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Posts tagged ‘prodigal’

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.



The Giving in ForGIVING

Luke 16:1-13

This story is often called the parable of the unjust steward. There are many different interpretations. It is referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Why? Because it’s hard to figure out!

Okay, so let me ask you. What is confusing about this parable? What questions do you have?

It will be helpful for us to go back into the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT], to better understand what this parable is all about: forgiveness. In the Gospels, Jesus talks a lot about debts and forgiveness, but he actually draws from ancient Hebrew tradition. There is the famous story of King Saul, David, and Nathan. In this story, David is full of guilt over his adultery, lies, and his contract killing of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in David’s own army, and of course, the husband of Bathsheba, David’s lover. David, throughout the rest of his life, deals with the consequences of his actions. Eventually, though, Nathan pardons David, saving him from the penalty of death. But it is not a Disneyland ending. In the story, even after receiving forgiveness via Nathan, David flees the city in humiliation and humbly confesses:

IF I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back.[1]
In David’s case, forgiveness involved a long process of difficult, personal transformation, to the end.

In the later writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and leading into the New Testament, the theme of debt and forgiveness emerges. King Nebuchadnezzar, an imperialistic Babylonian ruler, conquers Jerusalem and constructs a mighty kingdom for himself, as told in the book of Daniel. His pride overwhelms though, and he makes a terrible decision to send Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego [three Jews] to the fiery furnace because they refuse to worship the golden idol that the king had forced upon the general public. Of course, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the fiery furnace and the king goes insane [coo-coo] and for seven years he lives as an animal. Then, in the climactic scene, Nebuchadnezzar approaches the prophet Daniel and humbly begs for a way to repay his debt to society. Daniel says:

Pay off the debt you owe for your sins through charity to the poor.[2]
So for King N, forgiveness involved giving something tangible.

Here is why I spent the time on these two OT stories: forgiveness is not simple. I like how C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles and many other books, puts it:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive …
And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.[3]

Right. You see, forgiveness is tough.

And I would argue that forgiveness is even harder when it stays ambiguously up in the clouds as some abstract concept. Unfortunately, sometimes our religious traditions keep it in the clouds, reducing forgiveness to linear steps or to one very limited perspective. But forgiveness, in life and in the Bible, has many levels and takes many shapes and forms. David needed to take a personal journey of transformation and face his mistakes; King Nebuchadnezzar needed to give his resources back to those who he had marginalized.

Fast forward to Luke’s Gospel and we find a continuation of the idea of debt forgiveness. Luke, for example, is the only Gospel that includes a version of what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” with these words: forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors.[4] It is actually even stronger in the original Greek language, reading like this: forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts of those who owe us.

Luke [and Jesus] are not afraid to talk about money, and so here we have this confusing story about an unjust steward. One surprising connection emerges, if we pay attention. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the story of the prodigal son, right? Well, connect the dots. The prodigal son “squandered” his dad’s inheritance; the unjust steward “squandered” his master’s property. Both characters give away money and then find forgiveness in the end. Both parables are about extravagant, even unfair forgiveness.

In the parable of the unjust steward, though, there is no loving father to mercifully forgive his irresponsible son, just a guy who wastes even more of his boss’ money by secretly pardoning all the debts of his workers. And so…everyone scratches their heads and says: Huh?

But this is typical Jesus turning the tables on our “religious” ideas about forgiveness. The poor, the marginalized—they are the ones to whom much is owed. Society unjustly treats them. The world is out of balance. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Jesus, throughout the Gospels, asks the question: will the poor welcome you into the age to come, or will they say: I never knew you? We spend so much time in Christian circles trying to get Jesus to welcome us into heaven, and yet, if we listen to what Jesus actually taught and lived, he sided with the poor and marginalized and gave them the authority to welcome or not to welcome.

Jesus pulled forgiveness down from the clouds and taught his followers to tangibly cancel debts, expecting nothing in return.

He called them to sell possessions and give alms to the poor. Sure, it was 1st Century Palestine, but they might as well have been in 2013 Philly. Nothing has changed. People called “poor” are those who must constantly borrow money, remaining subject to oppressors and owners. As a nation, the U.S. continues to propagate an unjust system in which people are born into poverty and debt. This idea has been implanted in other countries, too. Land is taken from people who have worked it for generations. Now they have to pay taxes to someone else. Are you born into a poor family? You already owe a debt before you can even speak or walk; you owe someone richer than you. In fact, that will never change, UNLESS your debts are forgiven by someone else. Jesus preached that social status was a façade and can even lead to our destruction. This is why the last become the first in God’s kingdom reality.

Forgiveness, then, is so much more than some religious tradition or an individualistic feel-good band aid for us. It is not limited to believing that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us, and so we are okay. Forgiveness isn’t about believing in substitutionary atonement: that Jesus took my place and so now I don’t have to do anything.

Forgiveness is about acting out of compassion for yourself and for others.

Forgiveness requires us to give something.  

David gave up his social status, his rule, and his time.

Nebuchadnezzar gave his mind and then his financial resources.

The steward took a risk and gave his reputation.

What do you need to for-GIVE?

Let’s keep this on the ground and not in the clouds.
So if you need to, take religion out of the equation if it distracts you.
If you feel shame or guilt because of the cross, the Bible, or your inability to forgive—take religion out of it. Seriously.

Forgiveness is a release.

So however you need to approach it, don’t feel limited. Jesus taught freedom for our captive minds and bodies. Forgiveness is about a free release of debts—whatever they may be.

So focus on the debts that others owe you in relationships. Who has hurt you? What do you need to give to forgive them? Maybe you need to give time to writing a letter to that person who has hurt you, expressing your anger, frustration, and sadness over what he/she has done. Write the letter and read it back to yourself. Maybe write another one. Read it.

Or maybe you need to give distance between you and that person in order to really evaluate the situation. Perhaps you need to give yourself [and that person] space.

Or, you may need to give your resources, including money. Have you ever considered how giving to those who are pushed down and marginalized can help you forgive and be forgiven? Try it. And I’m not talking about superficial charity [throwing money at a problem so it will go away]. I mean giving of yourself to a person or a group of people who really can use your help. Believe me, everyone can help. You don’t have to be monetarily rich. Some people just need a friend because they have been bullied their whole life. Some need a job; maybe you have connections. Some need food. Some need rent money. Others need medical care. Some need to take a class to get a job. She needs to talk to a counselor; maybe he needs to learn how to cook for his family. Some people need shoes and clothes. Some kids are shut out of a good education. What can you give?

By no means am I saying that we can save the world all at once. But there are a lot of small ways that we can give of ourselves and make an impact. And in the process, we can participate in the release of debts–forgiveness.

Everyone deserves to be free of debt—everyone!

So friends, let us make forgiveness something we value.
Let us give our time, money, talent, and energy to it.

Whatever road you must take in your forgiving, be like the so-called unjust steward—do NOT wait. Start your journey now.

Find release for yourself and for others.



[1] 2 Samuel 15:25

[2] Daniel 4:27

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

[4] Luke 11:4

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