Sep 10 2010

Carry On, My Extravagant Son

When we hear the word “prodigal” today, we tend to think “wayward” or “wandering.” However, the word actually means “wasteful” or “extravagant.” As a joke, people will often greet someone who returns after an absence with “the prodigal returns!” I doubt very much they mean they have been wasteful, only that they were, for a time, absent. The title given to this parable, The Prodigal Son, seems to be describing the son’s attitude with regard to his father’s (and his) wealth, not that he left for a time.

The fact that we have redefined the term “prodigal” from this parable possibly shows that the emphasis that most teaching on this parable is on the son’s being lost and subsequently found. This is certainly fitting, as the parable is the 3rd in a series of three parables on this theme of finding lost things. First there was the lost sheep—the sheep was not bad or sinful, just stupid. The shepherd leaves the 99 to find and retrieve the stupid lost sheep, and he rejoices to bring him home. Next we had a lost coin; again, not the coin’s fault. The woman cleans house to find the coin, and she, too, rejoices.

In both circumstances, there was a loss experienced to someone other than the lost items themselves. In fact, we don’t even know that the stupid sheep knew he was lost; certainly the coin didn’t care. While the third story is a bit more complex, I believe there is some continuity in all three of these stories: There is a loss suffered to the main character—the shepherd, the woman, and the father. There is action on the part of the main characters to retrieve that which was lost. The shepherd left the flock to go search, the woman cleaned house, and the father ran to his son. Then, of course, there was rejoicing.

It is important to keep in mind the context for this teaching. Jesus was telling these stories for the benefit of Pharisees who were complaining that Jesus spent his time hanging with sinners; in other words, people who were “wasteful,” or perhaps merely “lost.” They thought that any “good” Jewish teacher should spend time with those who were, in their minds, not lost. Rather than being wasteful with God’s mercy and grace, the Pharisees were anything but extravagant; if anything, they were quite stingy.

One of the points Jesus was making was that God does not “help those who help themselves.” God—the good shepherd, the woman, the good father—willingly and purposefully goes after those who are lost, and invites all who are around to be extravagant with him in rejoicing at their return.

There have been many times in my life where I have been, perhaps, a bit too extravagant when it comes to God’s grace (don’t everybody yell “Amen!” at once…). And, there have been other times when I have doubted God’s extravagance, especially concerning others who, in my opinion, don’t deserve such extravagant treatment.

It often seems that God’s mercy and grace are wasted on those who don’t deserve it. But then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Questions:

  1. What has been your understanding of the meaning of the word “prodigal?”
  2. Considering the definition “extravagant” or “wasteful,” have you ever considered yourself a prodigal?


Sep 6 2010

When God Ran

My former pastor and continued friend, Ken Blue, calls the parable of the Prodigal Son The Greatest Story Ever Told. I am guessing that of all of Jesus’ parables, this one — found only in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32) — has to be the most well-known. I knew is well as a child, hearing it in Sunday School as well as in church, both as the Gospel reading for the day and as a few sermon topics.

It is a truly great story. It has everything (except for a love interested): family issues, a great deal of sin, inner conflict, sibling rivalry, a change of heart, and a happy ending. (Well, sort of — the elder son still has issues at the end of the story, and as I’ll deal with in an upcoming post, it’s up to the audience to determine how that resolves.)

As with most people (as is obvious from the popular title of the story) as a child I was focused on the younger, prodigal son. The prodigal is the obvious focus, as this is who we follow in the story; we really don’t know much about what the Father and the good son were up to while the prodigal sowed his wild oats.

The story begins like an old Vaudeville joke; imagine George Burns: “A man had two sons…” Jesus, of course, was a great storyteller, and no doubt had the crowd’s undivided attention as he began (actually, this is the third in a series of three stories about the recovery of something presumed lost).

The younger son, according to Jewish law, would get a lesser portion of the inheritance when the father died. Rather than wait around for this, and obviously not placing any value in his relationship with his father, requests his share of the inheritance now. Essentially, he says, “Our relationship is as good as dead now, so let’s quit pretending.”  The father, rather than just kicking him out into the cold, agrees to the son’s demand.

The prodigal takes off and starts to party. He breaks as many commandments as he can, until suddenly he finds himself stung out, broke, homeless and hungry. He’s got a part time job feeding pigs, perhaps the worst job a good Jewish boy could imagine.

He realizes that there’s food back at his Father’s place, and he devises a plan. At this point, he still isn’t looking for relationship, nor is he looking for forgiveness. He just wants food. He knows his father’s business, and figures that his father may hire him on and let him sleep in the barn; at least he’ll be inside.

