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Two weeks ago, we started this “Reorder” series, and I kicked off by speaking about reconciliation. And in it somehow in the middle of it and off-the-cuff moment, I said that I would talk about forgiveness too and after the service I went I think I just dug myself a hole because I did not plan to preach about forgiveness. But I think that it is very important that we talk about both reconciliation and forgiveness because they come together as two aspects of making something broken whole again. We cannot have reconciliation without forgiveness.
Which is your favourite story of forgiveness in the Bible?[Reply from congregation] Joseph forgiving his twelve brothers for selling him as a slave to the Egyptians. Any other story of forgiveness that you particularly liked or particularly moved you? [Reply from congregation] Peter. Peter asking for forgiveness from Jesus after denying him three times. Any other story of forgiveness that spring to your mind? [Reply from congregation] The woman who was brought to be stoned. The adulteress, the so-called adulteress, where is the adulterer often we ask.
There are so many stories of forgiveness in the Bible and one that stands out for me, my favourite is the story of the prodigal son. And it has echoed again and again in my life and I think in the life of FCC we have approached this story many times, many perspectives.
This is Rembrandt’s painting hanging in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg and I have the fortune of seeing it not once but twice. The first time I saw it was when I was a student exchange in Finland and along with my other exchange friends. I was studying in Mikkeli, closer to the Russia border than to Helsinki, which is the capital of Finland. So the few of us took the bus, not few, 16 of us, Americans, Germans, French, Singaporean, Austrians, Italians – the whole bunch of us, made our way to St Petersburg.
It was a very different city back then before the wall came tumbling down and it was still Soviet Union. We went to the Hermitage. We rushed through the paintings my French and Italian friends were arguing about who were the masters of their craft and I was the poor Singaporean being pulled to see the Italian masters then brought over to see the French masters and trying to be courteous to both and I was torn between two sets of very good friends being very nationalistic. I didn’t get to see Rembrandt for very long, I just walked right past it. It was just “Oh” and then next painting. There were so many paintings in the Hermitage, so many art pieces that I just went “Oh”. The ones that I really wanted to see was Da Vinci’s two paintings. I ignored the Rembrandt.
Then fast forward a few years in FCC, we did a Bible study on the book by Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son. And that was when I read about Nouwen’s reflection on the painting and I thought, “I walked right past it.”
Then fast forward to a couple of more years when I was in seminary, we were required to take a class on Art and Religion and I was required to sit in front of a painting for an hour 9 any painting. We were to go to the art gallery and choose a painting and sit down for an hour, and I went “You are kidding me.” I cannot sit down in front of a painting for an hour – I am the restless kind. Even watching a movie and if the movie is too slow I might just fidget and I might just get distracted.
But that class taught me how to meditate on and have a conversation with paintings. So in 2011, more than ten years after my first visit to Hermitage, because the tickets were so cheap because of the economic downturn, the tickets to Russia was cheaper than flying back to Singapore. So I flew via Russia and took the Tran-Siberian train to Beijing and then I came back. But I went to the Hermitage again. And this time, I couldn’t afford an hour but I sat for half-an-hour with this painting.
And I want to invite you to – for those at the back I am sorry the screen might be too small – I want to invite you to look at the painting, observe and pay attention to what draws out to you, what calls out to you, what draws you into the picture to the story… no, I am not going to ask you to do that for an hour. Pay attention. Notice the details.
What do you notice? There’re some details quite interesting about this painting but what do you notice? What stands out to you? [Reply from congregation] The light is coming from one side of the painting, from the father’s side and then it gets darker.
This picture is heavily corrected, when you go Photoshop and you adjust the contrast so you can see the details, the actual painting is a lot darker. Some of the figures at the back you can’t even make out because it is so dark.
Any other things that you notice? Some funny details? [Reply from congregation] The father and son is not in the centre of the painting. That’s interesting. The prodigal son has only one shoe.
Earlier this year I have preached about it, for those of you who remember – I grabbed a book lying around church as reading material just as Pauline and I left church for the airport to head to India for the conference organised by the National Council of Churches in India.
