SPIRITUALITY: Jesus’s Story of Divine Forgiveness by Roger Haight

Jesus’s Story of Divine Forgiveness by Roger Haight

From Christian Spirituality For Seekers

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’  So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father.  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’  And they began to celebrate.  Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  Then he became angry and refused to go in.  His father came out and began to plead with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  Then the father said to him, ‘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 dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  (Luke 15:11-32)

In this text Jesus tells a story about God as a loving, forgiving, accepting father.  One of the most popular passages in the Bible, this short story has three acts: the younger of two sons takes his inheritance, leaves, squanders it, and hits bottom; then, coming to his senses, he returns home and is welcomed by his father beyond all measure; finally, the older loyal son becomes resentful, having never been rewarded for his steadfastness.  The story is a parable that Jesus uses as a device to open human imagination to the transcendent territory of the values of God.  The parables frequently contain surprising reversals or contrasts.  This story reveals how divine forgiveness relates to human sin.  For Ignatius, the entire First Week leads to this plateau, a personal encounter between honest self-knowledge and recognition of the total love and acceptance of God.

Of the many things that can be said regarding contrasts in the story, one stands out: after the son’s self-seeking behavior that inevitably leads to ruin, he receives outsized joyous welcome upon his return.  No trace of grudging reception or conditional acceptance, but rather a spontaneous all-out party of celebration.  The contrast clearly shows the preposterous ease and limitless dimensions of the love of God for one who in fact had betrayed the family.  This interpretation stands right at the center of the whole story, and the story’s structure intensifies the meaning: the worse the betrayal, the more expansive and deep the welcoming home appears.  The graver the sin the more profound and unfathomable does the father’s response appear.  This tension dominates the story, and to make this point plain the father states it in a sharp paradox: “This son of mine was dead is alive again; he was lost and is found!”  Just in case anyone might miss this obvious point, the parable says it twice.  The contrast looms, as stark as death and life, between estrangement, destitution, and failure in an alien land, and being established and connected as a son in a prospering family.  The contradiction between being completely alone and alienated from oneself and becoming utterly secure and honored in one’s position, the center of attention in a well-established family supported by friends, is rendered irrelevant by the unfathomable resource of the father’s love.

No two individual people bear the same relationship to God, because each person and each story has unique qualities.  An experience of the love and acceptance that God has for each person will take on the different modalities that each person brings to the relationship.  The last act illustrates this, and many people entering this story may relate to the older brother.  On one level, his response seems quite reasonable for the very reason he gives.  But the response of the father, without rebuke, invites his other son to a higher plane.  Surely the older son was correct in never asserting his entitlement over against the family.  But has he not been too passive and immature in his dependence?  The father’s love has invited him to a status of equality of shared responsibility and ownership, which until now he has not seen.  Here the father’s love raises up the loyal son from dependence to equality, from passivity to partnership: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

In Christian language, the term “grace” often substitutes for the love of God.  Grace takes on countless accents in different scriptural contexts, the history of theology, and the churches, but its significance may be concentrated in a common essence: grace refers to God’s love and the effects or blessings that God’s loving presence and activity bestow on human beings.  When grace is coupled with a theology of creation, it enriches the religious relevance that is displayed in this parable.  A dominant note of the father’s love lies in its constant expectation of the son’s return.  The prior concern of God for people combined with the complete gratuitousness and comprehensiveness of God’s love begins to describe the permanent embrace in which human beings live.  God’s accompanying presence throughout all of creation sets the stage on which the human story unfolds.  Creation as gift flowing from God’s love defines the presupposition of all human entitlement.  The love of the creator father is spontaneous, extravagant, unrestricted, unconditional, unreasonable, unmerited, and illogical, and it makes the difference between death and life.  Does this mean that the mercy of God prevails over the justice of God?  Probably not in such a clear opposition.  It would be better to say that with this parable human imagination is being drawn to a whole other and new sphere of love and its power.  Conceived in ontological terms, this parable makes a statement about the character of being.

What is required for this loving acceptance?  Human suspicion and perhaps our era’s litigious sensibility have complicated the clear, direct Christian response to this question: it comes by pure grace, and nothing is required for its being there.  That stark simplicity says that human beings cannot so remake themselves as to deserve God’s love, and are not expected to do so.  From beginning to end God’s love creates creatures and sustains them; it does not respond to human worth but constitutes it.  Lutheran theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer warn that free grace should not be turned into cheap grace, that acceptance of it has to be real acceptance.  Luther recognized the gospel principle that the fruit reveals the character of the tree, and Ignatius reinforces that with the gospel maxim that true love shows itself in deeds rather than words.  But forgiveness, like grace, is always there.  It requires only acceptance, something impelled by God’s Spirit of love, to work its way into conscious living.

Real acceptance of real forgiveness results in real affects.  Forgiveness reconstitutes a person in moral wholeness through the healing love of God.  The interpersonal character of love transpires in a unique way in each individual.  The two sons illustrate this: the moral breach of the younger son was egocentric hubris; the older son never gained a sense of independence, and his resentment appears as immaturity, a loss of self, and a lack of agency.  Divine love prunes the excesses and fills up the holes within a human person, restoring the self to itself and righting its relationship with the source of human existence.

God’s forgiveness, when it is consciously accepted, results in what has to be called liberation.  The degree or intensity of this cannot be measured, but its character can be described.  The liberation that accompanies a conscious relationship with a God of love who completely understands, forgives, and accepts leads to a reconstitution of integrity on the most fundamental level of being.  This involves a loss of the burden of guilt; the past that drags down the conscience is lifted from one’s life.  God’s love does more than change a negative psychological self-image or counter the opinions of others.  God’s forgiveness penetrates a person’s being and touches the roots of the feelings of guilt.  It effaces real guilt, something that may not be available through even the most sincere and complete human forgiveness.  Divine acceptance can radically reverse a true bondage of the human spirit and recreate a new lightness, openness, and freedom.  God’s love does not bind human freedom; it re-creates and releases it.

Recognition of divine forgiveness presupposes an active relationship with transcendence.  Gratitude for forgiveness should stimulate a spontaneous desire to grow in one’s attachment to God.  In classical language this is called “change of life” and “sanctification.”  The experience of being loved and accepted by God may generate a spirituality of acting out God’s values in the world.  Dedication to a transcendent ideal in life, something that draws the self out of the self, evidences the empowerment that has followed the catharsis of forgiveness and acceptance.  The metaphor in the parable of a transition from death to life does not exaggerate the radical character of such a transition.

Ignatius proposes a number of colloquies at the end of the meditation on sin that dwell on the contrast between human sinfulness and divine goodness, shown in God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.  At one point he sets a dramatic scene: “Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy.”  Then, in this context, he asks that the person probe his or her relation to God: what have I done, what am I doing, and what ought I do for God, whose love and forgiveness is seen as represented by Jesus on a cross.  Jesus’s death will be the subject of a later reflection; but Jesus’s story of divine love and acceptance makes the point.  The seeker may not find that the Christian story of the cross has the leverage that Ignatius presupposed.  But Jesus’s story of the love of a creator God communicates a parallel message.  The logic of the First Week of the Exercises comes to an emotional peak at this precise point, and not one better than Luther explains what is going on here.  Human existence in its deepest moral dependence meets acceptance from the ground of being itself.  This drama of acceptance of the human is not general but is individually proportioned to and experienced by each person, pro me, as Luther puts it.  Luther captures exactly the logic of Ignatius’s First Week in the tensive and dynamic mutual reinforcement of being sinful and of being loved, accepted, and forgiven.

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