The Jesus teaching that we are going to look at today takes us into a story of family dynamics. He talks about two brothers, and their father. And if you have a brother or sister or even a cousin or friend that hung around a lot, this story will strike a chord with you.
Earlier this week was national sibling day, and people all over social media were posting pictures of with their brothers and sister, saying how much they love them. And we do love them… for the most part.
On the other hand, we also know that having a sibling means feeling the deep and real sting of things being unfair.
Think back to when you were a kid. Even when our parents tried their hardest to keep things equal, we are always alert, as kids, to any slight, any favoritism…anything that might be unfair.
I have one sister, a few years older than me. And I can still remember a moment when I was 8, and she was 13. 8 for me was an especially annoying year, and as soon as my mom left the room, I unleashed all of my 8 year old obnoxious powers on my teenage sister. She retaliated by yelling at me to stop.
Well, I had two choices.
I could stop.
Or I could flick her.
At 8, the answer seemed clear. So I flicked her. To my sister, the response also seemed clear. So she slapped me.
And then my mom came in.
I was thrilled. I waited with expectation for my sister to get in all kinds of trouble for slapping me. I knew I wasn’t innocent, but my crimes were so insignificant compared to hers. Mother, this daughter of yours has slapped me.
My mom paused. She looked at both of us.
We were both grounded for a week.
I was aghast.
We are hardwired for what is fair.
Especially when it comes to people getting what we think they deserve, for what deserves forgiveness and grace (like flicking). . How is it that my sister and I received the same punishment, and then were both forgiven equally, when I was clearly less guilty that she was? (Okay, I wasn’t, but it sure felt that way)
But then we grew up. And all those slights we do to each other as kids don’t seem like such a big deal. Other people do things much worse. Adults are way better at hurting one another than kids are. It makes us angry or resentful. We wait for the scales to balance as we sulk in our corners.
And then we come to church. And annoying pastors get up and say things like we are all forgiven. That God’s grace is enough. And that’s hard for us to get our heads around.
We are all forgiven? No matter how much we have done? That doesn’t feel very fair. And then it goes one more step, and we are told that Jesus wants us to try to forgive them too. Too far, Jesus. If you want to be all gracious and loving that’s fine, but us? How is that fair that someone would be mean to us, and we have to do all the work trying to let it go?
It’s not fair, is it? It’s not fair that Jesus wants us to forgive people who don’t deserve it. It’s not fair that some of you here have a lot longer hill to climb toward forgiveness because someone has done something really awful in your life, while for others, it’s going to be easier.
So what does Jesus really teach us about this? Take a look at this story of two brothers and their dad in Luke 15:11-32
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.
Now these guys are also brothers, but by saying the father had two sons, it focuses on each relationship to the father, not to one another.
12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
This was a shocking move on the part of the younger son. It would have been extremely insulting to his father to ask for his inheritance. It’s essentially like pretending the father has already died. It was also not at all a common practice. The story goes on:
So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
The younger son takes the money and heads off to an area controlled by the Gentiles. Then he spends all his money on booze and bad behavior and a pretty epic rebellion against his family.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
Now the younger brother’s money is gone, and no one else has any food either, and his only choice is to take a job feeding pigs. For people originally hearing this story, there would have been an audible gasp. Pigs in the Jewish community were completely unclean, and so working with pigs was as bad as it got. But then it gets worse:
16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
That’s right. He is about to eat pig food.
17 But when he came to himself
This is a great phrase. It is his aha moment. You can almost see him, sitting there in the mud with a pig, chewing on a pod, destroyed, hungry, exhausted. And all of a sudden, he sees his own state and knows what he must do.
he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,
I have sinned
against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy
to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
He decides to go home, and plans out exactly what he will say. He will admit what he has done, humble himself before his father, and ask to be a servant.
20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran
Before he even gets to his father, his father takes off running toward him, full of compassion. In ancient Palestine, a grown man never ran. It was undignified. But his father doesn’t care. His son has come home. He runs toward him,
and put his arms around him and kissed him.
This kiss was a sign of forgiveness
21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
The father not only forgives him, but by giving him a robe and ring and sandals, sends a clear message. He is restored as his son.