I thought it would be good to have some reading material and that book was The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller –it was lying around in church next to the two computers, I thought it would be interesting to read a book by an Evangelical author who do not share my opinions on LGBTQ issues. I wanted to read and see what he thinks about certain things and so I just grabbed it and I was in for a surprise! I loved the book.
There are many things that he talked about and one of the key things he says is, he thinks this parable is less about the younger son and more about the older son. In the parable, we know what the end of the story for the younger son. He returns and is forgiven, embraced, accepted and given back his place in the family.
What we don’t know is how the older sibling reacts. The older brother was angry. The older brother went up to the father and go “No, this son of yours ran off and I stayed. And I didn’t get anything. He comes back and he gets a fatted calf slaughtered and celebrate his return.”
Timothy Keller said that this is the point. We do not know how the older brother reacts at the end of the day. Whether the older brother realizes what the father is doing, whether the older brother accepts the younger brother back is still unanswered. That part of the story is not finished. And when stories are not finished they are often trying to tell us something. Jesus is trying to tell us something through this story about what we should be doing or what we should be thinking about. That part of the story about the younger sibling is ended. But the older sibling, angry, frustrated, pissed off, jealous, his story is unfinished.
This parable resonates with so many of us. Because often we identify as the younger sibling, the wayward child, the one who has done something wrong because really we have all done something wrong in our lives and we like to be identify as the hero of the story and we like to feel good and feel the love and the mercy and the forgiveness.
But we often forget to put ourselves in the shoe of the older sibling. Nouwen reflected on the painting and writing into a book the Return of the Prodigal, he placed himself in the different characters in the painting. He meditated on each of the characters. Whether it’s the figure at the back – probably a servant – looking on what is happening. The embracing father, who is tired or weary maybe from all that running to meet and greet his son who has returned. The son, the younger son who has fallen into not very good times, missing one shoe wearing tattered clothes. And the older brother looking on and a little bit miffed to say the least – not exactly very happy his brother returned.
Nouwen invited us to look at all the details. The gentle hands of the father on the back of the younger son, the missing shoe and notice the difference between the father’s hand and the older sibling’s hand. The father’s hands are open, embracing. The older brother has his hands clasped, closed.
So, today I want to talk about the prodigal in some way. We going to talk about forgiveness. But the first thing is, I am not going to talk about the situation where we are the injured party and someone, the person who has hurt us comes and ask us for forgiveness and reconcile. That is pretty straightforward.
Oftentimes, when someone comes to apologize after a period of time – not immediately – we reach a space where we can forgive, we can let go. We can very easily put ourselves in the shoes of the father here, forgiving. That situation is not what I want to dwell on.
I want to dwell on the situation where we are like the older sibling. We are also hurt in the process. But that person never really comes to apologize to us. Do you all know why the older sibling is hurt?
If you do not know the whole parable, the younger sibling, the younger brother asked for his part of his inheritance and ran off and squandered it away. Now he comes back, squandered his part of the inheritance, so the family wealth has been taken away and now he is back. And if you read the parable, the father actually gives him a ring and a cloak and basically restores him back into his position. But basically, whatever he is giving to the younger brother is actually from the older brother’s share. He is definitely aggrieved in some way, “You’ve taken your share and now you are eating into mine.” He is hurt. He is angry. Which is why he said, “You killed the fatted calf for him when he returns but you never even give me a goat to party with my friends.” He is jealous and he is also very clear that this is his inheritance especially when he is the older sibling.
What happens when someone hurts us? Someone offends us. When someone has done something wrong against us. I want to make a difference between hurt and suffering. Because hurt is what you feel almost immediately and for a period of time after this person injures you. It might be physical like someone slapped you and the pain goes on for a while and then it fades away. It might be something that last longer that someone has hurt you emotionally and it last for quite a while until it reach a point where you heal – not really forget but you heal. You heal from that hurt.
But there is a difference between hurting and suffering. Suffering is when you still hold on to that pain, you are still unforgiving and you allow that wound to fester and not heal. You keep picking at the scab. We keep doing that… itchy and we scratch and then it bleeds all over again and then it will take longer to heal again.
And we continue to suffer as long as we hold on with unforgiving heart. And this is what I have been struggling with for quite a long period of time and those of you who know me in my younger days will know that I was quite an angry person. One of the things that I struggled with in seminary was dealing with anger.
