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Forgiveness is a hard act to follow.

There's a scene in William Kennedy's novel Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (Penguin, 1983) that I have never forgotten because it echoes something I have always known in my heart: we cannot survive without forgiveness. In the story we learn that Francis Phelan abandoned his wife and two children, Billy and Peg, not because he was faithless or irresponsible, but because he had done something for which he could never forgive himself--he had accidentally caused his infant son's death. That tragedy paralyzed him with such guilt, self-hatred, and remorse that it "made him a dead man his whole life." When pleading with Billy and Peg not to hate their father for leaving them, their mother says, "He died that day and we wept and he went away and buried himself and he's dead now, dead and can't be resurrected."

There is no more frightening thought than to imagine there are things we can do, or that can be done to us, that are so morally and spiritually crippling that we can never be resurrected from death back to life, from despair back to hope, or from depression back to joy. After all, Christianity is the religion of rebirth and restoration, of new beginnings and fresh starts; it's the ever gracious existence that offers us opportunities, born from mercy, that are not bound by the mistakes, failures, and tragedies of our past.

But sometimes this is hard for us to believe, and even harder for us to experience. We have all met people who have "been dead" their whole lives because they have never been able, or willing, to break free from hurts inflicted or endured. Their guilt grows, their sorrow absorbs them, their anger, however just, begins to define them. All of us, when we are wronged or when we do wrong, can go away and bury ourselves in guilt, denial, sadness, anger, or resentment, leaving our hearts so dead that it seems they can never be resurrected. Or, we can begin the challenging, sometimes painful, but always promising journey to reconciliation and new life.

The prodigal son, the infamous sinner-come-back-to-life of Luke's gospel, made that journey. He could have chosen to stay with his defeat, allowing a narrative of failures, foolishness, and sinfulness to define the rest of his life. Wallowing with the pigs on the farm, he could have buried himself in self-pity and blame, almost priding himself in the fact that resurrection would never be his. But "coming to his senses at last" (Luke 15:17), this wayward son, patron saint of anybody who has ever made a mess of things, chooses to reconnect himself with life by seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with a father who had never stopped loving him. Rising from his slumbers, he leaves the pigs behind, begins his journey home, and meets his joyous father on the way. Before he has even crossed the threshold, he is blessed with new life.

This is where the parable gets sticky. The son's restoration seems too easy, too painless; in fact, it is almost as if he is rewarded for his transgressions. His father, giddy with the news of his son's return, showers him with kisses, clothes him with the finest robe, offers him new jewelry, sacrifices the fatted calf in his honor, and then tops off this spectacle of lavish mercy with a party. No wonder the ever faithful elder son was miffed. His brother's reconciliation seems too quick, too instantaneous; it is as if the prodigal's monumental failures don't matter. Instead of looming large, they are dwarfed by the father's overwhelming joy and almost irrational eagerness to forgive. What matters to him is not the brokenness of the past but that peace and communion are restored.

Who of us cannot take heart from this parable of scandalous mercy and limitless love? One reason it speaks to us is that we desperately depend on having a God who is like the father of the prodigal son, a God who loves us despite our shortcomings and accepts us with open arms. But despite its comfort, is the parable of the prodigal son nothing more than a seductive, but ultimately ill-advised, tale of cheap forgiveness? Is the son's extravagant homecoming the kind of quick consolation that tempts us to minimize our failures so that we might commit them again? Who wouldn't be tempted to stray if mercy were so easily had?

Let's take a second look. Yes, the father is exultant that his son "who was dead has come back to life" (Luke 15:32), but it is also clear that he expects his son to leave his dissolute habits behind. The father is quick to forgive precisely because he knows real forgiveness marks a new beginning, not a return to the past. In this gospel story, forgiveness and reconciliation are ritualized when the father vests his repentant son in new clothing and seals his homecoming by placing a ring on his finger. He is welcomed home, but he is also expected to change (just as at Baptism, when every neophyte Christian is clothed in Christ, not only that he or she might begin a new life that is light, peace, truthfulness, and joy, but also that they renounce a contrary life that is darkness, division, falsehood, and gloom). The clothing of the prodigal son in the finest robe indicates not only a fresh start but also a break with a destructive and unpromising past. The father welcomes his son home not so that he can repeat the past but that he can reconstruct his future in hope. This is why reconciliation will occur only when the father's gift of forgiveness is met by the son's commitment to learning a new way of life.

