“Willa Cather’s Christmas story ‘The Burglar’s Christmas’ portrays a young man, the proverbial prodigal son, who had moved away from his family back East and was in Chicago Without food for many days, without friends, and with suicidal thoughts, he decides on Christmas Eve to steal some food from a house. He had never stolen before but thinks that he is owed some food at least on Christmas Eve.
“When he breaks into the home, however, he finds that he has burglarized the house of his parents — who had moved to Chicago. His mother catches him while stealing, and he confesses all to her and to his father.
“He prepares to leave, but they say, ‘Stay. We’ll make things right.’
“He looks up at her questioningly, ‘I wonder if you know how much you pardon?’
“‘O, my poor boy, much or little, what does it matter? Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves, and loves and loves?’”
we know we’ve botched it
We recognize this old and wonderful story we read in Luke 15 with the return of the prodigal. We recognize that same forgiveness in Willa Cather’s story, and I suspect we recognize it in our own lives. We have all been the prodigal coming home after squandering the good things the Father has entrusted to us. We know we’ve botched it, and we’ve said those words, “I have sinned, and I am no longer worthy to be called yours.”
Though we, frankly, deserve nothing but a tongue-lashing, we receive something else altogether. When we come home to the Father, knowing our sin, repenting of our waywardness, his goodness and mercy receive us. Not in a small fashion, but in a lavish fashion — shoes for our feet, a ring for our finger, a robe for our covering, and food for our belly. There is great celebration for our return. Truly, we have come from death to life.
entitled to our anger
I suspect, too, that we’ve been the older brother, quietly toiling for the Father until the day our wandering sibling returns home, asking for forgiveness. We feel entitled to our anger, justified in our rebuke. We’ve been wronged by the goodness of the Father in forgiving our errant family member, and we’re mad about it.
A lady named “Beckah Fink from Texas wrote to Dear Abby about a father’s forgiveness and a son’s need to forgive himself. A young man from a wealthy family was about to graduate from high school. It was the custom in that affluent neighborhood for the parents to give the graduate an automobile. ‘Bill’ and his father had spent months looking at cars, and the week before graduation they found the perfect car. Bill was certain that the car would be his on graduation night. Imagine his disappointment when, on the eve of his graduation, Bill’s father handed him a gift-wrapped Bible! Bill was so angry; he threw the Bible down and stormed out of the house. He and his father never saw each other again.
“It was the news of his father’s death that brought Bill home again. As he sat one night, going through his father’s possessions that he was to inherit, he came across the Bible his father had given him. He brushed away the dust and opened it to find a cashier’s check, dated the day of his graduation — in the exact amount of the car they had chosen together.”
What a story, but how true for those of us who’ve got a case the older brother blues. We’ll whine; we’ll complain; we’ll feel slighted at the goodness of the Father. Just like Bill in the story, we will absolutely miss what we are holding in our hands. Of course, there is only one answer that the Father gives to our blindness of our blues, and it changes things for the older brother: “All that I have belongs to you.”
It’s an anger-breaker and a complaint-stopper. The goodness of the Father that is extended to the younger son, is abundantly available to the older brother — he’s living in it. But, it’s awful hard to see when we’re mad about somebody else receiving some grace and goodness – the very same grace and goodness, ironically, in which we live.
I’m sure we’ve been both the son coming home, knowing he doesn’t deserve his Father’s love, and the older brother, feeling he’s been slighted by the Father’s love. It is one of the more wonderful stories Jesus tells in the gospels, and it speaks to us of God’s love, God’s mercy, and, of course, God’s forgiveness.
a new kind of life
“Dallas Willard has written a book that too few people know about. It is entitled The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. His major theme: One specific errant concept has done inestimable harm to the church and God’s purposes with us — and that is the concept that has restricted the Christian idea of salvation to mere forgiveness of sins. Yet it is so much more. Salvation as conceived today is far removed from what it was in the beginnings of Christianity and only by correcting it can God’s grace in salvation be returned to the concrete, embodied existence of our human personalities walking with Jesus in his easy yoke.
“The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by his life (Romans 5:10), not just by his death. Or as Willard puts it: It wasn’t Christ’s death that gave rise to this courageous early church — but his life.
“Yet Willard will have none of minimizing the biblical doctrine of sin. He says that humans are not only wrong, they are also wrung, twisted out of proper shape and proportion by our willfulness and sinfulness. Still he will have none of restricting redemption to the mere forgiveness of sins when Jesus had something even more radical in mind: the impartation of a life, the communication of how to live a new kind of life. This newness of life involves forgiveness of sins and Jesus’ death for our sins. And yet that newness of life also involved much more besides — the transformation of human life, which is at the heart of the life of Christ.”
do we want to be transformed?
It’s not just about being forgiven. We all like to be forgiven. We might even be pretty good at forgiving. But, do we want to be transformed? That’s the$20,000 question. Do we want to be transformed? God in Christ forgives us, not just toward healing the brokenness of sin in our lives, but also toward transforming us through the wholeness of his saving life.
