Everyone seems to love the story of a prodigal’s return. In fact, we often hear people say “ah, the prodigal has returned”. I imagine Christmas has often been the occasion of returning prodigals.
There was a time in Australia when most Aussies would have known where the expression came from. In case you don’t let me tell you. It is a Bible expression drawn from the story of two prodigals and a loving father that was told by Jesus Christ.
The story is, of course, a parable of the love of God for children who simply have lost sight of what God’s love is like. One child thinks he is unforgivable and deserves nothing, while the other thinks he deserves everything and is unforgiving. Both children often attend Christmas activities and can make for some not so joyful gatherings. Ashamed and unforgiven does not go well with self-righteous and unforgiving.
In the story of the prodigal’s return God the Father welcomes home the one who is sorry and he pleads with the one who is unforgiving. Both are lost and the Father’s love seeks both.
But it is the unforgiving I want to address.
I believe a person’s capacity to forgive is commensurate with their knowledge of God’s forgiveness of them. Forgiven little you will love little. Forgiven much you will love much. Of course, the more self-righteous you are the less forgiving you will be. You really have to watch your self-righteousness levels. There are no blood or urine tests to measure this but if you find yourself struggling to forgive you can bet you have self-righteousness.
I don’t think forgiveness is easy and it wasn’t for God. Jesus had to suffer to the point of death to bring about forgiveness. And by experience it seems something has to die in all of us to offer forgiveness. But there is no better death.
Forgiveness puts to death grudges. It is a death that affects you from the inside out. Grudges’ accompanying friends - bitterness, hatred, prejudice and vengeance - also die with forgiveness.
With their death slanderous and malicious lips die and the clenched fist opens with new generosity. It is like you get your own life back when you forgive. Forgiveness frees you from the harmful effects of unforgiving self-injury. I learnt a long time ago that bitterness and hatred do a whole lot more damage to the person who is bitter and hateful than to the object of one’s hate and bitterness. It is why Jesus Christ is not bitter and hateful. He met human evil with these word from the cross on which we crucified Him, “Father forgive them...” Jesus never allowed himself to be the ongoing victim of other’s cruelty. Forgiveness freed Him from that, while offering the freedom of forgiveness to others.
Of course, offering forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person’s response. Forgiveness is a decision of your will. If someone accepts your forgiveness then two people will find life – one freed from their shame the other freed from their bitterness. If forgiveness is given but not received one person still finds life, while sadly the other remains dead.
It is tough at Christmas for some people to gather because they are either ashamed or bitter. I can think of few better times of the year to say sorry where you need to and to forgive where you must. Why not take a leaf out of God’s book this Christmas: Jesus came to give us life and He certainly welcomes the prodigal home. Forgiving and forgiven - life is dead without them but the question is this, “Are you alive enough to offer or receive either of them.”
Bishop Rick Lewers