Luke 15:11-32; Ephesians 4
One of the things I have been learning through our study of forgiveness, is that accepting an apology is different from forgiveness, which is different from reconciliation. We tend to lump them all in one, but I think the distinction is actually very helpful because you may have the chance to experience all three, but oftentimes, we only get one or two.
Last week I had the chance to hear Annie Meehan speak— she is a life coach and international speaker who shares her life story and how she came to live an exceptional life. She grew up in an abusive household, and all of the memories of her father are painful. So the people around her were a bit surprised when he died several years ago and she was so sad. She hadn’t seen him in 26 years. She had no fond memories of him at all. But she had always held out hope that someday he would change. Annie had found it within herself to forgive him, to release herself of the pain that he had brought on her family. But she had never received an apology from him. And when he died she grieved that the two of them would never be reconciled— that there would never be the chance for her to renew that relationship. (1)
Jim’s wife divorced him almost twenty years ago now. He didn’t see it coming, and he never understood it. The day he got his final divorce papers in the mail he called his Mom and cried because he felt like a failure. Mary had come to realize, after twenty five years of marriage, that she didn’t love Jim. They had been fighting for twenty five years. And she felt an immense relief to finally admit that it wasn’t going to work. She has apologized numerous times for hurting him. Apologized for not being more honest with him to begin with. But Jim can’t let it go. He doesn’t talk about it anymore, but his bitterness has bubbled up in other ways— and his resentment is palpable to those who know him. He has received her apology, but he cannot forgive, and there is little more than polite conversation when he does see her.
Fred’s best friend met the love of his life. But unfortunately, she didn’t like Fred. Fred didn’t know why, but she didn’t like to be around him, and so fairly early on Fred’s friend began to spend less time with him until the two rarely saw each other anymore. Fred was hurt down to his core. He didn’t understand what had happened. He didn’t understand why his friend would allow this woman to get between them. And he was even more devastated when he found out that they had gotten married and he hadn’t even been invited to the wedding. Fred became bitter and resentful and told everyone he knew how awful his friend was and how much pain he was in. At first his friends were empathetic, of course, but after awhile they got tired of hearing him tell his grievance story— and so other friends of his stopped calling. He found himself so alone, that he realized he needed to change something. And that’s when he decided to learn how to forgive. Today Fred Luskin has his PhD in human behavior and has successfully run the Forgiveness Institute out of Stanford for many years. People fly in from all over the world to go to his Forgiveness Institute and learn from him how to forgive. I don’t know if Fred’s friend ever apologized to him, but I know Fred forgave him— and Fred will even tell you that they have since been reconciled and were able to renew their relationship. (2)
Reconciliation isn’t always possible, and sometimes it’s not even advisable— like in an abusive situation— as Tutu says in The Book of Forgiving, renewing the relationship is always preferred, but not always possible. Forgiving does not mean going back to a relationship in which you were harmed in any way. But Tutu says that forgiving is not enough. In order to fully let go, you need to either renew the relationship or release the relationship because when we experience pain from another, we are in relationship with them until we are able to release that relationship from our lives. (3)
What does releasing look like? Tutu says releasing means not only releasing the relationship, but releasing the old story you used to tell about the relationship.
In the Gospel story this morning, Jesus tells us this tragic story about a father with two sons. And so often, in church, we have focused on the son who left— this story is actually known as the Prodigal Son story. But it’s really about all three of them. It’s about a father who knew how to forgive and forgave his youngest son long before he came home groveling. It’s about the youngest son who at some point realizes that he needs to change his life and comes back to ask his father for a job in the fields— asks if he can be his servant because he doesn’t feel worthy to be his son anymore. And it’s about the oldest son who stays and does what he feels is responsible, but has never forgiven his brother for leaving and squandering his inheritance. And if you read this parable in the whole line of parables, than it’s obvious that Jesus meant for us to see the father as God— that God welcomes us home with open arms; that God forgives us before we even forgive ourselves; that God desires above all else for us to be reconciled with God— and that God will take the first steps— will run out to greet us as soon as we turn back and realize who we truly are. What good news, right? I stake my life on this God— who is so very merciful and so gracious and so ready to throw a party. This is the God that I worship and love.
