A Balm of Forgiveness by Hannah Elhard
On most days I take pride in the person that I am. My colleagues, family and friends would describe me as generous and kind. I nod my head in church at the verses about loving our neighbors as ourselves, about laying one’s life down for one’s friend. I am responsible, measured, hard-working, considerate and generally “good”. If asked, I would affirm that God is forgiving and desires us to be as well.
And yet this passage has always stopped me in my tracks. Each year when this is read as the weekly gospel passage, my head stops bobbing. Emotions I’d like to pretend I don’t feel creep up inside me. Resentment and frustration form around one face in my mind, the prodigal son of my life’s story. I would guess that most of us have that Person. The one whose face emerges when we grapple with the idea of God’s all-forgiving love.
Mine is my big brother. Years of his alcoholism, violence and irresponsibility plagued our family. He returned a few years ago and was welcomed, by most of the family, as if nothing had changed. But I have struggled for years to understand how I could find it possible to love like that. How I could mimic the father in this story. Run to my brother and embrace him on sight, rejoice at his return before he had even apologized. I have not found that in me, and did not get a chance to find out if I could. He passed away suddenly eight months ago, leaving behind his teenage children and our shattered family. I miss him and I am so angry with him. I have tried, even in his absence, to love him in the way the father in Luke does and have still come up short.
But perhaps this is the point. For all these years, I have thought the purpose of this text was to tell me that I didn’t forgive well enough, chastise me for not having the strength to love like God. It instead reminds me that, as my brother did, I turn away from God in my own ways. And that, regardless of the darkness I bring upon myself or others, God loves me without fail. Rather than an admonishment of our imperfections, this story can instead serve as a balm, a reassurance that
we are forgiven, always. It reminds me that despite my own failures to love and forgive the way I’d like to, that wherever my brother is now, he was met by God’s joyful open arms.
Luke 15: 11-32
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 travelled 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 t
o 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.”