Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The family depicted in the Gospel is not a perfect family. The younger son runs away, but not before demanding from his father all the property that would be his when the father dies. And the older son stays on the ranch, but he is not at all pleased with the situation. He feels like a slave. He’s mad at his brother for running off, and he might even be a little angry with himself for not thinking of it first. Those are only the symptoms. The real problem is that the sons are having problems with forgiveness.
The younger son has sinned against God and against his father. He feels shame. He can’t forgive himself. He has wasted the money his father gave him on extravagant living. He’s going hungry. He has to find a job. He’s gone from raising livestock on his father’s ranch to feeding pigs. There is really no other job in a land ravaged by famine. Don’t forget that this is a nice orthodox Jewish boy. He’s barely supposed to know what a pig looks like, much less spend any significant time with them. He’s shamed himself. He’s shamed his family. How can he go back home? He finally comes to the conclusion that he can go back home, that maybe his father will hire him on as a servant. He remembers that the servants are well-treated and have plenty to eat. He won’t dare ask for forgiveness; what he’s done goes far beyond the bounds of what can be forgiven. But maybe his father will have mercy on him and let him work for his living.
But when he returns home, he finds his father running to him, and his father gives him the forgiveness he could not bring himself to ask for. His father not only welcomes him home, but gives him the best robe, a pair of sandals, and a ring. And on top of all that, he has the servants kill the fatted calf, gives everyone the rest of the day off, and has a big party to welcome home the son that was lost, but now is found. The end. Roll the credits. What a spectacular ending!
But what about the older son? He’s still out in the fields, slaving away for his father. He hears the sound of a party at home, and he wants to know what’s going on. When he finds out that his brother has come home and that the party is for that delinquent, he refuses to join the party. He refuses to speak of the younger son as his brother. He certainly won’t forgive that boy for what he’s done.
Neither son really understands forgiveness. The younger son feels that nobody can forgive him for what he’s done. The older son doesn’t think he should have to forgive, and he doesn’t understand how his father can forgive. Why should he forgive his brother? The older son has never done anything wrong! He’s been loyal to his father, even though he feels like he’s been a slave all these years. He is the one who deserves a party, not his brother. Why should he be the one to make things right again?
The only one in the family who understands forgiveness is the father. When his younger son comes home, he runs out to meet him. He has compassion on him. He throws his arms around him, never mind that he smells like pigs. This is his son, not some stranger. The father completely forgives his younger son, and the son begins to understand. In the face of his father’s grace, he can repent; he has already been completely forgiven. And then the father pleads with the older son to forgive his brother, to show the same complete acceptance the father has shown. The father has not closed the door on either son.
We are members families, and we all face the difficulties of forgiveness. By refusing to forgive, we close many doors on our relationships. Most broken homes exist because someone cannot bring forgiveness to bear. Sometimes one cannot forgive himself. In the same way, if we don’t forgive others, we not only lock them out; we lock ourselves out, too. We see this, both in our homes and in our churches. The divorce rate is higher than ever. Too often we hear and live stories of brothers and sisters who don’t speak for years. And in our churches, we see more and more feuds every year. Pastors are forced out of churches by angry congregations. Angry or ignored church members trickle out of membership rolls a handful at a time, to reappear on other churches, or worse yet, to disappear from church altogether. Church meetings become shouting matches between factions that can’t agree; and these shouting matches aren’t resolved by agreement, but are merely postponed by the forceful expulsion of one of the parties. Thus the argument is never resolved. Sunday morning becomes a war—a war within ourselves and a war with those around us. The worse part of this is that we don’t understand that we sin not only against each other. First and foremost, we sin against God. We don’t forgive those who trespass against us; why should God forgive us? The psalmist writes, “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.” Rather than seek absolution and reconciliation, we hide away, pretending the problem will disappear on its own. If we don’t confess our sins, there is no chance to be forgiven; and without forgiveness, only death remains.
But before anyone can condemn you, God forgives you. Our God is a forgiving God. Our Lord hung upon the cross to bear all your sins, so that when the Father looks upon you, He sees only the blameless Son. The Son instituted Sacraments in which you receive forgiveness. In Baptism you have been washed clean from the sin that you were born into, and the Lord received you into His family. In the Lord’s Supper you eat the body and blood of Jesus, which is given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. This is the great family banquet which is shared by the whole family of Christians of every time and place. And Jesus also shows you how to forgive each other. Forgiveness is a complete change. He told Peter that forgiveness isn’t something you limit to 7 times, but something to give freely, 70 times 7, as many times as a person truly repents and asks to be forgiven. That’s a radical concept, as radical as dying on a cross to forgive sins.
In the face of your Father’s complete forgiveness, you can truly repent and you are truly forgiven. And through His forgiveness, you can forgive each other, as well. That’s a normal family—the family of brothers and sisters in Christ. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.