered his property in dissolute living. Doubly bad.
The son made bad choices and then further bad luck came his way. There was a famine in the land. And he began to be in need. That was the phrase used – he began to be in need. We might assume up until that moment in his life, the son had never been in need, never wanted for anything. He never wanted, but somehow he wanted more. So he asked his father for the inheritance. And he lost it all. And so now he wanted for everything.
So he got a job feeding pigs. Not a great job, particularly if you recall that pigs were not a well-received animal in Judea. He is working at a lowly job. No one is giving him anything. No one is giving him anything, unlike his father.
He realizes that this is not a good situation and decides to return to his father, to say that he has sinned and that he is no longer worthy to be called a son. Instead, he should be treated like a hired hand.
If one was of a cynical mindset, this plan to return might appear to be calculated, even manipulative. Just treat me like a hired hand. Would that be the reaction? Would the father do anything like that? In any case, that was the plan. But we do not get to see that dynamic play out.
[W]hile 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.
The father does not know about the loss of inheritance or the dissolute living, the famine or the hunger, the son’s hitting rock bottom or the decision to return and seek forgiveness. All the father knows is that his son has finally returned.
The son confesses his sin, as planned, and claims not to be worthy of being called a son. But his father calls for a fine robe and a ring for the son’s finger. He calls for a feast. His son who was lost was now found.
The elder brother is out in the field working. He hears music and dancing and then asks what is going on. He becomes angry at the news, refusing to come back to join the celebration. The father has to go out to the fields to see what is happening.
‘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!’
The elder brother is not happy. He had been obedient, faithful, and hard-working. And he had not just lost a chunk of the family fortune.
‘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.’
This is a parable, so it is not intended to be understood at the surface level. Which is for the best because the Prodigal Son is kind of a jerk. The story has also been called the Parable of the Wasteful Son.
Hey Dad, give me my share. I want to strike out on my own, apparently in Judea’s equivalent of Las Vegas. Oh gee, I lost everything. Better go home. At this level of analysis, we might side with the older brother. The dead beat goes off and wastes his money on wild living only to return to a party in his honor! Ridiculous and unfair.
Jesus was speaking to a several groups of people that day as he told this story. On the one hand, there were the tax collectors and sinners in the audience, people who had no reason to expect forgiveness for what they had done. And on the other hand were the Pharisees and the scribes, the religious leaders whose job it was to condemn such sinners. The leaders were shaking their heads in disapproval at the sinners, but also at Jesus who sat with these fallen souls.
Jesus responded by offering several parables, stories about searching for a lost sheep, a lost coin. You search for these missing items even though the rest of the flock is still safe and sound, even though the other coins are carefully tucked away. You search for them because they are valuable and because they are lost to you. These examples are then followed by the Prodigal Son, the son who was lost to his father but suddenly was found once again.
There are many ways of comparing the two brothers. One was faithful, the other faithless. One was obedient, the other disobedient. Righteous versus sinful, self-denying versus self-indulgent. And even though the older brother did all the right things, but the younger brother gets the party.
The older brother was angry, which we can understand on the surface. But does it get any better when we go below the surface? Why should there be celebration at the return of one who was sinful? Why should he or she be welcomed back after all? Why throw a party for a sinner?
Why should there be forgiveness?
Why forgive anyone or anything? That is a hard question.
But before I attempt to answer any of that, let me tell you about a movie I saw this weekend. It was a very good movie about something truly terrible. The title of the movie was Spotlight.
The story revolves around the sexual abuse scandals that embroiled the Catholic Church in the Boston area. The “Spotlight” in question was the Spotlight investigation team for the Boston Globe. The group’s purpose was to uncover what was hidden, to reveal the scandals and misdeeds that affected the people in and around the City of Boston. In this instance, the sins to be revealed were committed by those thought to be above sin, those who offered forgiveness for sins and yet were in some cases sinners themselves.
As the investigations developed, the reporters at the Globe came to realize that this scandal did not involve one or two bad apples. There were many predators, many wolves loose within flocks of sheep. And that would have been bad enough. But it was worse than that. The Church itself was complicit in the problem. There was a concerted effort to hide the nature and the degree of the abuses, an effort that spanned many decades and much of the world. Boston was not the first place in which abuses were discovered but it was the first place in which the level of Church involvement was revealed.
As I was watching the movie, I got a little confused at one point. The chronology of events did not make sense to me. The Spotlight story was primarily set in the year 2001, including much of the investigations leading up to the revelation that the Catholic Church was heavily involved in a cover up. And this was confusing to me.
When I was in law school, I was involved in various legal cases having to do with Father James Porter. My involvement was very tangential and extremely technical, having to do with “reinsurance” if that word means anything to you. I was engaged in the time honored legal practice of figuring out who else deserved some blame, so we could all share in smaller financial pieces of that blame.
I was confused by the chronology of events because I had been aware of what was going on a decade before the timeframe of the movie. Now, I only knew about pieces of what was going on, a portion which was smaller in scope though no less terrible in its implications. The Spotlight investigation was crucial not because it revealed that a bad thing had happened, but because it had discovered a pattern of bad things, a connection among these cases of abuse. A connection that helped to perpetuate the problem. Many people committed these crimes. And still many others did nothing to stop it and in fact worked quite hard to hide what was going on. Sinning was not suddenly acceptable, but nothing was done to stop these sins.
The Prodigal Son is a teaching story. It did not happen. There was no forgiving father, no wasteful son, and no disapproving brother. The purpose of the story is to poke a finger at the scribes and Pharisees. See these tax collectors, these sinners. There are coming back into the fold, seeking guidance and forgiveness. Who are you to stand in disapproval, like the older brother? If God forgives widely and well, who are you to question that gift of grace?
The sins of the Prodigal Son were sins of the flesh, wasting his inheritance, living a dissolute life. No one got hurt, except the Prodigal Son. The older brother’s pride took a few knocks, but that was it. The father lost some of his wealth, but it seems that he saw the return of his son as well worth that cost. It may be hard to understand celebrating, but we can understand that what was lost was now found.
How do we go about forgiving when someone gets hurt? When someone suffers? When someone dies?
This Tuesday, I was at the house. I had done my best to avoid listening to the news because I was being avoidant about Super-Tuesday election returns. But finally I could not resist turning on the television to see what had happened. I turned on the television but there was nothing about the election. Something else had happened. Something terrible.
A car had crashed into a local pizza place, Sweet Tomatoes. The accident occurred at dinner time, so the restaurant was filled with patrons and employees. Police and firefighters were all around, news crews swarming. I jumped in my car and drove over – I am the chaplain for the Fire Department, so I thought it was at least worth being there. There was little or nothing that I could do, but I drove over.
I parked as close as I could and walked a few blocks to the scene. It was a sea of red and blue lights, police cars, fire engines, and ambulances. There were cameras everywhere and helicopters buzzing about. Yellow caution tape blocked off the area. I stood there, not really knowing what to do, where to go. I do not have a uniform or a badge or a secret handshake. I waited with everyone else until I recognized one of the officers. I finally caught his eye and we spoke for a moment. He did not know what had caused the crash, what the driver did or did not do. No one knew anything about that. They did know that two people were dead, seven or so injured, some severely. It will take a long time for some to heal.
How long should it take to forgive?
How long should it take for the families and friends of those who died, or those who were injured, to forgive what has happened to them? One of the people killed was on her way to Our Lady Help of Christians Church. Her name was Eleanor Miele. She was headed there to assemble Easter baskets for needy children. This strikes me as the hallmarks of her being a good Catholic. Her husband was there as well, there at the church wondering where his wife of 37 years was with the pizza. How long should it take her husband to forgive? The other person who died was Gregory Morin, a lawyer from Boston. He left a wife and a fifteen month old daughter. When should forgiveness be offered for the loss of a husband and father?
There are many different ways of understanding forgiveness. There are different traditions, different perspectives on that subject. In the Catholic Church, for example, there is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known simply as Confession, in which someone goes to a priest and asks in confidence for the forgiveness of sins. The priest then provides some manner of penance to make up for what has been done. In my parochial school childhood, this generally involved a few prayers said at the altar rail. I was not much of a sinner back then. Only in the range of five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.
How do you ask for forgiveness of something greater, something terrible? How do you forgive abusing a child? How do you forgive the killing of a wife or husband? How do you come close to making such a monumental step toward reconciling for someone who has sinned so greatly?
As a minister, I do not claim the ability to grant forgiveness. It is not because I do not have the same powers as a priest, but because I do not understand forgiveness in the same way. When Jesus was explaining the story of the Prodigal Son, the act of forgiveness came from the father. The father was the one sinned against and therefore the father was the one who could grant forgiveness.
I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with the Catholic sacrament, not at all. I think there is something truly beneficial about asking for forgiveness, about saying out loud that one has sinned. And it is much harder to say that to another person. If we just keep it to ourselves, there is no accountability. When your sins are minor, victimless crimes so to speak, telling them to another person will help reinforce that they should not happen again because you might have to go back the next time for the same reasons.
But there is a problem when these sins involve victims. And there is a problem when those greater sins are kept in secret. The Prodigal Son sought forgiveness from his father because he had committed his sins against heaven and his father. The father forgave him and the father in this case represents God.
But the person sinned against is not always a character in a story or a movie. Sometimes there are real people hurt as the result of our sins. And the power to forgive in those cases requires something more than five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. Of course, I cannot speak for the Catholic Church. But as seen in the events highlighted in the movie Spotlight, there is something fundamentally wrong with offering forgiveness effectively to one’s self. The men who abused were not held to account and often were left to sin again and again. That was wrong. And any semblance of forgiveness offered was meaningless because true forgiveness cannot happen in the shadows.
The forgiveness of God is a gift, one unearned. Whether it is granted is a mystery. But the people who suffer, the victims of sins, there is nothing mysterious about them. These men who abused others needed to go to those victims, to their families, and ask for forgiveness. Out loud and in public without threat or pressure or coercion as presented in the movie at least. That public acknowledgement did not happen; it did not happen for many years and probably is still not fully happening. Forgiveness requires that sins be acknowledged and that forgiveness be offered from the hearts of those who suffered. Anything short of that is not forgiveness, at least not as I see it, whatever that is worth.
And what about that pizza place crash? How might the driver find forgiveness? Again this is just my opinion, for what it is worth. He needs to go to those who were injured and tell them what happened. The why and the how. He needs to tell the truth to those who suffered and to those whose loved ones died. Then he needs to ask them to forgive what he has done. He needs to do this without any expectation that he will be forgiven, none at all. He is not owed forgiveness. No one is owed forgiveness. Forgiveness is an unearned gift.
The Prodigal Son went to his father without any inkling that he would be taken back. If he planned to manipulate his father, to play on his sympathies, then we cannot understand this to be forgiveness. What was lost remained lost. Lost to sin. To be found, truly found, is to understand what has been lost and why it was lost. To be found is to acknowledge what was done. To be found is to say out loud that I or you or we have sinned.
I believe that God always knows the truth. Gods knows the truth, so there is no hiding our sins from God. Instead we hide sins from one another. And sometimes even from ourselves. Forgiveness in this world requires the truth to be known to the world. And even then, after all of that, we might not find forgiveness in this world. But that is the first step toward finding forgiveness in the world. And it is the first step in finding forgiveness from God.