This is a parable about extravagant forgiveness, about a father who doesn’t even consider not forgiving. This is a parable about a young man who finds himself after turning his back on his loving home and suffering the consequences of his actions. This is a parable about suffering driving someone to humility and causing him to wake up to a greater reality—as the text says, “he came to himself” and had a realization that he should journey home. His suffering humbled him and perhaps even transformed him. This is a parable about a loving father accepting him back, no strings attached, a father who loves and forgives so much that it sounds foolish and unfair. And this is a parable about an older brother who did all the right things and feels angry with his father’s unfair forgiveness.
When the prodigal returns home, his father runs out to greet him and before he can even finish his apology his father calls for a robe, a ring, and a party. His brother is not so eager to forgive and celebrate. He feels his obedience entitles him to be a son and that his brother doesn’t deserve any of this fanfare. And to be honest, he’s right, the younger son doesn’t deserve any of this. This parable is supposed to be shocking and unfair. It’s supposed to drive home the point of how ridiculous and foolish the father is—and how God loves us this same way.
I think sometimes we’re all the prodigal son—returning to God after flatly rejecting God’s will, God’s existence, or God’s love. Other times we fall into the role of the older brother—judging others and hardening our hearts, thinking our obedience makes us righteous and wishing God was more fair. And on our best days, maybe, we are like the father in how we love and forgive. Now if we really understand the forgiveness Jesus is talking about here, we recognize our own need for it no matter how good we think we are, and we discover just how extravagant, just how absurd, just how scandalous the forgiveness of God really is.
At the beginning of this parable the father could very well have told his son to buzz off and not have given him the inheritance. And at the end he could’ve turned him away and banished him forever. But this loving parent never seems to condemn or judge, either before or after the son leaves home. He seems to know his son needs to make this journey and suffer the consequences, perhaps needing to leave home to discover that he has been in the Kingdom of God all along without seeing it. So he allows his son to make a stupid, selfish decision and suffer the consequences; and I believe he forgives him before he even leaves home.
And so the message of this parable to us is clear: No matter what you’ve done, no matter how you’ve sinned, no matter who you’ve judged or what you’ve rejected—God loves you! God forgives you! Even if you’re not even sorry yet, God forgives you and God is there for you, welcoming you home. The father obviously holds no grudge, doesn’t wanna hear an apology, and immediately throws a celebration.
Now what would the first people who heard this parable have thought? None of Jesus’ contemporaries would have denied that God is a loving and forgiving God. What got Jesus in trouble is that He claimed God offered absolutely unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness without reason! Forgiveness without repentance! Forgiveness without even asking for it! Jesus offered forgiveness to prostitutes and tax collectors still stuck in their sinful ways. It is this radical forgiveness, this scandalous forgiveness that got Jesus in trouble with the religious establishment of His day.
Theologian John Caputo explains, “Repentance and forgiveness were staples of Jewish theology, and had Jesus been able to turn the tax collectors and thieves around, to effect a change of heart in them and bring them back into the fold, he would have been hailed as a national hero. What then—if anything—was Jesus saying about forgiveness to give offense? Might it have concerned the time of forgiveness? Might it be that Jesus offered forgiveness to sinners who were still sinning and this in advance of their having repented?” Caputo explains it appears Jesus forgives “without requiring restitution or repentance” (Caputo, pg. 219-220).
Jesus says God forgives without any reason to, without any doing on our part, with absolutely no strings attached. No sacrifice. No repentance. No apology. That’s scandalous. That’s really not fair. Forgiveness before you’re sorry? Forgiveness without doing anything? Forgiveness without Confession? Now you see why we did that this morning. We left out the Confession part of our liturgy and skipped right to Absolution (the “words of forgiveness”) to drive home the point that God forgives you without any doing on your part. With absolutely no strings attached!
If you’re feeling a bit uneasy with this concept—you should be. What’s wrong with God!?!? The older brother is right, this isn’t fair—why in the world should that jerk be forgiven? A spot in his father’s household as a servant is gracious enough after what he pulled. Maybe if the younger son proves he actually deserves to be part of the family again then they’ll consider it. But no…Jesus says “THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like”. This unfair forgiveness. This absolutely unconditional unfair undeserved forgiveness is what Jesus says God is all about.
His point is that absolutely nothing is going to get in the way of God’s love for you. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing you do, nothing you say, nothing you believe will keep God’s love away from you. Even our own denial of our sin, our own ignoring and running away from God doesn’t disqualify us from God’s amazing forgiveness. So if you’re out there wondering what you need to do to get forgiven, I promise you: you’ve already been forgiven. You were forgiven before you even asked, before you were even sorry you were forgiven!
(Pause) It might be hard to understand why God would forgive with absolutely no strings attached. People might say—Doesn’t God know if He forgives without holding sin against us people’ll be out of control and’ll just sin as much as they want? We can do whatever and God’s just gonna forgive us anyway?!?!? Might as well just have a big old sin party then! What is wrong with you God??? That kinda forgiveness is foolish, what a ridiculous idea… (pause)
It is to that objection that I want to share you with what I think God is up to in the world. God doesn’t hold anything against us. God knows we will suffer the consequences of our actions, of our selfishness, of misusing our free will and putting ourselves first. This will make us suffer a lot. And this suffering will actually drive us back to God. Because we’ll suffer so much until we finally realize—like the prodigal son did in that pig pen—that this way of life, living for ourselves, doesn’t work… Once we realize that, once we’ve finally sinned enough and put ourselves first enough and suffered enough, then we journey home. We surrender our lives to God and begin giving up all that separates us from God. We try our hardest not to sin, not because we’re trying to earn God’s favor or forgiveness, but because we’re growing, we’re maturing, we’re being transformed. And this is not our doing—it’s the work of the Holy Spirit in us. After living for ourselves so much, we finally come to a point—to our own pig pen—where we actually desire to sin no more. That’s why God gives us the freedom to fail, even dare I say, the freedom to sin. The universe seems to be designed that way. And that’s why God’s absolutely unconditional forgiveness and grace is essential to God’s plan for the world.
God gives us permission to fail so that we can grow, so that we can see that living for ourselves doesn’t work, and so then we willingly turn our whole lives over to God. You see, sin isn’t as much morally objectionable behaviors as it is a disease or a state of being. It literally means “missing the mark” (a Greek word often used to describe an archer missing the bull’s eye). It’s a state of self-centeredness, a disease of putting our own wills first rather than God’s will and the good of all. The symptoms of sin are the bad things we do. Sin itself is the separation from God which causes us to do them. Sin is more a disease that needs to be healed than a crime that needs to be punished. God knows that. That’s why God holds nothing against us. And that’s why Jesus suffered the consequences of sin, even though He did not sin, so that we might be healed and transformed into the righteousness of God—the righteousness that Paul writes about to the Corinthians in our New Testament lesson today.
Paul sums up the Christian message and the mission of the church in these words: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Listen to that again (repeat). And this passage ends “So that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now that’s something. Not counting our trespasses against us, reconciling the world to Godself, so that we might become the righteousness of God, and entrusting the church to share this message of foolish forgiveness with the world.
So that’s our job: to share the message with all people that we are forgiven by God, that nothing you can ever do will separate you from God’s love. That’s extravagant love, unconditional grace, scandalous forgiveness. And that’s exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, the Good News that Jesus tells us to spread throughout the world—God’s absolutely unconditional forgiveness and love!