The season of Lent presents to us God’s infinite love for all humankind. So many teachings in the gospel emphasize the mercy of God, which is surely one of the reasons the Gospels are constantly read.
Most never tire of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, our Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent (Lk 15:1-32). The scene is so easy to picture in our minds. The son has taken off on his own, expecting to set the world on fire, and in the end he is the one who gets burned. He has dishonored his father in a most horrific way. By taking his share of the inheritance before his father dies, he has in so many words said to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead now. I want out.”
Yet, Jesus described the father’s longing to see his son again, sitting by the road day after day. When the son finally came to his senses and journeyed home, the father’s heart leaped for joy. He doesn’t force his prodigal to crawl to him on his knees. Rather, the father runs down the hill to reach his son without delay.
Meanwhile, the son is already practicing his apology, asking only that he be given the lowly status of a servant. The father not only welcomes him back without recrimination, but he embraces him and calls for a marvelous feast.
Many listeners were not pleased with this parable of Jesus. Likewise even today some are not happy. They say the father was too kind. Where was the justice, the penalty, the “payback”? The father left that bad son “off the hook.” That is why only Jesus could tell that parable; no one else but he would have thought that way.
God is always doing the opposite of what many think he should do. If we are wise, all of us would relish this mercy of God, illustrated in Jesus’ parable. We have all experienced God’s mercy and always will need forgiveness.
Of course this parable was spoken by Jesus because he wanted his listeners and in particular his disciples to take to heart. When it comes to sin, we are the prodigal son or daughter. When it comes to forgiveness, we are to be like the prodigal’s father (or mother).
What Forgiveness Is and Is Not
First, we need to understand what forgiveness really is. And let’s face it. Forgiving real hurt is more difficult than fasting, doing other penances or going to Church and saying our prayers.
It is extremely important to realize just where forgiveness resides. To begin with, forgiveness is not a feeling or an emotion; it is a decision we make even when our feelings are charged with anger.
Forgiveness comes from our will. We may feel like we don’t mean the forgiveness we try offer. We easily judge ourselves by our feelings rather than by the decisions we make. But if we say the words, “I forgive” and pray for that offender, we do indeed forgive. To forgive often includes an act of faith in trusting we mean what we say.
True forgiveness is not given on condition that the person apologizes. Our forgiveness may be rejected. We don’t forgive in order to get something back. It may or may not happen. It is given because it is the good and the right thing to do; it is what Jesus asked us to do: “Forgive one another.”
Forgiveness is taking a risk of being hurt again. At the same time, forgiveness includes accepting an apology if and when it is given. Don’t be surprised if some feelings of hurt, even resentment, may linger after forgiveness. That struggle is part of our woundedness. Forgiveness is choosing to love another who by rights doesn’t seem to deserve it. Remember, forgiveness is about compassion rather than justice.
After saying all this, it’s no wonder that our willingness to forgive is the most perfect way of thanking God for the forgiveness we have experienced in our own love. God’s mercy is not to be hoarded by us; it is to be shared.
But Jesus Was God
Yes, Jesus was God, so we might say it was easy for him to forgive. The truth is that he experienced life on earth through his human nature. He gave up, as Paul tells us, “what it was like to feel like God.” On the cross, his whole body was filled with terrible pain. He felt rejected and hated. Forgiveness at that moment was as much an act of Jesus’ will as it is for us. Yet, in the midst of all that, he forgave those who were murdering him.
But, a most important point: God shares his mercy and forgiveness with us that we may share it with others. In the most difficult forgiving situations, Jesus tells us: “Come to me, you who are burdened….” All our forgiveness is from the font of God’s love for us. He would never command us to forgive and not give us, if we ask in faith and trust, the grace and strength to forgive.