We live in an unforgiving society. We imprison a higher proportion of our population than any other country in Western Europe. Our prison system is geared more towards containment and punishment of offenders than towards education and rehabilitation, which is probably why re-offending rates are also high. Public opinion, led by the tabloid media, demonizes offenders. Public figures whose private lives are marked by human weakness are pilloried in the media and those who are perceived to fail in their public duties are hounded from office. The response to any disaster or scandal is the grotesque demand that ‘heads must roll’.
Yet Pope Francis, who has clearly made mistakes in the past, is hailed both within and beyond the Church. He preaches an attractive message of simplicity, honesty and solidarity with the poor. He also preaches the gospel of forgiveness, but that does not attract the same positive headlines.
When Jesus is challenged about keeping company with sinners, he doesn’t deny or apologise for that attitude. Instead he tells three stories that make it crystal clear that he is only being like his Father, whose approach to those who are lost in sin is not to condemn or punish them, but to seek them out and welcome them back.
God forgives us even before we ask, but to experience that forgiveness, we have to want to be forgiven. Two key phrases in the story of the prodigal son and the forgiving father are ‘he came to his senses’ and ‘I will leave this place and go to my Father’. Once we realise the harm that our sin is doing to us, how far away we are from God, and how much happier we would be if we changed, we will know, immediately, that we are forgiven. That can make us feel great, but how do we feel about knowing that those we regard as evil are also forgiven?