“It is very odd,” remarks Herbert McCabe, “that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us” (“Forgiveness,” 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; emphasis mine)
Justice has been so drastically redefined by the gospel that it may even be best to delete the word from our vocabulary. “Do not call God just!” Isaac clearly sees that Jesus has turned upside down our inherited notions of equity and redress. The divine Creator has no interest in retribution. His justice simply is his love and prodigal mercy.
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. (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 the insignia of sonship to 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; emphasis mine)
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” (The Parables of Grace, 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” (p. 138; also listen to Capon on “The Father Who Lost Two Sons“).
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 plea 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)
Salvation is not a teaching moment. It’s not a new opportunity to get things right before likely damnation. “Jesus came to raise the dead,” proclaims Capon. “Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead. He never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there. And he never meets us without bringing us out of nothing into the joy of his resurrection” (Between Noon and Three, p. 129).
Repentance is not about becoming a better person. It is recognition that we are corpses in need of new life. Confession, therefore, is not a transactional event. It is a waiting upon our Easter:
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. (Parables, p. 140; emphasis mine)
This is what Jesus does: he raises the dead! All that is left to do is slaughter the fatted calf and get on with the feasting.
Note the profound agreement between St Isaac, McCabe, and Capon. If God loves us unconditionally, then we must rethink both our understanding of divine justice and of repentance and forgiveness. It cannot be the case that our penitence secures the divine forgiveness, for God forever meets us in the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God loves the wicked—scandalously, prodigally, astonishingly. That he does so is our salvation:
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. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God. Contrition or forgiveness (remember that it is we who forgive ourselves) is almost the exact opposite of excusing ourselves. It is a matter of accusing ourselves—for now the sons of man (people, human beings) have power on earth to forgive sins, power to recognize sin for what it is and so abolish it. Contrition, or forgiveness, is self- knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are. (McCabe, p. 157)
If God does not give a damn about our sins, if our transgressions do not diminish his love for us one whit, what then does his forgiveness mean? Clearly it does not mean what it means in our daily social intercourse. When we forgive someone in ordinary life, it’s because they have hurt and insulted us; but in the plenitude of his impassible and 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)
To be forgiven is nothing less than rebirth in the Spirit and elevation into the trinitarian life of God. McCabe and Capon have 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, no Deus absconditus behind the back of Jesus. There is only the radical and astonishing Love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Father of Jesus loves humanity—loves you—absolutely, irrevocably, unconditionally, eternally. Consider, please consider and spin out, the implications …
(12 April 2016; rev.)