Rev. Canon Patrick Augustine delivers sermon on ”Forgiveness” on Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2010


We just sang Frederick Faber’s Hymn:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.
This hymn speaks of “welcome for the sinner” and “graces for the good.” It speaks of “plentiful redemption” and “the sweetness of the Lord.” There are two more stanzas which are not included in the hymnal that say:
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Such a vision of the vastness and depth of the love, grace, and compassion of God lies behind Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable points to God’s deepest desire for all of God’s children and the whole of God’s creation.[1]
In chapter fifteen Jesus was reaching out to the people who were on the periphery and were labeled “no good for God.” This chapter begins with these words:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).
In response to the criticism of the religious leaders Jesus told three parables:
The Parable of the lost sheep (vv. 4-7)
The Parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10)
The Parable of the two lost Sons (vv. 11-32).
Through these parables Jesus revealed God as a caring and loving God who values and seeks to forgive all.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son, commits ultimate disrespect to his father. In the Middle Eastern culture sons were required to work on the family farm, and abandoning agricultural work brought loss of respect for the individual. Also, disrespect toward parents (especially fathers) or failure to care for parents was condemned. According to Deuteronomy 21: 18-21, rebellious sons were to be stoned. From an Old Testament perspective the prodigal son is guilty of violating the command to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:12).
In this parable the younger son commits a gross insult to the father by demanding his inheritance before his father’s death, and is even seen as wishing death to his father. Surprisingly, the father does not exercise his patriarchal authority, but gives him his share of the family’s land holdings. The boy then sells the land and leaves home to spend the money to support his disgraceful lifestyle. Jesus tells that “there he squandered his property in dissolute living” (v.13). After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country, and he found no choice but to pick up a job sloping pigs. Taking care of pigs was viewed with disdain, and Jews were prohibited to raise swine as the Old Testament labels them unclean, to be neither eaten nor touched. The Mishnah states explicitly “None may rear swine anywhere” (m.Baba Qamma 7.7), to which Talmud adds “cursed be the man who would breed swine and cursed be the man who would teach his son Grecian wisdom” (b.Baba Qamma 82b).
He is reduced to living on the edge of starvation eating pods for animals, a food of desperation for humans. He is living a nightmare when he was meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, “You are not meant for this.” So, he decides to go home. On the way he is rehearsing his lines to say to his father:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of our hired hands” (vv. 18-20).
He is walking with his head down and in his heart he is braced for humiliation. However, as he comes over the hill in sight of his hometown, his father runs to greet him with open arms. We know in the Middle Eastern culture respected older men avoided running because it was undignified behavior and shameful to show one’s legs. Father knows how other members of his family will look at the prodigal son and would not welcome him back in their village. He goes out openly to show that he has forgiven his son and is ready to restore his status again to be one of his heirs. He orders his hired help to bathe the smelly son, dress him with best silk robe, gold ring on his finger, open the best aged wine, and get the fire ready for the roast and put shoes on his feet. (Note)[2] Being without shoes was a mark of degradation (or mourning). Putting shoes on someone else is the work of a slave and acknowledges the other person as one’s master. Slaughtering of a fatted calf was only done on festive occasions. All of this underscores the elation of the father at his son’s return.
This act of returning home in theological language is known as an act of repentance. This son acknowledges his own wrongdoings. To his surprise he finds his father non judgmental, generous, and warm with open arms to welcome him back into his home. This is where he belongs, not in a foreign land, slopping the swine, and smelling like pigs.
This is a unique message which only can come from the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus talked about the great need of people to forgive others. He made it very plain that when we are unable or unwilling to forgive we cut ourselves off from the very life of God. The older brother thought the old man had lost his mind, and I am sure the rest of that village thought the same. They were shocked to discover that the father not only is forgiving his son but actually throwing a big party to celebrate his homecoming. The writing was on the wall in big letters: HE IS FORGIVEN. PLEASE PASS NO JUDGMENTS. IT IS A MOMENT OF GRACE. COME CELEBRATE WITH ME.
Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions is that God’s love is free and prodigals have a home. In Jesus own words, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” In one of his last acts before death, Jesus forgave a thief hanging next to him on a cross, knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear. That thief would never study the Bible, never attend church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said, “Jesus, remember me,” and Jesus promised, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This is another shocking reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.[3] I pray by the grace of God we may increasingly become truly a forgiving, loving and accepting Christian community.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.

Resources used to prepare and quoted directly from:
The Hymnal 1982
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown, Feasting on the Word
Philip Yancy, What’s so Amazing About Grace
Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent
[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, Pp.117,119.
[2] On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.(Isaiah 25:6)
[3] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Zondervan, 1997, p.55.

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