I’m telling you it’ll be just like this in heaven: there’ll be more celebrating over one sinner who has a change of heart than over ninety-nine virtuous people who have no need to change their hearts.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
(Luke 15: 7, 21b – 23, NRSV)
During our last meeting in the prison, one man shared that he believed that sin separated us from God. His sense was that when someone did something wrong he or she needed to do something to return to God’s favor. While I believe God never leaves anyone, we sometimes need to find our way back to God.
Another man shared that the assigned reading had conveyed to him that God would forgive him for what he’d done. He hadn’t known that God would forgive him. He had believed “an eye for an eye,” that what he’d done to someone else should be done to him. Finding out that God would forgive him was allowing him to consider forgiving himself.
I believe that part of the reason why the men I pray with have committed crimes is because someone mistreated them as children. Like them, whether we have committed a crime or not, most of us need to forgive our parents. I don’t think many natural parents care for their children as they should. I don’t think it’s intentional. I believe it’s because they didn’t have what we needed and so couldn’t give it to us.
Given our experience of material reality, many of us are afraid to trust our supernatural parent. Trusting God is particularly challenging for those of us who have been neglected, abused and/or cast out. If our conscious experience has been shaped by harmful rather than beneficial relationships, we have a more difficult time believing that the creator of all reality, material and otherwise, is truly loving.
Perhaps this is why there is so much celebration in heaven when a person who has lived foolishly or has hurt others returns to God. That person has likely had to dig into the depths of their conscious experience and then go beyond it. They have had to risk re-living the shame and rejection experienced during their childhood to trust that there is another possibility, a chance to live in God’s eternal house. Through their diligence, this courageous person breaks the chain of violence, the chain of trauma and neglect, and comes to learn that spiritual reality is real and that hope is rightfully grounded in faith.
I believe that this One, the God that Jesus called Abba, loves us, especially those of us who received less care than we needed. This is the God I choose. This God waits for, calls for and is most joyous about our return.