Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley


Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


I know a mother and father who had two children – an older boy and a younger girl.  When the girl was in high school, she fell in love with the person whom she eventually married.   Her family was not at first pleased with her choice and she ran away from home.  Eventually her parents came to accept and trust her decision, but her older brother did not.  He never forgave her.    He disowned her as his sister and refused to see her.  So the parents never have Christmas with all their children and grandchildren together.  The son’s children and the daughter’s children may not even know that they have cousins.  They certainly don’t see each other at family reunions.

I wonder about these two brothers in the story that Jesus told.  Will the older brother ever forgive the younger one?  Will the younger one ever forgive himself?  Will the father live long enough to see their reconciliation? 


This parable is so familiar to us that we may have lost track of some things.  The traditional interpretation is that the father represents God and that the accent is on God’s forgiveness. The Father forgives the younger brother, but the older brother doesn’t and the moral of the story is that God forgives us, so we should forgive our brothers and sisters and not be like the older brother.  That is a fine interpretation.  I don’t disagree with it.  But can we back up a bit before we rush to that judgment?


We hear this story from within our own culture.  We hear it as a story about a typical young man who goes through a typical time of young adult rebellion, a time when he has to find himself and establish his own identity.  We all know someone like this, probably lots of someone’s like this.  They went off, sowed their wild oats (whatever those are) and came home again and became productive members of society.  It was no big deal.  Hearing the story from within our culture, we may think the older brother is kind of ridiculous.  He’s the typical first-born who is so uptight that he never learns to relax and enjoy life.  He just resents his brother for being able to do that. 


But the way we hear this story is not at all how people in Jesus’ time would have heard it.  The younger son wants his share of his inheritance while his father is alive.  That’s an insult, like saying he wishes his father was dead.  And this is a land-based economy.  Your inheritance is your family’s reputation and the land they own.  The rule of inheritance at the time was that the oldest son got 2/3 and the younger got 1/3.  So the father sold 1/3 of the family land.  The younger son takes 1/3 of the family’s wealth and burns through it like there’s no tomorrow. 


In Jesus’ day, young adults did not do this.  The family’s well-being depended on keeping their land together.  Not just this generation, but the next generation.  A son who does this makes his family a laughing-stock.  The village will think that the father is a fool.  They may pity the older brother, but no one in his right mind is going to marry his daughter to him. 


When the money runs out and the younger brother gets hungry, he comes home.  Maybe he is sincerely sorry.  Maybe he just knows that his father has a soft spot for him and will let him back as a servant.  We don’t really know. 


But he comes back and without consulting his older brother, the Dad welcomes him home.  Since the Dad divided the inheritance between the two sons, the father is really welcoming the younger brother into the older brother’s home.  One-third of the household’s wealth is gone – with no way to get it back – and now the older brother is expected to support his younger, good-for-nothing brother and his fool of a Dad on the two-thirds that is left. 


If we hear it that way, then the older brother doesn’t seem so much like a pouty jerk.  He has real grievances with his father and his younger brother.  It seems unrealistic to suggest that he would just put on a happy face and join the party – the party made possible by butchering one of his calves without his permission, thanks very much.  


Forgiveness is difficult.   This Lent, we are examining Christian practices, the things we do with intention out of our awareness of God’s presence in our lives.   Forgiveness should be among the most fundamental of Christian practices, and yet, it doesn’t seem that it is. We are known, as a group, for our divisions and conflicts, for the times we have failed to forgive and even for the times we have waged war with each other rather than seek forgiveness and reconciliation.  We teach our children to work out their differences, to say “I’m sorry” and receive forgiveness, but often, it is something we put away as we become adults.


Forgiveness is so rare that it is newsworthy.  Ten years ago, the tragic shooting was of 10 Amish girls in Nickel Mines, PA which left 5 of them dead along with the shooter who took his own life.   The story that kept being told was about the Amish community’s response of forgiveness.   It was so hard for some people to understand this response that they mocked the Amish, saying that they must not understand what they were doing or they must not love their children like normal people.


The shooter left behind a wife and three children.  He left behind a mother and father.  All of them had to leave with the horror of what he had done and with the scandal that attached to them.  Within hours, Amish people arrived at his parent’s house to comfort them for their loss.  At his funeral, more than half of the mourners were Amish people. Money was collected for his widow and children along with the families of his victims.


