Reliance: Mercy Without Limits
March 27, 2022 Luke 15 Reliance: Mercy Without Limit
What do we do with this story? A wayward young man, messing up his life six ways to Sunday, comes to his senses and decides to go home. With the poet he reasons that home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in; the place that somehow hasn’t to be deserved. We’ll see. By the trudging steps of his journey home he memorizes his mea culpa speech. Father . . . I have sinned . . . against heaven . . . and before you . . . and am . . . no longer worthy . . . to be called . . . your son . . . As he approaches the house he’s startled by the sight of his father running toward him. He starts in with his confession, but his father is too busy smothering him in hugs and tearful kisses to pay much attention. He orders the servants to bring his son a robe, sandals, a ring, and then to get started on a homecoming party.
What do we do with this story? It’s embedded in a chapter of Luke’s gospel often called “Luke’s Lost and Found,” a chapter that forms something of a centerpiece of Jesus’ ministry and message: In salvation history, both on the world scene and on the landscape of individual lives, both in creation and in community, again and again, seeking God we meet a seeking God, and the lost is found. In this instance a lost son is found by his father, enveloped, forgiven, restored to home. It’s a beautiful story, until, that is, we begin to work out its implications.
Let’s be honest—many of us have a love-hate-love relationship with forgiveness. The practice of forgiving a wrongdoer skews the framework of moral accountability. A rule is a rule; break it and you should pay the price. Once we begin to fold in an element of pardon, of mercy, of second chances, third chances, we’ve twisted that moral framework out of true. Reinhold Niebuhr said it rather plainly: Forgiveness negates all righteousness.
So what do we do with this story? Jesus seems to be redefining righteousness. Maybe he’s merely reestablishing what has always been true: that foundational to right relationship with God and others and self is the deep and difficult work of extending mercy. That may have been what Terry Anderson meant when he said what he did upon his release from captivity. In 1985, Anderson, an American journalist and Marine veteran was taken hostage by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon. Just weeks after he was kidnapped his wife back home gave birth to their daughter. She was given the name Sulome (Peace). He wouldn’t meet Sulome until he was released in 1991; by then she was six years old. Following his release, he was asked what his sentiments were toward his captors, and said the most remarkable thing: I am a Christian. I am required to forgive.
But what about Niebuhr? Forgiveness negates all righteousness. Now that I think about it, there was more to that quotation. What was it? Oh yes—Forgiveness negates and fulfills all righteousness. On the surface, mercy flies in the face of the moral framework. But at a much deeper level, it is its very foundation.
We all know the psychological, physical, and emotional hazards of carrying a grudge, a resentment, a bitterness; binding others with the chains of our moral rightness and emotional hurt. It’s Augustine’s sword: The sword of bitterness, before it can pass through the heart of another, must first pass through our own. On the other hand, when we’ve practiced forgiveness, in small ways or large, we’ve known the opposite: the release, the healing, the opening of our path into life. Terry Anderson, who said his faith required him to forgive his captors, also had this to say: To withhold forgiveness would have been to constrict my own future after I was released. Forgiveness is what finally set me free.
It’s as though we live inside our own hearts, a space that is either cramped and constricted or luxuriously spacious, depending on the choices we make in responding to a wrong done to us. Unforgiveness draws the curtains closed, nails shut certain doors, seals off room after room, leaving us eventually in a postage stamp of a living quarters, sharing the love seat with all our favorite personal grudges. By contrast, the costly and often excruciating work of forgiveness raises high the roof beams, pushes out the walls, opens the blinds to the light and the casements to the fresh air.
Which house do you live in? Who do you keep on your resentments list, nursing those grudges for comfort, or identity, moral high-grounding, the boost of negative energy they provide. Who have you removed from that list by way of choosing the crucible of mercy? I think the small daily incidental offenses we pardon, wrongs we release, slights from others we forgive become practice for bigger, harder work. Someone who’s wronged you and received your forgiveness suddenly holds a gate lamp by which you see your way to the next, the bigger, the more complicated task of reconciliation, whatever that might be.
That is, essentially, the movement of this story, though we don’t often look at it in such a way. The younger son comes home, penitent and bedraggled. He knows he’s been wrong, wants to acknowledge it to those he’s harmed, and is prepared for the consequences of what he’s done. When you think about it, that’s pretty easy material for forgiveness, and the father extends it.
The father’s more challenging work of extending mercy lies ahead. In the fields waits an older son, judgmental, self-righteous, brooding and angry about his younger brother being welcomed home so enthusiastically. Never mind that this younger brother was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again. It’s just not fair. For the older brother, it’s more important to be right than to be together. His eloquent speech defending the rightness of his position becomes a nice example of how much care and tending we can give to the slow and steady process of shrinking our own hearts.
The hardest gesture in the world is to forgive the unforgiving; to release from our judgment those who on principle will not release others from theirs. And yet, in what could really be called the most stunningly generous and compassionate moment in the story, the father does so, speaking these tender and encompassing words: Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
Maybe the father’s heart grew even larger, more supple, more open, at once more tough and more tender in that earlier work of forgiving his younger son. In which case the younger son was the best thing that ever happened to the elder son.
Any older sons, older daughters in the room? I think we’re a room full of them. Who’s on your list? In your prison, along with yourself? On probation? Helping kindle new negative energy for you whenever you review their case? Will you lift your gaze for a moment from the tally sheet to notice the extravagant mercy shown to us? You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
Now we can begin to tally things a different way, beginning with our own forgiveness, moving out from there. Starting small, and by the time we get to the excruciating ones, we will have been well supplied by the others.
What do we do with this story? Maybe Jesus’ had in mind a different question. Not what do we do with this story, but what does this story do with us?