Forgiveness merely opens the door to new kind of life, a new kind of life that includes forgiveness of sins, but, quite frankly, transforms us, a transformation that is at the heart of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
You know, we learn about forgiveness in the old-fashioned ways: reading our Bibles, praying, worshipping — and, of course, forgiving and being forgiven. Don’t you think that if God can forgive the Israelites, or can forgive David, or Jesus can forgive Peter or pray for the ones who’ve crucified him (“Lord, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”) — that he’ll not only forgive us, but also empower us to forgive the folks around us?
pastor of a shoestring parish
“Walt Everett is the person some people conjure when they hear the phrase ‘man of God.’ Serene and heartful, without an ounce of bombast or secular self-promotion, he puts in seventy-hour weeks attending to the sick and elderly as the pastor of a working-poor congregation of the United Methodist Church in Hartford, Connecticut. At an age sixty-nine when many of his fellow clergy are lining up putts in Scottsdale, Arizona, he is awake at dawn for morning prayers and out of the house by eight, off on a ceaseless whirl of calls to shut-ins and hospitals.
“In a shoestring parish, it’s the reverend who often makes pickups of canned goods for the church’s food pantry or piles used clothing into the trunk of his Pontiac for sale at charity drives. In what the less active would term ‘spare time,’ Everett travels to speak for social justice and is highly sought for his nuanced call to abolish executions. Such is his genial enactment of faith that even the most inveterate skeptic might consider, after an hour in his company, the existence of a higher calling, if not a higher power.
i’m not going to make it
“But on July 26th, 1987, while [pastoring] downstate, something so enraged this man of peace that he could barely serve his flock. For more than a year after the unprovoked murder of his oldest son, Scott, by a stranger, Everett spent his days inflamed, stunned into livid silence. He withdrew from his wife of thirty years and went through the motions with his other children, a college-age son and daughter. During a sermon or a church supper, he would burst into tears, prompting parishioners to shift in their seats and grouse about ‘getting over it.’ ‘I was just lost and saw no way out of the grief and powerlessness I felt,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t believe that one individual could do so much harm to my family, and though I didn’t stoop to violent thoughts about him, I wanted him punished for a long, long time.’
“Almost a year to the day after his son was killed, Everett attended the sentencing date of the man who had pulled the trigger. It was the first time the pastor had laid eyes on Mike Carlucci, a tattooed biker and lifelong bully who showed up four hours late to the hearing, spending his last morning of bail-bought freedom smoking crack in his father’s basement.
“Though Carlucci was arrested within minutes of the murder, still covered with the dead boy’s blood, he somehow struck a sweetheart deal and would have to serve only five years. Carlucci wasn’t even made to stand in court and account for what he’d done. It wasn’t until the reverend faced him down, describing, in a quietly chilling impact statement, the suffering that the crime inflicted on his loved ones, that the murderer rose, of his own accord, and apologized for his act.
“He didn’t say much beyond ‘I’m sorry,’ and even that was dismissed, in summary fashion, by Everett’s friends in court. But the reverend heard something ring authentic in Carlucci’s gruff remorse. He detected, or thought he did, the stir of penance in a soul that had long since scabbed over.
“Spare though it was, Carlucci’s apology had a profound effect on Everett. His rage and horror leveled off, and for the first time in months his mind cleared. He resolved to write Carlucci a letter, and he sat down to settle matters with the killer. For a full couple of pages, he cited, again, the toll the crime exacted: his marriage in shambles, his children shattered. But having said all that, and weeping as he did so, he closed with the words he’d been weighing for days: ‘I forgive you, Mike.’
marrying the murderer
“Everett mailed the letter and went about his life, shoring up, by force of will, the fledgling peace he’d gained. Three weeks later, Carlucci replied, expressing, in crude diction, his deep regret and his gratitude for Everett’s grace. A correspondence started and visits followed; the unlikeliest of friendships bloomed. In February 1991, Everett went before a parole board to push for Carlucci’s freedom. That June, on the strength of the pastor’s backing, Carlucci was awarded early release after just thirty-five months in jail. This development shocked even those closest to Everett. But almost four years later came the strangest twist of all: With TV cameras whirring in the narrow vestry of a Methodist church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Everett presided over the wedding of Mike and Sandie Carlucci.”
Perhaps we’ve heard words like these: “Be merciful as I am merciful; be holy as I am holy; as you have been forgiven, so you should forgive. If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive.” Like Everett learned, they’re great words until we actually have to live in them. But, living in the words truly transforms us.
learning to live mercy
I think we know that it’s good to be forgiven, but the goal of forgiveness is not getting what God already has for you in Jesus, but learning how to stop being the younger son or the older brother – and instead beginning to act like the Father. We begin to live in the words – mercy, holy, forgive. We learn to live in God’s goodness, mercy, love, and grace in a way that it’s made real in us, through us.
We are transformed. Through Christ, through prayer, we are transformed into the image of God, and it’s more than forgiveness — it’s wholeness; it’s who God intended us to be in the first place.
A text for the Table: Luke 15.11-32.
Photo Credits: “Quotes Black Frame Gold,” “Forgive,” “Karl Vilhelm Meyer’s Forgiveness,” “Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son,” “Frustration,” “Tyndale Bible, The Gospel of John,” and “Veave in Jail” (Creative Commons).
Story Credits: “The Buglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather, “Dear Abby,” and “The Spirit of the Disciplines” from http://www.HomileticsOnline.com. “Forgiving the Murderer” by Paul Solotaroff from www.Archives.UMN.org from http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=5379. This version is shortened from the original article by Paul Solotaroff which appeared in Rolling Stone, June 2004.