Forgiveness is always a challenging topic to talk about or preach about. At one level forgiveness is a challenging topic because when we talk about forgiveness we are talking about our very personal and sometimes painful experiences.
Beyond the personal nature of the topic, forgiveness is also challenging subject because in our culture there is disagreement about forgiveness. There is disagreement about what should be involved in the process of forgiveness – there is disagreement about the goal or purpose of forgiveness – there is disagreement about when we should forgive. The idea of forgiveness is a contested idea.
Beyond the personal nature of the subject, and beyond the fact that there is disagreement about what forgiveness should look like – beyond all of that there is also the fact that forgiveness always draws us into a particular story – and our stories are always complicated. Our stories always involve unique personalities and a unique set of actions and unique set of words spoken, and a unique context of relationships. Our stories can always be looked at from different perspectives. And this richness and complexity means there is no simple way to describe forgiveness. In one situation forgiveness might unfold in this way. In another situation, forgiveness might unfold in that way.
So the only thing we can do in exploring forgiveness is to try and describe one little piece of the puzzle at a time. That’s what we are doing for just a few weeks these Sunday mornings. We’re kind of circling around the subject of forgiveness, looking at it from a different perspective each time.
Even then, we have quickly discovered that as soon as we stop and say something about forgiveness, there is something important we haven’t said – there is something important that we have missed. Perhaps that was obvious to you in the previous two sermons of this short series.
In our first sermon we talked about the unconditional forgiveness that God gives to his people in Exodus 34 – a forgiveness that didn’t depend on anything they have done – a forgiveness that is given even though they didn’t express regret or change. In hearing that maybe asked ourselves: “Really. Can it be that simple? God’s people act unjustly; God’s people turn to idols; God’s people fail to obey God’s law – and God just unconditionally forgives? What incentive do they have to change if God just forgives them?” The fundamental question is this one: Doesn’t forgiveness require repentance? If God is going to forgive, doesn’t it require some acknowledgement of the wrong done. If God is going to forgive, doesn’t it first require they turn away from wrongheaded living, back toward goodness and beauty. What about repentance?
In our second sermon we looked at forgiveness from a different angle. We talked about the expectation that those who live in God’s forgiveness must forgive others. When we refuse to forgive others then we are in some sense distancing ourselves from the forgiveness of God. When we refuse to live in love and forgiveness toward others we are in a sense refusing our own deepest identity as those who live in the forgiveness of God. So it is that we heard Jesus saying: “When you are praying to God, if you have anything against anyone, forgive, so that God who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.”
Perhaps in reply we found ourselves asking that same question: What about repentance? Do we just have to forgive someone even if they don’t acknowledge what they’ve done? Do we have to forgive someone – do we have to let go or our anger and let go of the requirements of justice, even if they haven’t acknowledged how they hurt us – even if they haven’t begun to mend their ways?
In both cases, in both of those sermons, the question that arises is the question of repentance. If God is to forgive his people and if we are to forgive others – doesn’t it require repentance? If God is to forgive his people – and if we are to forgive others – doesn’t it require that the other express regret and turn toward a different way of acting and living?
In many ways the story of the prodigal son – or the story of the waiting father – or the story of the righteous older brothers – is a story of forgiveness. And not only is it a story of forgiveness, but it is a story in which repentance is front and centre – a story in which the change of heart and life that corresponds to forgiveness, is front and centre.
We begin with the younger son. And what we discover in the narrative is one who has acknowledged his wrongdoing. What we see in this image is one who is in touch with his brokenness; one who understands that in asking for his inheritance he was wishing his father dead; one who understands that he had taken everything for granted.
So we read that he came home and spoke these words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Here is repentance. Here is an acknowledgement of wrong done. Here is a suggestion that he will live different.” And what is response of this waiting parent? His response has all the hallmarks of forgiveness – a loving embrace, an invitation back into relationship, a celebration, a restoration of the child’s identity as a child.
In this part of the narrative we have that classic ordering of those two moments – first repentance, then forgiveness. First a change of heart and life, and then a loving embrace. First an expression of regret, then a move toward restoration. Repentance, then forgiveness.
Just a couple of chapters later in Luke’s gospel we see just this ordering of things affirmed. Jesus says in chapter 17: “If another disciples sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times a day and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
Repentance, and then forgiveness. According to Jesus, when there is regret expressed for what has been done; when there is clarity about the hurtful word spoken; when there is a willingness to turn from destructive behaviour, then forgiveness is in order. And from this point of view, where there is no change of heart – where there is not regret – then forgiveness of the offender is left hanging in question. Where repentance is missing in our relationships, there is a question whether forgiveness is even possible.
