Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The turning point in the story is when the prodigal son remembers something: he came to his senses, he came to himself, he remembered who he was. The road to reconciliation and forgiveness lies through remembering. Popular wisdom might encourage us to forgive and forget but we know from experience that forgiveness comes rather through remembering. The 'truth and reconciliation' commissions set up to establish good relations between people who before had been at war with each other operated on this basis. Only by remembering truthfully, by remembering everything that needs to be remembered, can we hope to find reconciliation and a new beginning.
So we must remember our need and our weakness. We must remember that we are indebted to the Father for his forgiveness. We must remember the judgement of our lives in the light of God's truth and love. We must remember the covenants and the law. We must remember the sacrifice of Christ that seals the new and eternal covenant and which he asked us to repeat in memory of Him. If the damaged network of relationships is to be healed and given new life then it needs to be remembered in all its parts and the wounds of each one need to be acknowledged and honoured.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas raises serious questions about forgiveness. Is there not, he says, an acceptance of injustice inherent in the concept of forgiveness? Is it not inhuman to try to set limits to a person's need for forgiveness, to set the boundaries within which forgiveness must be given? When we remember what it is that has been suffered by some victims of injustice, how can we dare to think that we have the resources to undo that injustice, to remove that victimisation, to create a situation where what people have suffered no longer matters.
These are powerful and pertinent questions. They oblige us to think again about what it means for one person to say to another 'I forgive you for what you did to me'. It is a very different matter, more complicated, where a person or group apologises, seeks forgiveness, on behalf of a third party: 'I forgive you for what you did to them' (my family, my ancestors), 'I apologise for what they did to you' (my ancestors to your ancestors). How can anybody ever feel able to say such a thing?
In the Christian understanding, as Paul says in today's second reading, forgiveness and reconciliation are only possible if there is a 'new creation'. Paul would have understood Levinas's questions, and as a zealous Pharisee would have seen - and shared - the problems he raises. How is the righteousness of God to be defended? How can the broken order of justice ever be mended? What is the cost of forgiveness? Is there any 'rate of exchange', any currency, in which forgiveness can be given?
The sinless one is made to be sin so that those who are sinful might become the righteousness of God. This is Paul's account of the exchange, the currency in which the new creation is established. It gives the basis in truth for Alexander Pope's comment that 'to forgive is divine'. If it involves a new creation then it can only be from God because only God can create. To claim such a possibility for ourselves would be blasphemous. So we can only think of forgiveness if we stand with others before God, stand on a ground of equality with them and have the courage to look at our offences against them.
Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who perished in Auschwitz, has left a remarkable diary of her spiritual journey in the last years of her life. On this topic she says the following: 'Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate'. Christians believe that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself. In other words God was giving in himself all the space and shelter due to the world's sorrow. We believe that Jesus, the Christ, bore this grief of the world honestly and courageously. Although it might seem that the sorrow that fills the world has not abated, we believe that in Him it has found its way to the heart of God, the only place from which truth and reconciliation can arise.