The Bible does not really have a lot of resources dealing with anger. I found that the book “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” written by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, really helpful.
He said that anger or when someone injures or hurts you is like someone setting your house on fire. He then ask the question, “Do you run after the person who set your house on fire or you put the fire out?” and that is anger. Do you run after the person who set your house on fire to punish the person, to catch the person, to somehow make that person pay for it or do you put the fire out? Unforgiveness is not dealing with the fire but running after the person who set your house on fire.
Years ago, on my trip back to the US, to visit friends, to attend conferences, I spent some time with my crazy and wise friend from seminary Paul Arensmeyer. I was one plus years into my ministry here in FCC, still new, still wet behind the ears, still not really there yet, and not like I am there or here already but I was still not exactly Mr. Patient and anger was still something that flares up. It appears less frequently now but back then it appeared quite frequently and I related an incident to Paul about what happened in church. And I talked the whole story and I was still quite angry, venting my frustration and anger and then telling him that.
Paul was very patient. He listened till I finished the story and then he asked me, “Why are you still carrying it with you? Why are you still carrying it with you across the ocean here? Why have you not let go?” I just looked at him dumbfounded, wanted to yell at him like I am so angry but he spoke with such profound wisdom. Because I was still holding on to it I was allowing it to continue burning. I was still allowing that one incident to cause me suffering because I have not forgiven, I have not let go.
I am not saying that you have to forgive immediately. That is not real forgiveness. I think that it takes us time to deal with what happens and struggle and wrestle to reach the point of forgiveness. Healing takes time. Forgiveness takes time. But what happens is if we allow it to fester, to stew, we allow it to continue to burn, it will become resentment and it will make us bitter.
We often ask the question then, “What if that person don’t apologize?” just like the older brother standing there, “he is apologizing to father but he didn’t say sorry to me, why should I forgive him?”
But even when we do that, we are allowing ourselves to continue suffering from that injury, from that hurt. We are allowing our resentment to eat us up from the inside.
To let go, we must first realize anger is a secondary emotion. It is not the primary emotion. Why are we angry? What is the primary thing that causes our anger? Is it betrayal? A sense that you have been betrayed? Is it a sense of disappointment? Or what is it? Or is it because you trusted someone and something was broken because of that? Hurt? Anger is a secondary emotion. It masks what is real because often, and this happens often in our society, anger seems to be a very valid emotion to feel.
And for many men, that is the only emotion you are allowed to feel. So you cover up sadness, you cover up grief, you cover up betrayal, you cover up disappointment with anger.
You can imagine, I can imagine, how my dad reacts to disappointment and my mom reacts to disappointment and then I get the answer. Anger is a secondary emotion.
Then we need to learn how to deal with the anger, the primary emotion, the source of that anger. Because you can’t put out the fire, you can’t really fight the fire without finding out what caused the fire. Ask yourself, “Why are you angry?” You feel betrayed. Why do you feel betrayed? What was broken? What is the thing that you need to deal with to find that healing, to find that reconciliation?
And even if that person does not apologize doesn’t mean that we cannot let go. So, two weeks ago I said sometimes reconciliation is like this, you have done somebody wrong, you have wronged somebody or hurt somebody and years later, you reach a point of realization that you have done something wrong and you have mustered enough courage and humility to ask the person out and apologize.
And when you apologize, that person goes, “Oh, I am over that already some time ago.” They have worked through letting go and not allow that resentment and anger to continue affecting them and yet the person who is carrying the baggage all this while is me. The person who has injured the other party, namely me, was carrying that guilt all this while.
There is another aspect of anger that I want to bring up. I love this that Jesus said,
3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye. (Matt 7:3-5)
While often people read this as hypocrisy, I read this as talking about mirrors. You see, we are the best people to point out other people’s fault and those faults are actually those we have ourselves. We notice the faults that we ourselves have. The faults that we don’t have we normally don’t pay attention to it.
If you are obsessing, for example about the pimple on your face today, you will be walking around the whole day noticing pimples on other people’s faces because that is what you are drawn to. This is a very superficial example but I hope you get what I mean.
