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In 1967, James Robert Ringrose had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for one year. He was wanted for writing bad checks. He had bounced his fraudulent checks all over the world. He was finally arrested in Osaka, Japan and spent time in a Japanese jail before being returned to the U.S. When he met the FBI agents who were transporting him back to justice, he told them that he had been saving an item for several years and now he needed it. He then presented them with the Monopoly game card, Get Out Of Jail Free.

Ringrose truly thought it was that simple, but you and I know that it isn’t. When a crime is committed, one has to pay. Unless of course you are pardoned. Most of us have heard the familiar illustration preached in many sermons about the prisoner on death row. At the last moment he is offered a pardon by the governor. All he has to do is walk out of his cell. He is free. That’s how pardon works. The illustration is meant to show us how God forgives and all we need to do is accept it.

Is it truly that simple? In the sense that God forgives us because of his mercy and grace and not because we merit it, then it is simple. But in the sense that God’s forgiveness is a legal transaction like a pardon or a Get Out Of Jail Free card, then no, forgiveness isn’t simple at all. You and I know that there’s much more at stake with God’s forgiveness.

In the case of the prisoner pardoned by the governor, such an act may be legally binding an effective, but the governor isn’t truly forgiving the prisoner. Governors and presidents pardon often pardon people they do not know. The pardon is not personal. The prisoner or accused has not personally offended or harmed the governor. The pardon isn’t even delivered in person. It is effected through the courts and the prison system. Think about it – when the governor pardons a death row inmate, does he come calling on that prisoner. Does the pardon mean that the prisoner may now come to the governor house and they can sit down to a meal together for the first time in years and put behind them all the hurts and grievances behind them. No, none of that happens. The governor isn’t truly forgiving the prisoner.

This is why you and I know that there is much more going on in true forgiveness. Jesus tells a story that describes what it means to truly forgive and to be truly forgiven. (Luke 15:11-32). It is a story about a man with two sons. The younger son was very disrespectful to his father. He was greedy and dishonorable. He asked his father for his share of his inheritance. Essentially, he was saying that he had no interest in continuing his life as his father’s son and wished his father were dead and that they were reading his will. The father had every right to beat this insulting child and throw him out of the house, but he does an strange thing. He gives him what he wants.

Now this dishonorable, greedy, insulting child leaves his father with his share of his inheritance. He takes the wealth that has been in his family for generations. He takes the money that his father has carefully saved and cautiously invested so that his son might have a future. He leaves the people who care about him and takes with him the riches that would save him in uncertain times ahead. He takes it and uses it to satisfy his basest desires. He pays for food and drink to make himself happy. He pays women to satisfy his lusts. He pays for others to be his friends. He pays for anything he wants, but when bad times come along he can keep nothing. And in no time at all his family fortune is gone.

So he takes work feeding another man’s swine. It sounds like honest labor, but it is the sort of labor that his family would find shameful. He’s not working for his family, he’s working for a wage among unclean animals. This isn’t the life he was meant to live. His father had provided for him to have a much better life than this – but that was before this son burned through half the family’s wealth. Back in his homeland where people had some sense of decency, someone might have taken him in and shown him some dignity, but in this faraway country no one wants to help him. And perhaps that’s because they know his story. They know what a reprobate he is. They know how shamefully he has treated his father and his family.

The son finally makes a decision to return to his father. He has hit bottom and he knows that even the hired hand at the lowest paygrade back on his family farm does better than he has done. He also knows that nothing can ever be the same between him and his father. He has brought such shame to his father. He has insulted his father and shamed his family. Everyone back home knows that he is a dishonorable, greedy, selfish person. Nevertheless, for the sake of survival he will confess his sin to his father and offer himself as a slave.

Now the father of this foolish child sees him approaching the house. Tradition and decorum dictates that the father should regard the son as “dead to him.” But the father does something truly unusual and truly unconventional. He throws decorum and propriety aside and runs to greet his returning son. Men of importance do not run. He could at least let the son stew in his shame and teach him a valuable lesson before offering him forgiveness, but he doesn’t. He lavishes love on the son who has hurt his family so horribly. It is such an overwhelming display of forgiveness it borders on being shameful. The man had two sons, and his older son is dumbfounded by his Father’s softness. It is one thing to accept the young man’s confession of guilt, but is it necessary to celebrate? That’s the older son’s question.

The father knows what it means to truly forgive. He isn’t just pardoning the son. He isn’t just erasing his debt or overlooking his shame. He is truly forgiving all the hurt and shame so that he can have his son back. He is truly forgiving the son so that he can maintain a relationship with him. And the father would be truly happy if his older son would truly forgive his brother. Because in that way they can all enjoy being family again. We aren’t told how the younger son felt about being truly forgiven. It is probably the last thing he ever expected. Does the new robe around his shoulders feel heavy? Does he twist the ring around his bony finger? Does he wiggle his toes in his sandals (when is the last time he wore shoes?). Does he rub his cheek where his father kissed him? This son doesn’t know what it feels like to be pardoned or to get out of jail free. He only knows what it is like to be truly forgiven – and it is something he will live with for the rest of his life.

Forgiveness is not as simple as a pardon or reprieve. Unlike pardon, forgiveness seeks to reconcile the relationship between offender and offended. Forgiveness strives for love and fellowship

It is isn’t as simple as a truce or forgetting the past and ignoring what has been done. For if forgiveness is truly practiced, then the sins and injuries to be forgiven are on the table. Everyone shares in naming it, but they also share in the blessed work of renaming. The son confessed his sins and he named himself a slave. The father acknowledged his offense, but renamed him “son.”

That wasn’t easy. Forgiveness is costly and there is a good amount of time and effort that goes into the business of restoring relationship. That’s true of you and I when we forgive and reconcile. It is all the more true of our God who forgives us. He doesn’t simply announce a pardon or call a truce. God works through the cross and in our lives to forgive. And he works to overcome our very human resistance to forgiveness. Accepting forgiveness can make us anxious. We would rather deal with the comforting control of law or the neat simplicity of “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards. But God is forgiving us – he is truly forgiving us.

You are truly forgiven. We are truly forgiven. Can we accept that?

Note: In the preparation of this sermon, I have benefitted greatly from two works that deserve special mention.

  • Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: the Christian Idea of Atonement. (1989)
  • S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. (2006)

    Chris Benjamin

    West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
    Morning Sermon, 18 March 2007

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