The amazing thing about this story is that if you read it a certain way, the prodigal remains a jerk throughout the story. As a child, I’m not sure I understood this part; in fact, most people don’t seem to. Most people imagine that some kind of repentance happened, that the prodigal’s “I am no longer worthy” speech indicates humility and that he is mourning the loss of relationship. However, the son’s speech could just be a clever attempt to diffuse his father’s presumed anger so he can make his pitch: “Hey, I know I blew it, so don’t preach at me. I’m not asking to rejoin the family, just let me be one of the day-laborers.”

I was a good kid, always afraid of getting in trouble or having my parents mad at me. I was, for the most part, Charlie Brown. I couldn’t really imagine why any son would act like the prodigal; that part of the story was a mystery to me. I understood, however, that the father in the story symbolized God, and that even if I did run off and do bad things, God would always be my father. He would never stop loving me, and it didn’t matter whether I was truly repentant or not; all that mattered was that I knew where my home was.

To some people, whether the prodigal really repented or not is of great importance. God will forgive you and welcome you back, but only if you’re really, sincerely sorry. Any attempt to scam God, and you’re out on your ear. You’ve got to really know that you’re a sinner, and that God by rights should be dangling you by your feet over the fires of Hell.  If you can manage to scrape together enough sincerity, God will turn back into the loving Father-God.

In truth, it doesn’t matter. Pay close attention to the father’s response — he doesn’t even listen to the prodigal’s speech! As soon as he sees his son, before he can even hear him, the father is running down the road to embrace and welcome his son home. It didn’t matter to the father why his son was coming home, only that he was within reach.

You see, the father never disowned the prodigal; the son may have wandered off, and he may have imagined that he was an orphan, but in reality he never lost his place in the family. We remain children of God by His love and grace, not ours.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38,39 NIV)

Questions:

  1. How have you viewed the son’s repentance? Have you ever considered whether the son was sincere or not?
  2. Have you ever identified with the prodigal?  If so, how did you view God’s attitude toward you?


Jul 31 2010

From Luther, With Love

Growing up Lutheran, I was well acquainted with Martin Luther. As I’ll talk about a bit later, he has always been one of my heroes. Luther, like many Roman Catholics of his day (not to mention most contemporary evangelicals), was heavily influenced by St. Augustine, with his doctrines of man’s total depravity, original sin, and inherited guilt.As anyone who has seen the movie Luther knows, Brother Martin struggled with his sin, his guilt, and the need to know that he was forgiven.

The torment of his guilt was such that when he finally saw that God operated by grace and love and not by our ability to live pious lives or follow men’s rules, he was willing to die rather than retract his teaching. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther responded to the demand that he recant with these words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Like Luther, the reformer John Calvin was also greatly influenced by Augustine, and we can see Calvin’s Augustinian influence throughout much of the contemporary evangelical church, even in groups who do not identify themselves as Calvinists. However, Luther discovered what Calvin seemed to miss: The primacy of God’s Love. It was the knowledge that God was motivated by His love for us – rather than the need for God to assert His holiness, vengeance, or glory – that finally set Luther free.

I have no doubt that Luther’s beliefs were firmly founded on his reading of Scripture, as he stated at Worms, though I suspect his own personal experience of grace and God’s love that accompanied his theological breakthrough reinforced his commitment to the Gospel. Luther wrote,

“Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through an open door into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . . .”

Having this revelation of God’s love, Luther was able to make such bold statements as, “Love God and do as you please” and the oft-quoted and often misunderstood, “Sin boldly.” Anyone who has read Luther will know that by no means was Luther encouraging licentiousness or sinfulness. Rather, Luther was convinced that we did not need to become holy before we can approach God; furthermore, he knew that we couldn’t if we tried. Being human, we will fail – however, that should not keep us from drawing near to God. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:16 KJV)”

How else can we ever hope to boldly and with confidence (Heb. 10:19) enter God’s throne room, unless we are first convinced of God’s love for us? Even if we fully believe in the mechanics and legalities of our salvation, without being confident of God’s love, walking into God’s presence would give us a moment of pause. Is He perhaps just a little angry that we got in? Should I have given a dollar to that homeless man yesterday, or tithed more regularly? Will I be one of those to whom God will say, “I don’t know you?”

The true legacy that Luther gave to the Evangelical movement (which later became known as the Lutheran Church) is this certainty that we are indeed loved by God, the Creator of the universe.

It was, then, this rich heritage into which I was born, and for which I am eternally grateful.

Questions:

  1. Do you have a sense of having received a spiritual legacy, either personally, or in the church group you belong to?
  2. How does this flavor your present spiritual experience?