Never ask a rabbi a question. You won’t get an answer. You’ll get a story. And the story won’t necessarily answer your question, or at least not in the way you were expecting. Such is the nature of Luke’s Gospel this week. Per usual, people are complaining about Jesus. His strange teachings, the company he keeps and always the stories. Again, with the stories!
This time he’s cavorting with tax collectors and sinners, which the people at the Home Office can’t quite figure out. “Why is he hanging around with those people?!” Jesus comes up with a couple of choice comparisons of the righteous and unrighteous but then proceeds to tell the famous story of the prodigal son.
On the surface the story might strike the reader as a charming tale of reconciliation, but upon further reflection the story astounds with its unsurpassed beautiful, paradigmatic example of love and forgiveness.
Forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it is really the only kind of forgiveness that matters. What’s radical about forgiving the forgivable? Forgiving the unforgiveable is unparalled in its radical, earth shaking implications. In fact, I’ve read this might be the single most radical thing about the ministry of Jesus. Lots of people in Jesus’ time claimed to be messiahs, saviors, and the second coming, but only one preached the kind of forgiveness embodied in the parable of the prodigal son. Only one preached to the unpreachable. Only one spoke to the despised, the hated, the least among us. Only one preached the kind of love and forgiveness so radical at its core that it still makes us extremely uncomfortable to this day. Can we forgive those who have trespassed against us? Those who have harmed us so greatly we carry the wounds like open sores?
L. Gregory Jones suggests the mantra we should repeat on forgiveness is not “Forgive and forget,” but “Forgive and remember.” Forgiveness doesn’t mean what you did to me is okay. Forgiveness requires anger, accountability, repentance. It requires a kind of reconciliation that restores the community. Makes us whole again. Allows us to reclaim our power over our offenders. We are no longer victims. We are no longer re-victimized by the transgression but instead, triumphant over them. Able to move on. We never forget but we can forgive.
This is the basis of all good restorative justice programs. This is the basis of Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which placed the tortured in a room with their torturers. Can you imagine that?
This kind of
might be the very lesson the United Methodist Church should spend the next year (or two) studying very, very carefully, with great thoughtfulness and with hearts filled with love. Who are the despised among us today? Who are the outsiders, the outcasts, those we are called, in particular, to minister to? Are we shaping a community that places them in the center and forces us to take their stories into us as if they’re our own? Or are we playing it safe?
Can we imagine a UNITED Methodist church? Can we find room in our hearts for unsurpassed love and forgiveness with one another? Can we
forgive and remember
*Writer’s note – Rev. Bill Cotton asked me to write this week’s Memo for him as he recovers from illness. Having Bill Cotton ask you to write for him is like having Stephen Curry ask you to shoot his free throws. I can try, but those are big shoes to fill! Get well, Bill! We all need you and your Memos for years to come.
Paul Turner is a member of Grace United Methodist church in Des Moines, the son of a United Methodist minister, former Lead Organizer of AMOS (A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy) of which Grace UMC is a founding member, and currently Regional Organizer for IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation).