When it comes to being forgiven, maybe you think you’re exempt because you believe there isn’t very much that you need to be forgiven for. If that describes you, you are probably a fairly unloving person. In Luke 7:47 Jesus says that “he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Often this is a character trait of people like me who grew up in the church. In many people’s eyes (and especially in our own eyes) we’ve lived “better” lives than the rest of you. After all, there are a lot of bad things that we haven’t done.
But this perception is simply NOT TRUE. In reality, we’ve just sinned in less visible ways. We are like the older brother, the “good son” in the Prodigal Son story.
You know the story… the prodigal, the younger brother leaves home in disobedience, blows all his money, and sins in every way he can imagine. The “good son” – the older brother – stays at home and obeys his father, is wise with his money, and has high moral standards. And yet in the end its the younger brother who knows he deserves nothing and begs for mercy. The older brother believes his father owes him for his good behavior.
Many of us who grew up in the church think like the older brother:
1. We think highly of ourselves
We think this on the basis of all the bad things we haven’t done. We haven’t pursued wild living, we haven’t done drugs, we haven’t slept around, we didn’t end up broke in the gutter… so we’re “better”.
2. Others think highly of us
We have a “good reputation”. We think of ourselves and are thought of by others as “good people” who do very little wrong and must be on “good terms” with God. Appearance is more important to us than reality or authenticity.
3. We love to have people in our debt
We love to make them feel – and let them know – that they owe us something. If they’ve been out there living it up and we’ve been stuck in our bubble of safety all this time, they better work awfully hard in our presence to win back our favor! This also draws attention away from our own flaws. Our flaws, like the older brother’s are usually less visible, but from God’s perspective they are no less ugly.
4. We are likely to be punitive
We often believe the lie that we’re better. We believe that other people have done bad things and should beg for our forgiveness for the rest of their lives. Those who have wronged us need to pay for what they’ve done! They need to work their way up to our status level.
5. We’re likely to be ungracious
When someone wrongs us and asks for our forgiveness, we like to hold it over them for just a little bit longer. We’re don’t act like the father of the prodigal; we’re not out there looking for them, looking down the road to see if they’re coming, waiting with anticipation.
Do you see yourself in this description? I see myself.
As a result, our relationships are often characterized by the making of accusations and holding people to a standard of perfection that we ourselves only appear to meet. We must maintain our higher standard, protect our reputation… and so we are often ungracious and punitive.
Instead, our relationships should look like this. In the words of Thomas Oden:
“Where forgiveness pervades a relationship, it is no longer dominated by aggressive charges, counterclaims, and legalistic attempts to recover damages… The Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that we are bound to share with others the forgiveness we have received from God.”
So, “good sons” and “older brothers,” recognize that you too have been forgiven much. Now, go and love much. Share with others what you have received from God.