But so often I act like the older brother— resentful; self-righteous; bitter. You see this brother has been telling himself a story. This brother has told himself that he is stuck. That his father doesn’t love him. That nothing he does is ever good enough. And it’s easy to put ourselves in that place. But I read this week to look for what the father’s real actions are towards both sons, and what I found surprised me.
Have you ever noticed that when the youngest son asks for his inheritance, it says that the father gives both sons their inheritance? Both sons received what they were expecting. And have you ever noticed that the father runs out to meet both sons? It is a beautiful image with the first son, the youngest, that the father sees him while he is still far away and runs out to meet him. But did you notice that when word comes to the father that his oldest is still in the fields— that he hasn’t come in at the end of the day to join the party— the father goes out to be with him.
Because God’s greatest joy is to be in relationship with us.
There’s so much we don’t know about this story. It is, after all, a parable— which means we don’t get to know the ending! But I think Tutu is right. While God is always seeking us, always forgiving us, always ready to renew the relationship with us, our human relationships are rarely that perfect.
For the older brother, renewing that relationship with his brother may not be possible. He may find that once his brother gets back on his feet again, he’ll be off again and he may decide he doesn’t want to be abandoned again. So he may need to release that relationship. But in so doing, he will need to relearn how to tell that story— to recognize the places he had responsibility— like in choosing to stay, in not sharing with his father that he wanted a party with his friends— he needs to learn to retell the story so that he is not just a victim, but rather an active participant in his own life.
But if he chooses to renew the relationship, and as the father chooses to renew the relationship, I find that what Tutu had to say about renewing was wise too. And that is, that in renewing a relationship you can never go back to what it was— you have to reimagine what it can be and live into a new relationship. The Father and his youngest son cannot pick up where they left off; nor can the oldest son and his father now that the brother has come home. All relationships need to be reinvented, and that takes immense creativity.
In 1993 Oshea Israel was 16 when he got in a fight at a party in Minneapolis and shot a young man named Laramiun Byrd. Laramiun was the only son of Mary Johnson. Oshea was served fifteen years in prison in Stillwater, and twelve years in, Mary came to visit him. She wondered if he would be the same angry young boy that she had seen in the courtroom, but Oshea was now a man she didn’t recognize. She told him about her son. And in the telling, he began to be able to picture the boy he had killed. He became real to him in a way that he hadn’t before. And when she was done, she began to cry. Oshea’s instinct was to reach out and hold her, so he did. When Mary left that day, she just kept thinking to herself, “I just hugged the man who killed my son.” And she realized that after twelve years of anger, she had forgiven him. The two kept in communication, and when Oshea was released from prison, the house next to Mary’s was up for rent. She told Oshea about it and vouched for him, so that now they live next door to each other. When they described their relationship Oshea said, “She’s always coming out of her door when I’m coming out of mine and she tells me I need to get over and check on her more. I’m amazed that she treats me like a son.” Mary’s pleased that Oshea is going back to school. She never got to see her son graduate, and she’s looking forward to seeing Oshea graduate. She learned to forgive Oshea, but she didn’t stop there. Together, they have reinvented their relationship so that they could both find something they needed. Oshea says he hasn’t gotten to where he has forgiven himself yet, but he says he’s learning bit by bit, and that Mary is helping him to learn how to forgive. (4)
In many ways this story is offensive to our sense of justice, to our understandings of loyalty and of how Mary, as a mother, should feel towards her son’s murderer. And yet she is able to love precisely because she practiced loving her son for so long. She recognizes that we’re all connected in this together; that we are all responsible for each others’ pain, and she wants to be able to still be a mother and to create a different future together for herself, for him, and for their community. In fact, Mary began an organization called “From Death to Life” to help others in similar circumstances learn how to forgive.
Perhaps the single most important Tutu says in his book on renewing or releasing, is that we can’t do this fourth step from our heads. We have to do it from our hearts. And sometimes it takes awhile to know what’s in our hearts.
It’s like a choose your own adventure book. Part of it is already written, and there’s nothing you can do to change the past or to change anothers’ behavior in the present. But God will give you what you need to choose to forgive; to choose whether renewing is possible, or releasing is a better option. And God will be with you, no matter where you go, no matter how long it takes you, God is seeking you out so that you can know that you are forgiven and are welcomed home.
1) Annie Meehan is the author of many books. I heard this story from her at a talk she gave to the Forum of Executive Women in St. Cloud, MN. 2) Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin 3) The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu 4) Storycorps at storycorps.org