Sep 17 2010

Splurging Grace

My grandfather’s favorite hymn was Children Of The Heavenly Father, a Swedish hymn by Karolina W. San­dell-Berg. The 1st and 3rd verses (translated into English by Ernst W. Ol­son in 1925) are:

Children of the Heavenly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever
Unto them His grace He showeth
And their sorrows all He knoweth

While the English is forced at best, it’s one of my favorite hymns, too — though I doubt I’ve sung it since I was a child, perhaps at my grandfather’s funeral. Through six short verses, it emphasizes that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”

It perhaps goes without saying that the father in the story of the Prodigal Son represents God, who always welcomes back prodigals with joy. As a small child, it was always reassuring to hear that no matter how “prodigal” you may be, the Heavenly Father always loves us, and there’s always plenty of grace to go around. As an adult, it seems we still need to hear that. There are way too many elder brothers hanging around to tell us we aren’t deserving, and that there’s no place for us here. We are, in fact, surrounded by voices calling us to “more” — more holiness, more commitment, more striving — with the goal of spiritual “maturity.”

Very few voices echo the father’s invitation to his two sons to more grace: “Here’s some more money, here’s a fatted calf, let’s party!” Neither son deserved a party. Neither son really knew their father or understood his values. The point was, it was enough that the father loved his sons. That was the only motivation for the father’s extravagance.

The plain truth of the matter is that we really don’t deserve God’s grace. To think we have to somehow qualify for grace is to miss the point entirely. Martin Luther, in a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon, tried to explain this. Phillip was trying to find the limits of grace, trying to sift through the critical voices challenging him about what was permissible and what was sin. Luther wrote: “God does not save people who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” In other words, live boldly, do not be afraid to make mistakes and fail. We will fail, at times. But know this: the Father’s grace is more than sufficient.

There is no such thing as the proverbial “fall from grace.” If grace is undeserved, as one definition puts it, then how can we possibly do anything more to “undeserve” it to the extent it is taken away? Likewise, we are not “restored to grace,” we are restored by grace. Grace is, from one perspective, God’s love in action. And — here’s a little math lesson — as God’s love and grace are infinite, so there is never any love or grace wasted. All of the money that the prodigal wasted did not diminish the father’s bank account whatsoever; an infinite amount minus anything is still an infinite amount.

This is what the elder son failed to grasp. He had become stingy with this father’s money — with God’s grace — because he failed to see that grace is never wasted, and the supply can never be diminished. Grace is not a finite resource. When you see God pouring his grace out on someone else, it doesn’t diminish what is available for you. Rather, it just illustrates how much grace is actually available for you!

This is how the father can give the prodigal a huge chunk of money, then give him access to the whole lot of it, and still say to the elder son, “All that I have was always yours. You could have thrown a party whenever you wanted, but you were too stingy. Come, now learn to celebrate.”

Jesus never tells us what the elder son decided, or what happened to him down the road. From the father’s comments to the elder son, we can learn one important lesson: We can’t take advantage or enjoy God’s grace unless we are willing to splurge a little. We need to learn the joy of extravagant grace, whether it’s spent on us, or on someone else.

Questions:

  1. How does God’s extravagance make you feel?
  2. How do you think someone can overcome the belief that grace is a finite resource?


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?