By Fr. Frank Timar, M.S.C.
The season of Lent is a genuine joy in that it offers us some great thoughts on which to reflect. We have chance after chance to relish some of Jesus’ best stories. One of my favorites is a masterpiece of a story, one that pleases me no end, to be allowed to take part in a miracle time and time again, and not just as a priest in the confessional, but simply as one of Jesus’ followers. It’s been called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But the parable is really more about the merciful father than it is about the sinful son or even the self-righteous older brother. Jesus is telling us that the Father’s love is so great that forgiveness is God’s natural reaction when the sinner returns.
If only forgiveness were as natural for us! It seems so hard for us to take that giant step of reconciliation. We seem to hold on to our hurt and our anger. We want to punish, we want to get our own pound of flesh, we want to get even, we want to force the other to apologize, we want the other to admit that he was wrong and we were right; we want to be vindicated, justified, triumphant, and so forgiveness seems to go against the grain. Besides, we are terribly afraid that we will be vulnerable if we forgive; for if we forgive someone without punishment, without vengeance, without getting even, we leave ourselves open to being hurt once again. Such vulnerability doesn’t seem to be worth the risk. It is good to be forgiven, but risky to forgive.
We seem to hold on to our hurt and our anger. We want to punish, we want to get our own pound of flesh, we want to get even… we want to be vindicated, justified, triumphant, and so forgiveness seems to go against the grain.
Actually, some people wonder and have a hard time deciding whether it is more difficult for us to forgive or to accept forgiveness. We seem to have a very hard time with being forgiven, too. How would we have reacted if we had been the prodigal son returning to such a welcome home and a feast? Would we be able to accept the gift of forgiveness? Or would our guilt lead us to protest that we don’t deserve it? Would we doubt the sincerity of such a forgiving parent? Would we keep looking for the catch, wondering when the other shoe would drop? The gospel parable doesn’t tell us anything about the younger son’s reaction to such generous love, so we don’t know what he was thinking or feeling as the robe was put on him and the fatted calf was being roasted in his honor. But we have a pretty good idea of how we’d feel, don’t we?
We seem to find it very hard to believe in such forgiveness or to trust such undeserved mercy. To put it another way, we have a hard time believing in the good news. For that is the core, the heart, of the good news of Jesus, that God forgives us, that God loves us even when we are sinners, that “God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself.” Jesus came to proclaim the mercy of God, and accepting the good news means, first of all, to believe in God’s forgiveness, to trust that God forgives and forgets.
We seem to find it very hard to believe in such forgiveness or to trust such undeserved mercy. To put it another way, we have a hard time believing in the good news.
Perhaps one reason we find it so hard to accept forgiveness is that it requires us to let God be in charge and to let God do what we can’t do for ourselves. We have this fierce, independent streak which makes it difficult to really accept an undeserved gift. If we could earn it somehow, then we could claim it as our own effort, our accomplishment. But forgiveness can’t really be earned. It is always a gift. When we have offended God, there is nothing that will compensate for the offense, that will “make it up to God.” So all we can do is accept it as a gift and try to believe that God really means it.
Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness… if people could observe us… and conclude that we are a people who know how to give the gift of forgiveness?
Another reason, perhaps, that accepting forgiveness is hard is that it requires us to forgive in return. Jesus makes this clear in a number of places, including the “Our Father” we pray every time we celebrate the Eucharist. “Forgive us as we forgive.” Because if we refuse to forgive, we block the gate through which we ourselves must pass. If we refuse to forgive, we close our hearts to the gift of love. Only if we are willing to give the same gift, can we really be open to receive God’s gift of forgiveness.
Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness, an amazing tool for evangelization, if people could observe us for a while and conclude that we are a people who know how to give the gift of forgiveness? Wouldn’t you be drawn to such a community? We need to believe in God’s forgiveness for us and share that good news with others. May we all learn to rejoice more deeply in God’s forgiveness and proclaim that good news by the way we deal with others. And the way we proclaim it best is by forgiving as we have been forgiven.