The faults that we have ourselves, the things that we struggle with most are the things we will notice in other people most. I realized that all the time. I get angry with people for the things I am most guilty of. And I think that is what Jesus is trying to say. You are noticing the speck in your neighbour’s eye and not noticing the log in your eye or in some translations, the plank in your eye, because by pointing out other people’s faults, we are blinding ourselves to our own. It is easy to accuse somebody else of wrong doing and then hide behind that. It is easy to get angry and hide behind that anger without dealing with our own shortcomings, our own faults. And this brings me back to the older brother because it is related.
The passage goes, about the older brother,
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
We do not know how the brother reacted to that, whether the brother went “Yay! My brother’s back and let’s go celebrate!” or he continue sulking, being angry carrying on holding that resentment at his younger brother and his father. We don’t know.
But one thing that I noticed is this, when Jesus said how can you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye without noticing the log in your own eye. The older brother, actually also want the same thing as the younger brother. He would love to get his share of the inheritance and run off and squander it away. Just that he didn’t. But in his heart, he desires to party, he has always had that in mind as he blurts it out now saying that he really desires his father to give him a young goat to be slaughtered so that he can party with his friends. He desires that. It just came out of his mouth. He is angry because he is trying to cover up his own faults by pushing it all onto the younger brother.
He is wrestling with himself. He is obedient not because he loves the father but he wants something out of it. And when he realizes that “this brother of mine never does anything and he gets his inheritance then has my effort gone to waste? What have these years of being obedient working like a slave for my father resulted in, when my brother didn’t do any of that?” This is the kind of resentment and anger that is actually about our own faults more than the fault of the other person. We react to that. We notice what that person has done wrong but that is something we have done ourselves. Maybe we are not aware enough to notice that. Or we are not able to embrace that truth that we too are culpable. We too are guilty. We too have something to work out.
So his hands are clasped and closed. We need to realize other people’s faults are mirrors that allow us to reflect on ourselves and allow us to think about “Is this something that I have to change about myself as well?”
Forgiveness is as much acknowledgement of our flaws as acknowledgement of the other person’s flaws. We are all not perfect. We need to take those opportunities to reflect and to grow and to change.
And then we come to forgiveness and mercy and grace. This is one verse that very few people talk about when I say your favourite verse about forgiveness that is the parable of the unforgiving servant because it demands something of us in some way. Let me read it to you and this is the first part, from Matthew Chapter 18,
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[g] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[h] times.
And Jesus continue to tell this parable.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[i] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[j] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[k] from your heart.”
It is not a parable that one will quote as a favourite because there is a threat at the end of the parable. Not my favourite for sure. But one thing that leapt at me, that jumped up almost like Lectio Divina was these three words, “From your heart. If you do not forgive your brother or sister or sibling from your heart.”
What does forgiving from your heart mean?
We need to understand what mercy and grace means if we are to forgive from our heart. This week’s lectionary passage, one of the lectionary passage is from Leviticus 19 and the interesting thing is, and I should not read you the whole because its Lev 19:1-2 and 15-18. I will just read to you verse 17 and 18.
“You shall not hate in your heart any of your kin. You shall reprove your neighbour or you will incur guilt yourself.” Verse 18 and that is the important one. “You shall not seek vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people but you shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am the LORD.”
What jumped out at me was that it paired together, not seeking vengeance, not bearing a grudge with loving your neighbour. I read to you again that verse, verse 18,
“You shall not seek vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people but you shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am the LORD.”
So, to love your neighbour as yourself is not to bear a grudge or seek vengeance. The two are paired together, how we understand that. Because often we tell you, love your neighbour as yourself, we don’t know how.
Think about that and think about what does mercy and grace means. It means not bearing a grudge, it means not keeping score. Peter ask Jesus how many times must you forgive. Peter says 7 times? And Jesus says no, 77 times.
Have you tried keeping score when you play tennis, basketball, soccer or any game or even board games? Have you tried keeping score? Easy to keep to 7 right? You can count in your head. But to keep to 77 is quite a struggle.
I swim laps in a pool. I lose count when I am at 14. Am I at the 14th lap or 16th or 12th lap? I lose count. What Jesus was telling Peter was not “Ok, you need to forgive up to 77 times” but rather telling Peter – don’t keep score. Don’t bear a grudge. It is not that you mark down every time someone offends you, you mark down 1, 2, 3, 4, and then on the 77th time this is the last time I am ever going to forgive you. No, the meaning of counting to 77 is don’t keep a score. You will lose count and I hope that you do. I lose count at 14 so at 77, I am sure to lose count.
This is the struggle we continue to have – not keeping score and letting go. Letting go so that we are no longer resentful. Letting go so we are no longer angry. Letting go through forgiveness.
This is from the return of the prodigal, one of the nice summaries of the book and I am quoting from Henri Nouwen,
Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.’ God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing me…[Miak: Interject. Just like the slave was forgiven his debts, he was called to forgive those who are indebted to him]
What I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir.[Miak: And I also want to its not just son, its children. It doesn’t just apply to men. Very patriarchal language]
No one says it more clearly than Paul when he writes: ‘The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.’ Indeed, as son and heir I am to become successor. I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father ~ Henri Nouwen
The challenge to the older sibling is to become just like the father to embrace the younger sibling who has return. The challenge to the younger sibling is to also to step into the place of the father to embrace others who might have injured him. Those who had cheated him of his money and his inheritance away, maybe he squandered it away, maybe he was cheated or led astray by people. It is to become as compassionate as God.
Then Timothy Keller says in the book, The Prodigal God,
“Over the years many readers have drawn the superficial conclusion that the restoration of the younger brother involved no atonement, no cost. They point out that the younger son wanted to make restitution but the father won’t let him – his acceptance back into the family was simply free. This, they say, shows that forgiveness and love should always be free and unconditional.
That is an over simplification. If someone breaks your lamp, or anything that you own, you could demand that he/she pays for it. The alternative is that you could forgive him/her and pay for it yourself but you have to pay for it, someone will have to pay for it.
Imagine a graver situation, namely that someone has seriously damaged your reputation. Again, you have two options. You could make him pay for this by going to others, criticising and ruining his good name as a way to restore your own. So this person said something nasty about you that tarred your reputation. So the first way is to go and tell other people this person is not trustworthy, this person is a scum bag, you should not believe this person so that you ruin the name, and you criticize him so that you will restore your own.”
The other way, Timothy Keller writes is,
“Or you could forgive him, taking on the more difficult task of setting the record straight without vilifying him, without slandering him, without criticizing him. The forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but it is costly to you. Forgiveness costs. It costs us something. It costs the injured party something that is a lost in some way.”
The older brother lost part of his inheritance, at least the cloak and the gold ring which I think is pretty a lot. But when we forgive it also cost us something. We have been hurt, we have been maligned. We may have lost something valuable to us. It cost us to let go, to forgive. But that is what mercy and forgiveness is.
Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, it isn’t grace. Forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
I wonder when I was reading this, and I was reflecting. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit forgiveness, then it isn’t mercy. So, does the wrongdoer have to apologize? If the wrongdoer apologizes and we forgive then it isn’t mercy? Or is it transactional and not really true grace? I don’t know the answer. I still wrestle over the answer. I am leaning towards thinking that mercy and grace is given without the wrongdoer having to do anything.
Well, some people might reflect, the wrongdoer as in this case the younger sibling had to return, that is something he had to do… it something to think about. I want to invite you to think about now, someone whom you might need to forgive. Some resentment, some ill-feeling, something bitter that has been residing in you I don’t know for how long. It could be weeks, months, years, and even decades. Someone that you are holding on some resentment. And I want you to think about how you can forgive and is it time to let go.[ Reflection ]
Like what my friend Paul said, “Why are you still carrying it with you?”
I want to close this with one final point and I think that this might be the most important point. Love your neighbour as yourself; if you don’t love yourself, how do you love your neighbour?
Very often there is only one person in the whole universe that has not forgiven you for the wrongdoing that you have done. Very often, the person you have hurt, the person you have injured, the person you have wronged has already forgiven you. God has already forgiven you. Everybody has already forgiven you – except you. And that is what you carry. And because you are not able to forgive yourself for what you had done, you are not able to forgive other people for what they do to you.
That has been my journey to reach a point of forgiving myself and it is in forgiving myself that I learned how to let go and how to forgive others. You have already been forgiven. Let go.