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
The father is ecstatic. His son is back.
And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in.
All of a sudden, the story turns and reminds us that this younger son had a brother. The brother is watching all of this happen, off in the distance. Physical distance in this story is important – it shows a break in relationship. The son is in the shadows, watching this celebration unfold. A celebration for the brother who disgraced his father, left the country, squandered it all, and came crawling back. And his father has thrown him a party. His father has forgiven his younger brother. It is so very unfair. His father sees him standing, watching, and comes to him. Once again, it is the father that takes this first step toward a son who has pulled away.
His father came out and began to plead with him.
29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
Notice that the older son starts his angry rant with “Listen!” but when the father starts talking he starts with a gentle “Son.” The older brother is angry. The father is compassionate. And also reminds the son that there are still consequences for his younger brother’s behavior.
The younger brother’s inheritance is still gone. All that the father has will now go to the older son, all that is rightfully his. So it isn’t the money that is unfair. The younger son will have to face up to that reality, that he has nothing of his own. But the older son is still angry. The father has forgiven his younger brother when he didn’t deserve it. Notice the wording they use. The older brother says “this son of yours.” but when the father answers he refers to him differently:
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
The father gently reminds the older son that the boy who has returned is not only a son. He is “this brother of yours.” As mad as he is, it is still his brother who has come home.
This famous story that Jesus told has a lot we could talk about and consider. But for today, and our study of forgiveness, we are focusing in on the forgiveness the father has for the son.
It isn’t fair.
It’s isn’t deserved.
But it’s exactly what God has done for each of us.
Sometimes we are the younger son, the prodigal. And no matter how far you go away, no matter how much you do, when you turn and head back toward God the Father, he comes running toward you, overcome with joy to have you back home. You are forgiven.
But sometimes we are the older brother too. And the father tells you to forgive your brother, your sister, to forgive the person who has hurt you or someone you love. And you get angry. Because they don’t deserve it. It isn’t fair.
But Jesus never said things would be fair. Grace isn’t fair. Forgiveness isn’t either.
So we won’t do it all at once. Let’s take just one step.
The first step to forgiving someone in our lives is to acknowledge exactly what we have been talking about.
Take a minute, and think about someone you are struggling to forgive. Really picture them.
The first step to even considering forgiving them, is to admit that it’s not fair.
Let yourself stomp your foot about it. Be like the older brother and rage and storm about the injustice of forgiveness, about the frustration that something they did has lead to you having to wrestle with yourself and with God to try and forgive.
So first, admit that it’s not fair. Because it’s not.
This isn’t about them not having consequences for their actions. Remember even the younger brother lost everything he had. It’s about your relationship to them, and your relationship with God.
So now that we have admitted the agony of the unfairness of what we are about to do, I want you to pray for that person, the one you are picturing this week.
Not in a “smite them Lord” kind of way.
But pray for them. For their well-being. That they would feel loved by God. That God could work in them the way God is working in you. Maybe that they would feel convicted too.
But mostly ask God to help you forgive them.
This sounds easy.
It’s almost impossible.
But this is how it starts.
We talked some about this earlier this year when we talked about Loving our Enemies. Some of you are picturing someone who is an enemy. These are difficult people to forgive.
But Jesus tells us to love and forgive, anyway. So we take one step.
But for others of you, this person you are trying to forgive isn’t an enemy. It’s someone in your life, maybe even a brother or a sister, who has done something to cause a break in your relationship. But you still love them.
Forgiving them is unfair too.
So you can stay with that feeling, and sulk outside the party. Or you can let go, and run toward them, forgiving them with no strings attached, no hesitation.
The way God forgave you.
We forgive because God forgave us. God choose extravagance over fairness, and when we strayed from him and then came crawling back home, he ran to greet us, then dressed us in a robe and sandals, embraced us in forgiveness, and cried out in joy that we had come home.
Maybe we aren’t quite there yet.
But let’s take a first step, to forgive, even when it’s not fair.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan
More Things Jesus Taught about Unfair Forgiveness
- Luke 15: 1-10
- Matthew 20: 1-16
- Matthew 18: 23-35
- Matthew 18: 10-14