One of the things that the so-called ‘Parable of the Two Sons’ teaches us is that as far as God is concerned, repentance is not principally about the admission of guilt or the acknowledgement of fault but rather is first and foremost about the confession of death. Another thing that the parable announces is that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is subsequent to forgiveness. Confession is not a transaction. Confession is not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Confession is, as Robert Farrar Capon avers in The Parables of Grace, ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have … The sheer brilliance of the retention of infant baptism by a large portion of the church catholic is manifest most of all in the fact that babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that they have it … And our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins remains the lifelong sacrament, the premier sign of that fact. No subsequent forgiveness – no eucharist, no confession – is ever anything more than an additional sign of what baptism sacramentalizes … We may be unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but the God who does it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind’ (pp. 140–1).
Recently, I participated in a group reading of Luke’s account of Jesus’ death. I was struck by the change in tone and of heart of the second criminal crucified with Jesus. One moment, he was with the crowds in their hurls of abuse; the next he was questioning the justice associated with his own death and asking Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom.
What brought about this incredible change in the criminal? I wondered if it might be simply the first word that Jesus spoke in the interim – the word ‘Father’, and the fact that in that simple address this man was given a glimpse into the deepest truth of all reality.
Perhaps like many prisoners, this man too had a lousy relationship with his earthly father. Perhaps like all of us, to hear (i.e., to really hear, and so to be overcome by the crisis that comes in that hearing) that we are forgiven even though we don’t know what we are doing cuts right through all our defenses. (So PT Forsyth: ‘The greatest, last, humanest, passion is the passion to be forgiven’). Perhaps we will never know. And perhaps that doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is the transformation experienced in this briefest of exchanges. A wee poem attempts to capture something of this transformation:
Change of Address
The mob, by this time, was blood-crazed,
choler coupled with the shame of betraying ‘innocent blood’,
tempestuous with fury against a God way too human.
And two brigands – one on his right and one on his left –
were also there, their antisocial terror
flaring into blasphemous howls.
They joined the rest – sibilating the fruit of irrational rage:
‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’. But a night in
the garden had closed that possibility.
And now, lifted up on the mob’s violent altar,
amid swells of vengeance fueled by power’s lusts
a prayer: ‘Father, forgive them …’.
Abruptly, and with all the violence of a different nature
one neighbour fell silent. His ire ended;
his soft confession birthed.
Could it be that something in that cry – ‘Father’ –
untwisted his tangled self,
broke open the truth of all things?
Where am I?© Jason A. Goroncy 17 November 2010
‘God is not only a Father, He is the Father, whose restored love is to be the joy of the child’s heart …The Father includes in His Fatherhood and its manifestations, all that is needful to satisfy every need, instinct, sympathy, judgment, conviction, of the child’s nature; while He must equally reconcile Himself, in the wholeness of His nature, to the child. It is no casual yearning of a Father’s spirit, which may find a passing expression; it is the complete Fatherly nature, in the justice, righteousness, holiness, sacredness, of its love, which has to manifest itself to the world. Therefore it is by the Atonement that it declares itself’. – James Baldwin Brown, The Divine Life in Man (London: Ward & Co., 1859), 50.
‘In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, fond themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).’ – Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV,4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 80.
Only one Father, in all the universe,
In all time and in the whole creation.
He is above all, through all,
And in it all, not only as Creation’s force and power,
But as its Initiator in love, the Father of love
Whose Fatherhood must never be denied,
For pain of denial is the deepest pain
Man’s spirit knows, can ever know.
(Geoffrey Bingham, O Father, our Father, p. xiii)
One of the books that I’m currently re-reading is Tom Smail’s, The Forgotten Father. I’d forgotten how remarkable this book is as it seeks to bring us to the heart of the Gospel in the Fatherhood of God. As Forsyth noted, we cannot put too much into that word ‘Father’ though we can, and do, certainly put too little into it. Smail begins his chapter on ‘The Father, the Son and the Cross’ by reminding us that it takes the Trinity to make sense of the atonement, and he ends the chapter by reminding us that it takes the Father to make sense of our humanity.
Here’s a quote: ‘To be a Christian is to believe that it is the Father who defines our identity and is to be believed against all inner and outer accusations to the contrary when he says to us, “This son of mine”. To know that is not to skulk in the back pew; it is to come forward with confidence to receive the inheritance. The robe which is the garment of sonship is accompanied by the ring which is the insignia of authority and the sandals that distinguish the free man from the slave. The son who comes home is invited back into his lost inheritance, to delight again in his father’s company and goodness and to rejoice.’ Thomas A. Smail, The Forgotten Father (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), 129.