Sunday, February 6, 2011


But if I never outgrow the incidences of offense, one thing community needs is forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is probably a better measure of how I am doing at creating community. I can definitely create community, offend people, and not practice forgiveness thereby destroying community. Forgiveness is an integral part. Here’s a story; it’s not a true story, but a fictional one based on a Biblical fictional story. Confusing, I know.

The Unrepentant Son

by Peter Rollins

There was once an elderly man who had raised two sons and had worked diligently his whole life. Now, the younger of the two sons was impetuous by nature and said to his father, “I do not want to wait for my inheritance. Give me my share now.”

His father reluctantly complied. A few days later, the younger son packed his bags and departed from the home. For the next few years, he squandered the money that he had been given, leading a life of worldly pleasure. However, his money soon ran out, and the young son found himself without friends, food, or shelter. He eventually found a job feeding pigs and was so poor that he had to supplement his diet with the scraps used to feed the animals.

This was no life for the young man, so he thought to himself, I have had a good time in the last few years, but perhaps I should now return to my father’s home. For there it is warm, and while he will be angry, he may take pity on me and let me work as a hired hand. And so he began the return journey.

But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. Overcome with joy, he ran to his lost son and embraced him. The father then said to his servants, “Bring the best robe that I own, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, but now has been found.” That evening there was a great celebration.

Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.

This story (from Orthodox Heretic) is a great example of what true forgiveness is. It’s so rare, today, in my experience, that I must usually qualify it and describe it as unconditional forgiveness.

Most of our forgiveness today is conditional. Whether talking of personal debt forgiveness or national debt forgiveness, political pardons or business forgiveness, interpersonal forgiveness or church forgiveness, all of our examples are conditional. They are based on the person, group, organization, or country doing something or meeting certain standards that then allow forgiveness to be bestowed or given. So what we see is forgiveness following repentance or forgiveness on the condition of repentance.

But did Jesus (I always go back to him) have a more radical message? What if he did? What if he practiced and preached an unconditional forgiveness which was unheard of in his day? I think so. Forgiveness was common and church leaders often pardoned people, but Jesus forgave people before any condition was met. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and drunks as opposed to ex-drunkards and ex-prostitutes.

This story is very close to the original. A few items are excluded and a few features changed to more clearly elucidate the message of forgiveness. Here it’s possible to see that true forgiveness (unconditional forgiveness) houses within it the power to evoke repentance. It contains the power to bring about the condition pre-required for conditional forgiveness. What if this is true? What if repentance isn’t the necessary condition for forgiveness but the natural and freely-given response to unconditional forgiveness?

In the story, the son goes home not because he’s repentant but because it’s warm and he may be able to get some work. Yet, the father has no concern for whether his son is repentant or not, not at all. His only concern is that his son is back, having no idea what his son is thinking, and no thought of whether or not his son is penitent or contrite. It’s just unconditional love. And yet it is the unconditional forgiveness born of this unconditional love that leads the son to repentance.

I received some thoughts and criticism from the last update in which I was told that there are a huge group of people (some label them liberal Christians, hippie Christians, emergent Christians, etc.) who lean too much to the side of grace (or love) and not enough to the side of truth. As a counselor, my job was to speak the truth in love, but even that truth could never be given until a deep strong relationship had first been established. And that took time. In my life experience, usually the word “truth” is used to mean “telling a person that she is wrong or doing something wrong.” And in my life experience, this usually does not work. When I’ve seen it work, usually the effects are superficial and fleeting. The only thing I’ve seen work or turn a heart is unconditional love and acceptance, not the manipulative kind that gives it as a trade to get something back, but the unconditional kind that loves and accepts because that is the best way to live and because love is what we do. Being a person who has grown up rule-bound and morally affluent (ha!), it’s hard to say this but it’s quite true. I see this every day, even now as I write. There are people in my life who want other people in my life to change but are unable to create this change through nagging, criticizing, or even truth-telling. I don’t mind truth-telling at all (I love the truth), but the biggest truth is love and love is the foundation for anything. Isn’t that the amazingly transformative power we see at work with Jesus and the Zacchaeus, a rich and wealthy tax collector who had few if any friends. Jesus befriended Zacchaeus and invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house. There was not one word of condemnation or criticism or “truth-telling.” There was truth but it was in the form of love and presence. Zacchaeus immediately gave half of all he possessed to the poor and decided to pay back any victim four times what he cheated them. That’s the power of unconditional forgiveness.

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