“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What a thing to pray! Of all that Christ insists we do as his disciples, forgiveness can be the most challenging. The friend who has betrayed you. The sibling who won’t speak with you. The neighbor who threatened to sue you. The enemy who tried to kill you. Forgiveness is never easy for us; sometimes, it feels impossible. Yet this is the point in the Lord’s Prayer when we ask God to hold us accountable, to hold us to a standard. Not: forgive us our sins. Not: have mercy on us. Forgive us, as we forgive. Give us according to how we give. Use our faithfulness as a measure of your grace, o Lord. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
There was a man with two sons. The younger son says to his father, “I wish you were dead, so I could get on with my life. Give me my inheritance now; I’m tired of waiting for you to die.” And the father gives his young son the inheritance. The son takes it, goes on a trip, and, predictably, squanders away everything he has received. He doesn’t just fall on hard times. He hits rock bottom. Pigs eat better than he does. Pigs have a better chance of survival than he has. The young son doesn’t even have the dignity of serving other people; he waits tables for pigs. He’s trapped, a prisoner of the consequences of his own sin, and he has precious little chance of escaping.
Not all of us hit rock bottom the way this prodigal son does. We believe, as Christians, that all have sinned, that all people stand in need of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. But some of us have had the luxury of living far enough from the consequences of our sin that we don’t even know something’s wrong. We don’t see the slave boy hunched over a sewing machine 8000 miles away, so we’re okay buying the cheap clothes he makes for us. Our air smells fine, our water is clean, our seashore is safe, so we keep driving the gas-guzzlers we love so much. It’s not our child who was just killed, so we happily support insane laws that let us build our stockpiles up as much as possible.
This young son, though, doesn’t have our luxury. He is knee-deep in the consequences of his sin, and even he can see it. He is going to die like this, so he makes a new decision, almost as impulsive as the first: I’ll go back to my father. I’ll go back to him, and I’ll confess. Our relationship is dead: I killed it, and nothing I do can bring it back to life. I can’t live as my father’s son, but I can live in his household, as his servant. It’s what I deserve. It’s more than what I deserve.
Despite the cozy bubbles that keep us safe from the wages of our sin, some of us do manage to repent, sincerely, and invite God’s transforming grace into our lives. Something on the news shakes us up, stirs our hearts. Or a friend shares about her change of heart and opens our eyes to the depths of our sin. Or a brother or a sister in Christ challenges us, confronts us about our behavior, and we dare to listen, we dare to take stock of our lives. There is grace in seeing ourselves as sinners. In Jesus Christ, God’s “yes” to the world God made is also God’s “no” to the way the world is now. The grace of seeing ourselves as sinners, the grace of hearing God’s “no” to some part—or even the whole—of our lives can be the turning point for us, the moment when we finally are open to God’s “yes,” open to the way of life, the way of discipleship, in Jesus Christ.
The son holds out hope to receive a measure of grace, some small tidbit, from the man he calls father. But the father’s love for the son far exceeds the son’s sin, or even his meager repentance. The father has been waiting for this day, waiting for his son’s return from the moment his young son left. He has been waiting, so that when his son is still far off, when the son is still just this side of the horizon, the father sees him, and runs to him. Imagine that! Who knows how long he has been waiting? But his love for his son has never shrunk, not even a little. The son who has hurt him, who has wished him dead—the father waits, anticipates this son’s return. So he can show his love once more.
The father showers his son with love. Not as a servant, but as a child. Not with serious looks and whispered apologies, but with gifts and exclamations and celebrations and feasting. Feasting—for the son who was dead and is alive again, for the child who was lost and now is found.
Forgiveness is a feast, a feast of victory for love, for holiness, for righteousness, a feast of victory for our God. Forgiveness is a feast. Forgiveness is a banquet, an extravagant, over-the-top celebration of fine foods and finer drink, a sumptuous meal like none other. When God forgives us, God runs to us, God embraces us, God catches us up into a celebration. It’s overwhelming, it’s dizzying, it’s amazing—and if you don’t confess your sins, you will never know the insurpassable joy of being forgiven by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The joy of the father for his son in the parable of the prodigal son is the joy of our Father in heaven as he welcomes us back, daughters and sons by adoption in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ. God’s delight is in our return, and it’s an amazing thing. That is how we have been forgiven. That is how we can be forgiven again. That is the measure of God’s forgiveness for us. That is why we confess our sins together each week, so we can know and enjoy the grace of God running to us and meeting us at the Lord’s Supper.
But—there was a man who had two sons. One son wished him dead, took money, ran away—but returned. The other son remained, obedient, hardworking, loyal to his father. He doesn’t want to sit at a table with that other son. He wants to celebrate on his own, with his friends. He’s dismayed by his father’s extravagance—I worked for you! I slaved for you! What have I gotten for my troubles? Not a morsel! How can you ask me to eat with that, that, that—sinner! How can you ask me to do that?
The Pharisees and the scribes want to know the same thing from Jesus. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they complain. Why won’t he spend more time with us?!
And we do the same thing, don’t we? “Oh, I know what she’s been up to! We can’t let her up front!” “And him, when’s the last time he even was in church?! We can’t waste time on people like that.” Or, we have our list: on the one side are the people who are basically like us. Yeah, we’re “sinners,” but we’re not, you know, we’re not that bad off. And on the other side, those other folks—you know, the ones who are just flaunting their sin. The lazy bums! The “homosexuals”! The “liberals,” or the “fundamentalists”! Hey, it’s okay if God wants to show them mercy, of course. Let them fall at God’s throne and beg, and then, sure, God can just, you know, bring them up a little bit. Mercy is okay.
But God’s forgiveness is not just merciful. It’s extravagant. And the more someone has sinned, the more extravagant God’s festival love is for that person. The more someone needs grace, the more God wants to shower on them grace and love and joy beyond all measure! To our great offense sometimes, God’s forgiveness is all-surpassing, all-encompassing, and always joyful, rich, lavish, profligate, unreasonable, and unrestrained. To forgive is to feast.
And so it should be for us, too. We are bound to Christ; we pray to “Our Father in heaven” only in and through Jesus Christ. And so our forgiveness can’t just be a matter of showing mercy, not if we want to know the fullness of the forgiveness of God. Our forgiveness must also be extravagant, extraordinary, excessive. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Feast with us, as we feast with those who have done us wrong. Celebrate with us, as we celebrate with those who have betrayed us. That’s our prayer.
Oh right. Huh. Maybe we do need God’s forgiveness, after all.