As L. Gregory Jones writes in Embodying Forgiveness (William B. Eerdmans, 1995), "Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others." Jones suggests forgiveness may begin in an instantaneous act, but it is sustained, nurtured, and completed in a reconciled and reconciling way of life that makes genuine communion and peace possible. This is why learning to embrace and embody forgiveness can be compared to learning a craft or being apprenticed in a new skill. Precisely because the prodigal son's new life did not mean more of the same, he had to be initiated in the attitudes, virtues, and practices of a more truthful and just way of life. He had to come to grips with his past self-centeredness, his blinding ingratitude, and his embarrassing thoughtlessness. He had to take account not only of the injustice committed against his father but also of the injustice suffered by the brother he left behind. He had to learn to live with a contrite heart and a grateful spirit, all of which suggest forgiveness is not a liberation that allows us to forget our past but a gift that transforms and reconstitutes our life now.

It would really be interesting to see how the story of the prodigal son continued. All the parable shows us is the first day of his new life. What we do not see is how the shriven son settled into his new life once the celebration had ended. Was he able to live into the forgiveness that was his? Did he make peace with his resentful brother? Could he see that forgiveness involved something like an ongoing convalescence, the slow rehabilitation of a life weakened by sin or depression or anger or injury, and strengthened by mercy, gratitude, graciousness, and love?

Suddenly the parable is not so heartwarming. It appeals to us when we focus on the exquisite mercy of the father, but it's a bit unsettling when we realize the robe and the ring symbolize the son's investiture into a way of life so radically different that it will be like learning to walk anew. Having returned home, the once prodigal but now forgiven son is like an infant; he really is starting over, he really is beginning something new. If he truly is to overcome his past and rise to new life, he must lean into a mercy that will not only transform him but will indeed give him a new identity, one so promising and challenging, he will hardly be able to recognize the self he used to be.

This is a great gospel message, but it is also an unsettling one. Real forgiveness is not a quick fix; rather, it is a liberating gift that expects something of us. This is hard for us to accept because we have come to expect the same convenience from Christianity that we do from everyday life. We want fast absolution just as we want fast food. We want painless ways of dealing with the hurts, misdeeds, injustices, and disappointments of life just as we want painless ways of losing weight, fixing relationships, or getting well when we are ill.

Forgiveness may be quick, easy, and painless when we are dealing with the ordinary bumps and bruises of life (a thoughtless remark, a catty comment, a missed appointment). But where the brokenness is deep and ravaging (a vow betrayed, a terrible injustice suffered, a loved one violently killed), forgiveness will only take root when we avail ourselves of the radically new life engendered by grace and sustained by difficult but ultimately healing virtues like gratitude, compassion, mercy, benevolence, and love.

We are no different from the prodigal son. Eventually our lives are wrecked on the shoals of some transgression, either inflicted or endured, and we are faced with the question, How does life go on? It goes on when we allow ourselves to be apprenticed in the craft of forgiveness. The prodigal son was ready to take up that craft when he recognized his need for forgiveness and, with contrite heart, made his confession: "Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son" (Luke 15:21).

The same is true for us. We begin to live a forgiven and forgiving life when we are truthful about confessions that must be given or received, when we strive to live with a repentant spirit and a merciful heart, and, perhaps most important, when we commit ourselves to unlearning habits of domination, diminishment, self-deception, resentment, and bitterness and replace them with the liberating practices of justice, mercy, truthfulness, gratitude, peacefulness, and joy.

As the Letter to the Ephesians 4:31-32 illustrates, a reconciled life is one in which "bitterness, passion, anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind" are replaced by compassion, kindness, and mutual forgiveness. And like the prodigal son, we are to live into forgiveness in households of faith, in communities of encouragement, support, truthfulness, and joy. Without other people who are committed to reconciliation and peace, we can never live into the mercy we have received.

As the prodigal son discovered, forgiveness is a gift that asks much of us, but it is also the most powerful and innovative love because it tells us not only that we need never be condemned to our past but also that no matter what we may have done or what we may have suffered, we can always be resurrected into God's sweet and tender mercy. After all, it was the master of forgiveness who told us, "It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice" (Matt. 9:13).
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Author:Wadell, Paul
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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