What Forgiveness Is And Isn’t

Sunday, Feb 12, 2017: Sunday of the Prodigal Son; Meletius, Archbishop of Antioch, Antonius, Archbishop of Constantinople, Christos the New Martyr, Meletios of Ypseni

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

We often associate forgiveness with a certain kind of response to injury. If I hurt your feelings, I am expected to apologize; to seek your forgiveness. You, for your part, are likewise expected to accept my apology; to forgive me.

Assumed in all of this is that forgiveness brings about the restoration of our relationship to what it was before the offense was give. Forgiveness means the bad thing between us never happened.

When we think like this we end up tying ourselves in knots.

Yes, I want to forgive those who harmed me. This is different from saying that the harm that was done doesn’t matter. I can’t ignore the past; it is unwise—and foolish—for me to try and create a new past out of whole cloth. I can’t create a past where we weren’t estranged, the past where I didn’t hurt you or you didn’t hurt me.

To go down this path isn’t to forgive but to lie. Or maybe more gently, to confuse forgiveness with wishful thinking.

What does the Gospel say about forgiveness?

The father joyfully welcomes his prodigal son back into the family. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry”!

The father isn’t simply willing to forgive his son, he is eager to do so. Jesus paints a picture of a father going out, day after day, hoping that, today, will be the day that his son returns.

And when his son comes home?  Seeing while “he was yet at a distance” the father runs to meet him. The father is moved by “compassion” for his son and he embraces and kisses his formerly wayward child.

At no time, however, does the father minimize or ignore the past. He tells his servants “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Some time after this, the father is confronted by his elder son. The older brother is angry and refuses to celebrate the return of his younger brother. He is indignant and says to his father, that though

…these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.  But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’

What the brother can’t at that moment understand is how his father can welcome back his younger brother. He can’t even bring himself to call him brother, referring to him instead as “this son of yours”!

Implicit within the elder son’s words is the notion that forgiveness undoes the past. In effect, he says to his father, “Bad enough that you’ve never rewarded my loyalty, now you ignore my brother’s disloyalty! How can the past not matter to you?”

When I think that forgiveness means ignoring the past, it becomes hard—and depending on circumstances, impossible—for me to forgive.

Think about what we often say to others, or ourselves. “You just need to let go of the past.” Or we might ask ourselves, “Why can’t I just let things go?”

But ignoring the past—letting it go—isn’t what the father does. Nor is it what Jesus calls us to do in the parable.

Listen again to the father’s words.

Twice he says “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The son’s past, indeed the past of both sons, is very much alive for the father. But the past doesn’t obliterate hope.

And so he says to his eldest boy: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” At the same time, “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

Forgiveness isn’t a psychological trick for ignoring the past; much less is it a way to pretend that we don’t hurt each other.

Forgiveness isn’t about having warm feelings for those who hurt you. Nor is it is a decision to ignore the past. It is rather to imitate the God Who, as St John Chrysostom tells us, never acts out of a desire for vengeance but “with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him” (“Theodore After His Fall,” Letter 1:4).

Despite the harm they cause me, to forgive someone means—again, like God for me—to will what is best for the other person so that his situation isn’t made worse.

Do you understand this?

Forgiveness means two things. First, to do no harm to the one who has harmed me. Second, to do what I can to prevent him from falling into even worse sin.

This is why the father welcomes back his prodigal son in the way he does.

Imagine the boy’s future if, instead of a warm welcome, he was received coldly, formally, and with the clear message that he had lost his father’s love forever? And imagine if, instead of being restored as his son, the father made him a hired hand?

How long would it be before the younger son’s repentance turned to bitterness?

And what of the older son? How long before his resentment of his younger brother turned to open contempt and even violence?

Instead and wisely, the father does what is needed to encourage the repentance of both his sons to prevent them from falling into even greater sin.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This is what forgiveness means! To do what we can, little though it may be, to keep those who have harmed us from falling into even greater sin.

Forgiveness doesn’t forget past injuries, it wisely discerns how we can help those who harmed us from falling into the same, or worse, sin again.

Forgiveness is how we come to share in God’s merciful redemption of those who have harmed us.

And we do this because this is what God in Jesus Christ has done for each of us. He has freed us from our sin and gives us the grace to avoid even greater sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory