The Only Unforgivable Sin…

“… when he came to himself he said…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’…But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion…” (RSV version; see Luke 15:11-32 for the entire story)

Certainly, most of us will recognize this most famous of Jesus’ parables, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is interesting that, despite its fame, it is a parable found in only one Gospel account. More than any other of the stories Jesus told, this one sums up much of what Jesus came to reveal about the mercy of God the Father toward us, his wayward children.

What’s so wonderful to me in this deep teaching of our Savior is that moment when this man says, “I will get up (arise) and go to my father“. It is the turning point of the whole story. The word for “get up” or “arise” is the same Greek word used in the story of Jesus’ raising of the dead girl in Mark 5:42. That same word is used in a number of passages when Jesus predicts his own resurrection (see Mark 8). St John refers also to our being “raised” on the last day (John 6). Certainly, this moment is very much like a rising from the dead. The younger son, languishing hopelessly in that far off place of suffering, finally gets up and heads home to his father. He anticipates having to beg his father to treat him like a servant, sure that he has forfeited his sonship. Yet he ends up encountering something marvelously unexpected: a generous welcome, restoration to sonship, and an unmerited celebration. The father even states, “…this my son was dead, and he is alive again.” Resurrection is definitely something to celebrate!

There’s much more to say about this amazing story and its spiritual depths. But one thing is crucial: the whole thing would never happen if the young man didn’t take responsibility for his actions. Clearly, his father has been awaiting his return, desperately yearning for the opportunity for reunion and restoration. But what if the young man never came to the end of his rope? What if he languished in self-pity? What if he spent his miserable time blaming others, or his past history, or his circumstances? What if he simply remained in despair and hopelessness? This precious ending to the story would never happen.

Sometimes people wonder about “the unpardonable sin” Jesus spoke about (see Mt 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-30, Luke 12:10) and what that might possibly be. I’m no theologian, but Jesus is pretty clear even in these texts that no sin which is humbly acknowledged is unforgivable. God’s mercy is so immense, and his Heart so ready to rejoice over even one sinner who repents, it’s clear that it is not God who is the one keeping score. The “blasphemy” is the diabolical lie that God’s patience is limited, his mercy exhaustible. The biggest lie of all is that we fallible human beings can do without God entirely, thank you very much; that we can pick ourselves up by our own efforts and fix ourselves.

Clearly, it is only our unbelief, our prideful refusal of God’s mercy in Jesus, which can stymie God’s desire to forgive and restore us to himself. Failure to admit our need, or an unwillingness to acknowledge our powerlessness to save ourselves, can keep us from experiencing the generous welcome of our Heavenly Father which awaits all who return home to him. In short, the only unforgivable sin is the one we won’t admit to, the one we fail to ask forgiveness for.

Honestly confessing our sins – making no excuses for our failures – and asking for forgiveness is key. Reconciliation is always available, and joy and freedom await us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”(1 John 1:9,8).

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