Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

July 29, 2019

Once again this morning finds me looking back at notes I’ve captured over the past several months. And today, my eye fell on a note about forgiveness that I captured back in March. The day’s Gospel reading, the parable of the prodigal son, is one that I always look forward to because it is one of those “mystery readings” – not “mystery” in the sense, as Fr. Michael Gaitley says, that we can never understand it, but “mystery” in the sense that we continually understand more about it – no matter how much we have taken in, there is always more to learn about it.

My note that morning was brief: Forgiveness leads to re-embrace when the forgiven one undergoes conversion. The story of the prodigal son in the gospel for 3/23 illustrates that. We confuse forgiveness with full reconciliation.

The parable of the prodigal son is one in which Jesus does not tell us the “rest of the story.” We do not find out whether the older son and the younger son reconciled their differences. We never know if the older son gets into the spirit of the welcome-home party; we aren’t told whether the younger son sits down with his older brother to accept responsibility for his actions, or whether the two of them get to hug it out and get on with the business of being brothers.

No, what Jesus taught in the parable was the beauty and healing power of forgiveness, and he taught that through the actions of the father with his younger and indeed, prodigal son. Between those two, there is both forgiveness and conversion, followed by reconciliation.

I think that as between the older son and the younger son, we are meant to understand that sometimes in life, that cycle gets interrupted. Perhaps the older son was not ready to forgive; perhaps he still wished ill upon his brother for the great offense his brother had committed. It occurs to me that even if the older son heeded his father’s words and – in the basic meaning of forgiveness – no longer wished harm to his brother for his actions, at the point where we last see him, there is no conversion. His own heart is not converted, and neither he nor we know for sure whether the younger brother has truly undergone conversion. Conversion is a true “turning around,” a complete change in how we view everything around us and in how we view ourselves. We see its beginnings in the younger son and brother in his admission of sin and his resolve to do better, but we don’t yet see its fruit – only the celebration of his repentance.

In the older son, we see someone at the very beginning of the cycle. He knows that forgiveness is very much on his father’s mind and that it is going to be the first step in any possible reconciliation with his brother. He may not yet understand that a second step, conversion, is going to require him to change both how he sees his brother’s newfound contrition and how he sees himself in relation to his brother. In fact, there also is a breach in the relationship between the older son and his father that is going to require both forgiveness and conversion. And it remains to be seen whether the younger son has fully undergone, or will undergo, the kind of conversion that leads to completing this cycle. And there is yet another facet to the story: What about the younger son forgiving his older brother for his stiff-necked, prideful failure to welcome the younger brother home?

We like to read this parable as demonstrating the completeness and the absolute nature of God’s forgiveness of our sins. And while that certainly isn’t a wrong way to read it, I think we can miss much of the lesson Jesus has for us if we stop there. Certainly our forgiveness, in imitation of God’s, is to be absolute and complete. However, we often mistakenly equate forgiveness with reconciliation, and when we do that, we leave ourselves open to more and greater harm from broken relationships.

The hard part of this lesson is that conversion is necessary for the one forgiven, not just for the one doing the forgiving. The one who forgives undergoes conversion in praying from the heart for the good of the other; the one forgiven requires conversion as well: a new way of thinking and being, arising out of true repentance, which does not automatically arise from being forgiven by another person. It requires both grace and a willing acceptance of grace.

It’s a difficult and painful truth that not everyone we forgive believes that they want or need or will benefit from our forgiveness. Yet Jesus teaches us that we must forgive, in order to be forgiven. This is so, because our own acts of forgiveness are about healing for ourselves. He teaches us that we must forgive, but he does not teach that we are required or expected to fix everything on the other side of the equation. We are to forgive, and in grace to live lives that bear witness to the goodness and holiness of Jesus.

The effects of our living this way depends on the response of others. And the impact of our forgiveness on those we forgive is the enormous variable. We are called to forgive, but full reconciliation can take place only when the one we forgive is open to the grace of conversion – of allowing profound change within themselves and of reflecting that change through changed behavior.

And the greatest grace of forgiveness is that in forgiving, we pray fervently and often for the person we are forgiving – for God’s grace to be alive and at work in them, for good things to come into their lives, for them to have souls filled with the joy of God’s presence. If our prayers for those we forgive are limited to how we want God to punish them or teach them the error of their ways, then we haven’t truly forgiven. We must pray for those we forgive with the hearts of sinners who have been forgiven themselves, desiring for those we forgive the greatest blessings possible in accordance with God’s will.

I do not approach this subject lightly, and I do not mean to suggest that anything about it is painless, easy, or even simple. I have, in my own life, relationships that are broken seemingly beyond repair. I have struggled to forgive, and have finally learned to understand that my acts of forgiveness require my internal will to forgive, my relinquishment of any desire for punishment, and my acts of prayer for those I have forgiven. They do not require that I communicate my forgiveness to the other person; they do not require that the other person accept or even want my forgiveness; and they do not require that I accept another person’s continued and expressed willingness to continue behaving in a harmful way. In other words, my acts of forgiveness are complete when I desire good, and not harm, for the person I am forgiving. And my forgiveness does not equal reconciliation. Reconciliation requires conversion, and I cannot bring about such change in another person; I can only pray, as a forgiven sinner, that God’s grace will be poured out in that person’s life so that good things come their way.

It is then, in that spirit of forgiveness and healing prayer, that one is able to survive the heartbreak of knowing that someone we love does not love us the same.

It is painful, sometimes difficult, sometimes complicated. But with the grace of God, I can live with that.

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