One father whose daughter died at the schoolhouse said “Forgiveness means giving up your right to revenge.”[1]


We probably all know people who have wrapped themselves in their anger, hardening their hearts, refusing to forgive, holding on to their rights to revenge.  Their woundedness has become so deeply a part of who they are that it shapes their whole identity. 


People who study forgiveness recognize that it has the most benefit for the one who does the forgiving.  It frees us from the prison of our anger, our bitterness.  It enables us to move on, to heal, and to refuse to be defined by something that happened in the past which we cannot change.


Since forgiveness is not well understood, let me say some things about what forgiveness is and is not.  When someone accidentally bumps their cart into yours and the grocery store and they apologize, and you say, “no problem”, that is not forgiveness.  That is just good manners.    When someone is late to meet you and they apologize, they are treating you with respect and that’s a good thing.  But if you were also late or you were using the time for some other purpose and didn’t notice that they were late, there’s nothing to forgive, because you were not wronged. 


Forgiveness only happens when there is something to forgive.  And conversely, forgiveness is not pretending that nothing bad happened.  Fred Craddock tells a simple story of a six-year-old boy whose mother asked him to stop running through the house because he might stumble and fall and hurt himself or break something. So, of course, he ran and stumbled and fell and broke a vase. His father saw it all happen, picked him up, dusted him off, and said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a vase.” His mother, however, knelt down and gathered up the shattered pieces and said softly, “It wasn’t just a vase. It was my favorite vase. My mother gave it to me, her mother gave it to her, and I looked forward to giving it to my children.” And she wept, and the little boy wept, and the mother took him in her arms and hugged him and he hugged her back.


Forgiveness does not pretend that a wrong did not occur.   Forgiveness means admitting that what was done was wrong and should not be repeated.  Some of us watched the movie Hotel Rwanda recently.  That movie told some of the story of the genocide inflicted on the Tutsi people by the Hutu people.  These are people who lived and worked together for generations in Rwanda.  In the aftermath of the genocide, one of the ways that the country sought healing was in truth telling.  Those who did the killing and maiming were required to tell the truth about their actions.  Forgiveness could not happen, the country could not heal without serious attention to the deep wrongs that had been done. Forgiveness confronts the reality of what has happened but decides to break a cycle of violence and vengeance, decides to be free of it.


Forgiveness is not the same thing as a pardon.  You can forgive someone for a criminal action and still expect them to face the legal consequences of that action.    And forgiveness might or might not result in restoring of relationship.  You might need to forgive someone who is dead, for example.  Or someone who has suffered domestic violence might forgive her abuser, but still maintain a safe legal distance. 


Every Sunday, we pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Sometimes, we should probably say “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  If that prayer is genuine, then there will come a time when we will have to give or receive forgiveness.  You might be facing that time right now. 


If you are the offender, take the initiative, take responsibility for your part, go and say you’re sorry.  Don’t make the other person come to you.  If forgiveness is offered, accept it.  If the other person is not willing or able to forgive, don’t let their anger at you make you angry at them.  Be tenderhearted, remain open to the possibility of forgiveness in the future. 


If you are the one offended, take the initiative – go to the one who hurt you and tell them.  People don’t always know that they have been hurtful.  You might have to tell them.  If you are willing to grant forgiveness, do it.  If you are unable or unwilling, go as far as you can.  Seek understanding, try to see things from their point of view or from an outsider’s  point of view.  Pray for them.  The best prayer might be “God give them what they deserve” which gives God a lot of latitude in the situation.  Go as far as you can towards forgiveness.  Keep yourself open and maybe you’ll find that you can go a little further. 


Forgiveness is not any easier for the Amish than for the rest of us, but it is something they emphasize, something they regularly practice, a concept which might be a bit more familiar.   The mother of a girl who died said, “Forgiveness stretches out over time, but you have to start with the will to forgive. . . the bitterness may re-enter your mind from time to time, and then you have to think about forgiveness again.”[2]


You have to start with the will to forgive.  May God forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.  Amen. 



[1] Donald Kraybill, Steven Zolt, David Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace, (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2007),  p. 116

[2] Amish Grace, p. 120