“It is very odd,” writes Fr Herbert McCabe, “that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us” (Faith Within Reason, p. 155). It’s not surprising, of course, that those outside the Church might think of the Deity that way. After all, that’s what Gods do—reward and punish. Yet Christians should know better. There is so much in the gospels that tells us that the living God does not easily fit into the retributive model. Orthodox readers will immediately think of the famous words of St Isaac the Syrian:
Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’
How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Ascetical Homilies 51, p. 387)
The gospel of Jesus Christ turns upside down our inherited notions of divine justice. Consider the parable of the prodigal son. After squandering his inheritance and being forced to feed pigs for pauper’s wages, he finally arrives at a recognition of his desperate situation: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants'” (Luke 15:18-19). There are two things that need to be seen here, says McCabe: (1) the consequences of the young man’s sins upon himself and his relationship with his father and (2) his recognition of these consequences: “The vital thing is that the son has recognized his sin for what it is: something that changes God into a paymaster, or a judge. Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us” (McCabe, pp. 155-156).
The problem is with the son, not with the father. The father is who he has always been. Day after day he has prayed for his son’s return, and when he finally espies him coming down the road, he puts aside all dignity and rushes to embrace him. He cuts short the prodigal’s carefully worded confession and orders that the insignia of sonship be restored to him. The father never was the paymaster and stern judge that the son assumed he was, nor was the son ever in danger of losing his status as son, despite his selfishness and debauchery.
The younger son in the story has escaped hell because he has seen his sin for what it is. He has recognized what it does to his vision of God: ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired servants’ (Lk. 15.21). And, of course, as soon as he really accepts that he is a sinner, he ceases to be one; knowing that you have sinned is contrition or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it. The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating, welcoming his son with joy and feasting. This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us. (p. 156).
Fr Robert Farrar Capon, who like McCabe was deeply influenced by St Thomas Aquinas, offers a similar interpretation of the parable. Capon proposes a two-step process of death for the younger son. The first occurs in the far country, when “the prodigal finally wakes up dead. Reduced to the indignity of slopping hogs for a local farmer, he comes to himself one dismal morning and realizes that whatever life he had is over” (p. 138). He cannot conceive of reconciliation with his father (“I am no longer worthy to be called your son”), and so he concocts a new plan for his future (“treat me as one of your hired servants”). He will become a paid worker on his father’s estate. So he begins the journey home, intending to enter into a contractual relationship with the man who raised him as son and heir. “But what he does not yet see,” comments Capon, “is that, as far as his relationship with his father is concerned, his lost sonship is the only life he had: there is no way now for him to be anything but a dead son” (The Parables of Grace, p. 138).
It is only when the prodigal arrives home that the second step in the death-process occurs. Though Jesus does not tell us what the son was thinking when he saw his Father come rushing toward him in love and joy, we do see the result: the son deletes from his scripted confession his request for employment. His father’s munificent welcome has demonstrated the impossibility of that request:
The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, because raising dead sons to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite way of spending an afternoon, he proceeds straight to hugs, kisses, and resurrection. … In the clarity of his resurrection, the boy suddenly sees that he is a dead son, that he will always be a dead son, and that he cannot, by any efforts of his own or even by any gift of his father’s become a live anything else. And he understands too that if now, in his embrace, he is a dead son who is alive again, it is all because his father was himself willing to be dead in order to raise him up. (p. 139)
Repentance thus becomes recognition of death; and absolution, resurrection to new life. All transactions are tossed aside. Corpses must wait for the gift of a new future:
As far as Jesus is concerned, all real confession—all confession that is not just a fudging of our tattered books but a plain admission that our books are not worth even a damn—is subsequent to forgiveness. Only when, like the prodigal, we are finally confronted with the unqualified gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is 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.
Every confession a Christian makes bears witness to this, because every confession, public or private, and every absolution, specific or general, is made and given subsequent to the one baptism we receive for the forgiveness of sins. We are forgiven in baptism not only for the sin committed before baptism but for a whole lifetime of sins yet to come. We are forgiven before, during, and after our sins. We are forgiven before, during, and after our confession of them. And we are forgiven for one reason only: because Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. (p. 140)
All that is left to do is slaughter the fatted calf and get on with the feasting.
Note the profound agreement between McCabe and Capon. If God loves us unconditionally, then we must rethink our understanding of repentance and forgiveness. It cannot be the case that our repentance secures the divine forgiveness, for God forever meets us in the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. As McCabe pointedly states: “His love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love.” (p. 157).
What then does the forgiveness of God mean within the context of his unconditional love? Clearly it does not mean what it means in social intercourse. When we forgive someone in ordinary life, it’s because they have hurt and insulted us; but in the plenitude of his immutable Being, God cannot be wounded, damaged, or offended by our sins. Hence when we speak of God forgiving us, we are speaking figuratively. McCabe explains:
God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word ‘forgiving’ in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the recreative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us. (God, Christ and Us, p. 122)
McCabe’s construal of divine forgiveness only makes sense within a theology of salvation that is personalist, relational, ontological. To be forgiven is nothing less than rebirth in the Spirit and elevation into the trinitarian life of God. That is why he can repeatedly say that contrition is the gift of forgiveness. McCabe has purged from the soteriology of Aquinas all hints of juridicism and retribution. There is no dark side in God, no antinomy between the God of love and the God of wrath. There is only the infinite charity and self-giving that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God in Jesus Christ loves humanity absolutely, irrevocably, unconditionally, eternally. Consider the implications …