Very often, when I’m counseling people in my office, or in the confessional, the subject of forgiveness comes up. Holding on to resentment, for myself and for many others, is a common occurrence. What I have come to recognize, and what I share with others, is that forgiveness has rarely to do with the actions or response or even remorse of the other person. We can’t force others to remorse or repentance. We may have to demand justice for what happened, and we may even have to take legal action, but forgiveness is about our own spiritual well-being, and even though justice may have to be sought, vengeance does not. Being able to forgive others is something we do to stay true to ourselves.
Staying true to ourselves is what has come to me when I hear again Jesus’ parable of the Lost, or Prodigal Son. We know the story well enough, about the younger son wasting his inheritance and deciding that he needs to go home. But instead of demanding vengeance, the father embraces his son, and throws a banquet in celebration. We also know about the older son resenting the fact that his father is so generous with his brother, and that the father, instead of enforcing parental authority, goes out to plead with his older son!
Notice that the father’s actions do not have anything to do with what his sons have done. Notice also that the father has no guarantee that his sons’ behavior will change. He really doesn’t know if the younger son will really appreciate what he has. We think he will because the parable says the younger son came “to his senses.” The parable has nothing at all to say about what the older son’s response is.
Whatever the sons do, the father keeps on loving. The father stays true to who he is. The father forgives without conditions. Now there may be some who are reading this, and are dealing with children who have made bad decisions, or have fallen into addiction. And even though they love their children, they cannot have them in the house or continue to bail them out of whatever situations they fall into. Or there may be spouses who have endured abuse and have figured out that they do not need to stay abused, and have left the relationship. I don’t think the parable speaks against such actions. For me, the parable calls us to forgive, as difficult as it may be and as unready as we may be to do it. Again, forgiveness does not deny or minimize or condone the wrong that has been done. Rather, it enables the one who forgives to keep on loving and be true to who God made him or her to be.
If we are to be true to who God made us to be, we need to forgive and to show mercy. God is that way with us. In our second reading from 1 Timothy, St. Paul writes: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.”
God, being true to God’s self, has shown mercy upon mercy on us, in Christ Jesus. Can we do the same for each other? To love as God does is the way we remain true to ourselves. The parable does not tell us how the brothers related to each other. It just tells us about the father’s love. Perhaps we can finish the parable by how we relate to each other.
Fr. Phil, CP