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Posts tagged ‘Pay it Forward’

Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.



Forgiveness is Everything

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

payitforwardThe movie Pay it Forward is about a young boy named Trevor McKinney [played by Haley Joel Osment]. Trevor is troubled by his mother’s alcoholism and is afraid of his abusive and absent father. But something happens in school that changes his life and the lives of many others. One of his teachers, Mr. Simonet [played by Kevin Spacey], gives his social studies class an intriguing assignment. The homework: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor takes it seriously. He comes up with the idea of paying it forward—in other words, he will do a good deed for 3 people in need. Each person who is the recipient of his good deed must pay it forward three times to three new people. Trevor’s idea and his own attempts to pay it forward cause a revolution in his mother’s life [played by Helen Hunt] and the lives of many others.

In the clip you are about to see, Trevor’s mom Arlene seeks out her homeless, alcoholic mother, Grace [played by Angie Dickinson]. Arlene actually struggles with alcoholism herself and of course has experienced the abuse of Trevor’s estranged father. She blames her mom, though, for all that has happened to her. The two of them have been separated for years. Trevor does not even know his grandmother. But Arlene is inspired by her son’s idea to pay it forward and she decides to follow his example. She must help someone who cannot help herself. Here is Helen Hunt and Angie Dickinson, mother and daughter.

We are walking through Luke’s Gospel again, and yet another healing story, but this time, a healing that we often overlook. A forgiveness story, but a healing nonetheless. We are in the house of Simon. This story is found in the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, too, but those two Gospels place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right before he was killed. But here in Luke, it is at the beginning of his ministry. In Mark and Matthew we know the place—it is Bethany. Luke is not so concerned with that fact, but Luke’s version of the story is double the length of the other two Gospels. Let’s take a look at Mark’s version of the story [which is almost identical to Matthew’s]:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.[1]

I have mentioned before that each Gospel, when they present the same story, presents a different view of that story. This does not mean that the story become less valid or ambiguous. We do this all the time. Ask long-time friends or life partners about experiences they have had together. Each friend or partner will tell the same story, but from their perspective. Is their perspective of the story less valid? No. The Gospels are like this. They each tell the same story, but with different perspectives.

Luke tends to focus on reaching a larger audience—namely those who do not identify as Jewish. He also focuses a lot on those who are often overlooked and not heard from. In this case, he focuses on women. The story begins with a meal in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. Luke uses the word “Pharisee” three times, just in case we miss it. Why? Because Luke’s Gospel tends to downplay the role of Pharisees in Jesus’ death.

Who were the Pharisees? Great question.
In the scope of Jewish history, the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought within Judaism. There are even some scholars who believe that Jesus was a Pharisee. Paul, an author many letters in the New Testament, was indeed a Pharisee. Look, it is all about perspective, so I will say this. Today in 2013 as we look at Gospel passages with added historical and cultural insights, we are starting to see that the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” they are often portrayed as in our interpretations of Gospel stories.

From my point of view, I see that Jesus tried to include the Pharisees in much of his teaching and ministry. And I think this is part of the healing forgiveness offered to many sides in this story.

The setting is a dinner at the house of Simon. Now people of this time and of the Greco-Roman culture were used to dinners that included discussion of issues and sometimes even a lively debate.[2] Contrary to how we prefer for politics or religion to stay out of our Thanksgiving or other holiday meals—people in Jesus’ time embraced it. But the dinner is interrupted by an unexpected character—a woman from the city, called a sinner. She crashes the dinner party, an alabaster box full of perfume in hand. To Simon and the Pharisees, she is unclean. Her mere presence has ruined everything in a lovely evening.

But this woman, called sinner, stands behind Jesus, crying her eyes out. Thanks for the details, Luke.

The woman stand behind Jesus–as if she were following him.

She cries so much in fact that her tears drip on Jesus’ feet. So as she wipes her tears, she anoints Jesus with perfume. In the Greek language, the verb used here for crying, kissing, and anointing is ongoing—meaning that this woman repeatedly cried, wiped Jesus’ feet, and anointed him.

So beautiful, isn’t it? We cannot imagine anyone actually disapproving of such a thing, right?

But the Pharisee speaks up and even criticizes Jesus. How could this so-called prophet not know that this woman was a sinner? In classic Jesus fashion, he tells Simon a story—a parable.

A man lends money to two other guys. One guy owes 500 and the other only 50. Eventually, they are both down on their luck. But the lender forgives the loan, surprisingly. So, Jesus asks Simon: which guy is more grateful to be out of debt? Simon answers with the obvious response: the guy who owed the most. Jesus then addresses Simon by his name, showing respect. And Simon seems open to a new teaching.

Teacher, speak.

No longer fitting nicely into the category of Pharisee, Simon is listening.

But just then, when everything seems to be just right, Jesus shocks everyone with a question.

Do you see this woman?

Do you see this woman?

Remember, Jesus was in Simon’s house. Simon was the host. Did Simon put water on Jesus’ feet? Did he give him a kiss? Did he anoint him with oil? No. But the woman, the one Simon called a sinner, most certainly did.

For this reason, I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, because she loved much.

Jesus turned to the woman. Not only was she not a sinner now, she had already been forgiven. Her loving actions, performed in front of Pharisees and Jesus, were an expression of forgiveness received.


In life, we tend to believe that forgiveness is granted only to those who do something amazing to deserve it. We tend to think that we are forgiven if we are somehow better people or if we have more faith. But Jesus contradicts this. People are forgiven before they blink—before they have a chance to pray or before they show their faith. They only have to recognize forgiveness–accept it, and live it. And then their gratitude shines through.

In this story, and in our story, forgiveness is healing. It is restoration. Someone who feels that he/she owes something in life is released from that debt. Debts of any kind in relationships can be forgiven. Forgiveness is about releasing another person from the guilt of some past injury or harm that he/she has caused.

Forgiveness also restores your own self. When you feel guilty, like you owe people things—maybe you start to feel that you owe society, or your family, or the church, or even God things. This becomes your life. You are in debt. Guilt fills you. It traps you. You cannot move forward.

Simon teaches us this. He cannot admit that he himself needs forgiveness. That is why he does not accept the woman’s gratitude. That is why he cannot see her. She is an instrument of God’s grace and Simon calls her sinner.

Friends, forgiveness is not earned.

Any debt that we feel we owe God is already forgiven.

Mercy is mercy for a reason—so we don’t elevate ourselves above others.

And we are called to apply this to our relationships. Forgiveness is everything.

Admittedly, there are people in our lives who are hard to forgive. There are some we do not see, because we do not want for them to be forgiven. The hurt is real and the debt hovers over us. But I wonder, what if we chose to forgive? What if we forgave debts? How would that transform our relationships? Our communities? Our churches? For when we forgive, we not only forgive the person, we claim forgiveness for ourselves.

We should not take this lightly. We should not underestimate the worth of forgiveness.

It is powerful.

It is healing.

And friends–it is possible. Amen.

[1] MARK 14:3-8, RSV.

[2] Reader’s Guide to Meals, Food and Table Fellowship in the New Testament, Jerome H. Neyrey, University of Notre Dame.

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