Tag Archives: reconciliation

The Prodigal Father

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When the long-expected words came, the sting of them stole his breath.“Father, I cannot stay any longer.” The boy was a delight: free, adventurous, always joking, always smiling. But those traits that made him so easy to love—and to like—were the very things that now pulled him away. “I want to live,” the boy said, dragging out and emphasizing the live. “I want my inheritance. Now.”

And in living, the father thought, he puts me in my grave. Like a butcher’s razor-sharp knife, his son’s words cut deep into his soul. He gasped for breath, steadying himself on the table as strength nearly left his legs. The labored pulsing of his heart masked the shame he ought to have felt at his son’s rejection. With his free hand, he reached for the boy’s shoulder and drew him close. No arms encircled the broken, weeping man. Weakly, he called a servant and gave the order to divide the flocks. The servant, feeling his master’s shame, did not look in his eyes.


Dark nights passed in sleepless misery. With each new dawn, he stood scanning the distant horizons, hoping beyond hope the nightmare was over and he would see his son’s silhouette against the sunrise. At dusk, he stood again — staring, wishing, longing.

The boy had run away once before, when he was young. Scarcely taller than a ewe, he’d wrapped a few loaves and some fish in a bag, scrawled a note, and set out. He was gone some hours; but before dinner his mother found him, sitting on a rock with his arms around his knees, looking over the swollen Jordan. “I can’t swim,” was all he’d said, before walking home, hand in hand with her.

Now the father sat often on that same rock, staring across the fabled waters. As the days drew into weeks and the weeks to months, he’d sent messengers throughout Judea in search of his youngest. Always they’d returned, unable to meet his hope-filled eyes. East, across the Jordan, in the land of Perea…perhaps this is where his son had gone.

Meals were quiet now. His wife and younger son had always made the table a lively place, but she had died long ago and now… now it was just he and Reuben, his older, ever-faithful son. Reuben reported on the condition of the flocks, where the best grazing lands were now, where the wolves were attacking lately. He’ll do well when I’m gone, the father thought. He choked on the final word. Gone? I am already gone; my boy has taken my life. It was right for Reuben to keep account; after all, all that remained was his—or would be, when his father was at last buried next to his wife.

Buried. A final resting place. A place to mourn, but also to remember. He had sat Shiva for his wife—the seven days of mourning Moses had commanded—but had returned often to her tomb when being a single father to two boys had gotten the better of him. There he remembered her smile, her gentleness, her wisdom. There he found the grace to love when the boys fought, to forgive when they wronged him.

He’d gone often, almost daily, these past months. Now his son, too, was dead—must be dead—but there was no tomb for him, and so no place from which to remember. And it was from there that he looked up and saw the specter in the distance: an emaciated and tattered figure, empty handed and bare footed, head hung low.

And the old man ran….
This is Part III in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find parts I & II here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs

Preemptive Forgiveness

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As Christians, we have our work cut out for us. If we’re serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we’ll diligently read and study the Bible not only to learn more about God, but to learn how to live. And as we do that, we discover that we have a pretty lofty set of examples to follow. Paul gives the example of perseverance in the face of open hostility, beatings, and prison. James offers instruction about both our words and our attitudes. The shepherd king David demonstrated a spiritual rawness and emotional openness unparalleled in Scripture. And of course Jesus himself gives a lifetime of examples for everything from teaching through stories to loving the most unloveable of people. But the hardest example to follow is the one that came at the worst possible moment in Jesus’ life.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke, a doctor and painstaking detailer not only of Jesus’ life but also the lives and ministries of the apostles following the resurrection, gives an account of the crucifixion that is surprisingly devoid of the details you might expect from a doctor. Most of Luke’s story, in fact (see Luke 23), seems to be focused on what was going on with other people: Simon the Cyrene, the crowds, the soldiers, the two criminals. All he really says about Jesus is, “they led him away… they crucified him… he breathed his last” [verses 26, 32, 46].

Maybe this scarcity of detail about the physical suffering Jesus endured allows Luke’s readers to be that much more taken with the words of Christ that he records—especially the words that give us the hardest example we will ever be asked to follow: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

History tells us that crucifixion was a terrifying, torturous ordeal leading to a slow and agonizingly painful death. Some victims were lashed to the cross while others—like Jesus—were nailed through their wrists or palms. Sparing us these details, Luke simply says, “they crucified him.” And immediately he gives us Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the hammers are coming down on the spikes, Jesus offers forgiveness to those holding the hammers. As the cross is being hoisted into its vertical position, Jesus asks His Father to forgive those lifting the wood. 

While in the very process of being wronged, Jesus offers forgiveness.

That is an impossibly difficult example to follow. We are even tempted to excuse ourselves from following it because Jesus, after all, was God, and we’re not. But Jesus was also a man—the same man who only hours before had begged in blood-stained sweat for his heavenly Father to let him get around this hour. We have no excuse. We also have no power, except through the One who gave us the example.

Preemptive forgiveness. Forgiving before the one who hurt you apologizes. Forgiving when what you want most is for them to know they hurt you. Forgiving when they don’t even acknowledge that they hurt you, or they deny hurting you at all. Or, worse, when they say it’s your fault for being hurt. Forgiving when there is precious little hope for confession, let alone restoration and reconciliation. Forgiving even when you don’t feel forgiving, you don’t want to forgive, you’re not sure you can forgive. It’s impossible. [*See footnote and my first comment below.]

But it is most necessary, for only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope of something better even than restoration. Only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope for resurrection. New life. Re-creation.

Jesus’ agonized prayer—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—made possible not only his own resurrection, but also the resurrection of every believer. We can’t stop people from hurting us; we can’t make them confess or apologize or repent when they have hurt us. But we have the power to bring new life through forgiveness.

Father, forgive them.

*11/27/15—I made some small but important changes to this post after first publishing it, changing “forgive” to “offer forgiveness” in a couple places, and changing the statement from “Jesus forgives” to “Jesus asks His Father to forgive.” See my comment below for more on this.