NT Wright on Forgiveness

27 May

I love this passage from NT Wright from his book The Lord and His Prayer . . . 

“One of the most vivid images in the whole New Testament is that of a man running.
These days, people of all sorts run to keep fit. Even presidents and politicians have been known to don jogging suits, and even to be photographed taking exercise. But in Jesus’ world, the more senior you were in a community, the less likely you were even to walk fast. It shows a lack of dignity, of gravitas.
So when Jesus told a story about a man running, this was designed to have the same effect on his audience as we would experience if, say, the Prime Minister were to show up for the state opening of Parliament wearing a bathing costume. It’s a total loss of dignity.
And when we discover why this man is running, the effect is even more shocking. This man is running to greet someone: someone who has put a curse on him, who has brought disgrace on the whole family. We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), but it might equally be called the Parable of the Running Father.
And only when we understand why this man is running will we really understand what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We need shocking stories like the Running Father, because our generation has either forgotten about forgiveness or trivialized it. Once you replace morality with the philosophy that says ‘if it feels good, do it’, there isn’t anything to forgive; if you still feel hurt by something, our culture suggests that you should simply retreat into your private world and pretend it didn’t happen. In that sort of world, I don’t need God to forgive me, and I don’t need to forgive anybody else, either. Or, if people do still think about forgiveness, they seldom get beyond the small-scale private forgiveness of small-scale private sins. They hope God will forgive their peccadillos, and they try at least to smile benignly on their neighbours’ follies.
Instead of genuine forgiveness, our generation has been taught the vague notion of ‘tolerance’. This is, at best, a low-grade parody of forgiveness. At worst, it’s a way of sweeping the real issues in human life under the carpet. If the Father in the story had intended merely to tolerate the son, he would not have been running down the road to meet him. Forgiveness is richer and higher and harder and more shocking than we usually think. Jesus’ message offers the genuine article, and insists that we should accept no man-made substitutes.
So what was Jesus getting at, not only with that story but with the work he was doing, which the story was explaining? And how can we turn that story, and the reality to which it points, into prayer, as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us?
We have already seen that Jesus was announcing God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule. God was at last liberating Israel from her slavery and thus setting the whole world back to rights. What his contemporaries wanted, politically, socially, culturally and economically, was the end of oppression and exile. But they never thought that those were the deepest things at stake. Oppression and exile, according to all the prophets, had come about because of Israel’s sin. So, if Israel was set free from oppression and exile, that event of liberation would be, quite simply, the forgiveness of sins. People in prison will, no doubt, want forgiveness at all sorts of levels; but if the Home Secretary were to run down the road to open the prison gate and let them out (now there’s a shocking idea), they would know in no uncertain terms that they had been thoroughly pardoned, forgiven.
This comes out clearly in the gospel accounts of John the Baptist. He was offering ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ This wasn’t just to enable individuals suffering from bad consciences to seek relief. To go through the Jordan was to re-enact the Exodus. John’s action suggests that this was how Israel’s God was redeeming his people. John was heralding the real return from exile, ‘the Forgiveness of Sins’ in that sense. He was getting the people ready for the arrival of her God. And Jesus told a story in which that arrival looked like a man running down the road to greet his disgraced son.”
Wright, T. (1996). The Lord and His Prayer (pp. 49–52). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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