This ordering of things is also what we saw in the story of Eric Lomax – in his forgiveness of one of his torturers. It was only when Lomax discovered the change of heart and life in Nagase that the possibility of forgiveness became real for him. It was only when he discovered that Nagase had acknowledged his wrongdoing, that Lomax could take concrete steps toward forgiveness of Nagase. First repentance, then forgiveness.
But let’s ask a question. Is it ever possible to reverse the order? Can we imagine an offer of forgiveness that leads to repentance? Can we imagine an offer of forgiveness leading to a change of heart in the one who did wrong? Can we imagine forgiveness leading regret for what the other has said or done?
We can get our heads around that first ordering of things pretty easily, can’t we? If he shows a change of heart; if she shows a change of attitude; if he turns over a new leaf; if she comes clean about what she did – then I will let go of anger and judgment; then I will forgive.
But can we imagine things the other way around – forgiveness that leads to repentance. An openness and embrace that leads to a change of heart and life. Perhaps the story of the prodigal son – or better, the story of the righteous older brother – invites us to imagine this other possibility.
When the older brother hears about the welcome given to the younger brother; when the older brother hears that the one who wished his father dead has been welcomed home; when the older brother hears that a celebration is being given for that ingrate – well, the older brother becomes angry. He refuses to go in to the celebration. Even when the father comes to invite him personally – begs him to come in – he shames his father by refusing the request. He says: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I may celebrate with my friends.”
With his response, the older brother reveals his self-righteousness; with his words the older brother reveals his lack of appreciation for the generosity of his father; with his words the older brother shows that he will choose bitterness over beauty – he will choose callousness over compassion – he will choose jealousy over joy. And in this moment it becomes clear that the older brother also needs forgiveness. He stayed home, but he has been as forgetful of his father as the son that walked away. The elder brother needs forgiveness.
Now consider the posture of the father in relation to the elder son:
This loving parent reaches out;
he places his hand on the son’s arm;
he looks at him in the face;
he leans toward him.
This is the posture of forgiveness. In this loving posture there is no anger; in this posture there is no hanging on to the insult; in this posture there is no indignation at the ingratitude. This is a posture of forgiveness – here there is a letting go of anger that orients itself toward the possibility of a restored relationship.
Here in this moment – here in this loving parent – here is forgiveness without repentance; here is forgiveness before any change of heart; here is forgiveness before the son has acknowledged his ingratitude; here is forgiveness before the older brother has confessed his misplaced bitterness.
Here is forgiveness extended without repentance.
When Bernard Racicot led a group of us in this creative exercise together, he suggested that Father should be rich with colour – because this parent lives in the love and compassion and beauty of God. And so we see that the younger son who has returned and received the forgiveness of the father, he also is touched by colour and beauty.
But the older brother – he is grey and black – head down, shoulder turned – a picture of resentment and anger.
Interestingly, this is where the parable ends. It leaves us with this loving parent imploring this bitter child. And we don’t know what happens. The father speaks words of hope and invitation to the elder brother. “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 dad and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
But that’s where the parable of Jesus ends. And we are left to wonder: did the older brother acknowledge his ingratitude; did he apologize for his self-righteousness; did he express regret over his petty self-concern; did he join the celebration and welcome his brother with joy. Perhaps the red shoes that the elder brother is wearing suggest an answer to the question – a bit of colour beginning to infuse his heart and life. Perhaps the red shoes suggest that the father’s love and forgiveness is leading to a change of heart and life in the older brother.
Repentance and then forgiveness. We can get our heads around that order of things. If he shows a change of heart; if she shows a change of attitude; if he turns over a new leaf; if she comes clean about what she did – then I will let go of anger and judgment; then I will forgive. Repentance, then forgiveness. Sometimes this is the only order we can live or imagine as we live in the love of God.
But this parable of Jesus, and the good news of Jesus himself, suggests another possibility. Is it possible that we might come to dwell so deeply in the love and forgiveness of God, that we become capable of forgiving even those who have not yet shown a change of heart and life? And is it even possible that precisely through our letting go of anger and judgment and bitterness toward them, they could begin to discover the change of heart and life they might never otherwise have been able to imagine. Forgiveness that leads to repentance.
There can be no doubt that forgiveness and repentance are inextricably linked – they belong always together. No forgiveness without repentance.
But the order of their appearing may sometimes surprise us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.