The Scandalous Parable
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.
That's Paul writing in Galatians, a letter whose theme is basically "Grace and the Gospel," about the reception by the early church of his miraculous conversion. That he had embraced the faith "he once tried to destroy" could have (and may have) led some into confusion and resentment, but these churches he highlights see instead how this bizarre and "disturbing" turnaround glorifies God. That's the scandal of grace, and I talked a bit about that in relation to Saul's becoming Paul, and his acceptance in the church, earlier in this post.
Today I'd like to apply the scandal of grace to perhaps the most well known of Jesus' parables -- the story of The Prodigal Son. Most of us are at least familiar with the basic plot points, but I fear that its widespread familiarity may have actually taken the punch out of it.
I'm going to walk through it bit by bit, almost "commentary style," hoping to highlight some things you may have not thought of before. And if you had thought of them before, perhaps reviewing the parable in context and the application I will try to make at the end, will renew your affection for the story. For instance, I know that I consider myself pretty familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but every time I re-read the Beatitudes, I feel like they are piercing my soul for the first time. So let's take a walk and see what happens . . .
Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
This thing the younger son is asking for is not just presumptuous and greedy. It is practical blasphemy against his father. In those days, when one said "Give me my inheritance now" it is essentially saying, "I wish you were dead."
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
There is a novel's worth of events and experience in the above development. Given the liberty of his father, the son takes it for granted. He pleases the desires of his flesh and the pleasures of the moment. He is wasting the blessing, squandering the grace previously given. And when push comes to shove, he finds that he has not prepared for real life, for the consequences of his sinfulness.
I think, also, there is something quite profound that happens in a human being who gets to that lowest point and is perversely content to stay there. He might have already realized his mistake and begun longing for redemption, but his refusal to move is not so much as him saying "this is my lot in life" but "this is what I deserve." I know of people who come face to face with their sin and are so ashamed by it that acceping grace for it seems impossible to them. They are so overcome, they cannot believe in, and therefore cannot act upon, the idea that they don't have to be imprisoned forever in the pit they've dug and thrown themselves into. Grace, then, is just as scandalous to them as it would be to a third-party observer (one of which we shall meet soon).
The important thing is that the prodigal did ultimately decide to humble himself, embrace his guilt and shame, and take the risk of trusting his father to deal with him honorably. This is what we call repentance.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.
In faith, the son trusts that his father will not turn him away, that his father will have pity on him. He is his father, after all. But in humility, he makes no demands or makes no obligations. He is willing to work for his father, to recognize he has forfeited his claim of sonship to his father. This is real repentance and a real offer of faith. He will say to his father, "I ask for your mercy, even though I don't deserve it." He is acknowledging that his reception will be colored by whatever his father's will is.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Here's something you may not hear much about, but in that culture at that time, it was considered undignified for grown men to run. It was beneath a man of power and sophistication, considered childish or improper. Yet the father sees his son and runs to him. He stoops; he humiliates himself. He creates a mini-scandal with just that action. What a great narrative picture of the humility and "impropriety" with which Jesus embraced the cross for us. It was beneath him and unworthy of him, but he was willing to stoop to exalt his Father's will, and thereby exalt us to join him as sons of God.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
The son maintains the spirit of repentance, despite his father's surprising and enthusiastic welcome. The son is not interested in squandering the grace again.
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
The son is humble and penitent; he is not expecting or demanding restoration to the status of son. He knows he has sinned and is actually taking a risk with just asking that he be allowed to work for the father. But his father will hear nothing of it. "You're still my son," this father of grace says, and he celebrates the restoration of the relationship. He treats him as if he never sinned. He doesn't just offer or extend mercy; he showers the kid with it. He overwhelms him. The forgiveness is absolute. In direct correlation to the measure with which his son has offended him and taken him for granted and sinned against him, the father forgives him and honors him and blesses him.
The sin was radical and absolute; and so was the grace.
Then the scandal builds steam . . .
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
It gets tricky here, because I think the vast majority of us never put ourselves in the place of the older brother. He's always someone else. Somebody, to be sure, probably somebody we know. But not us. We are either the repentant prodigal or the grace-giving father, but we dang well know the resentful brother is that fundamentalist at work or that TV preacher we can't stand or some relative who ruins every family reunion. There's millions of them out there -- but none of them is us. Right?
The truth, however, and this is when the scandal gets most scandalous, is that we are the older brother more often than not. Here's the litmus test: Ever angry about somebody not getting what you think they deserve? Ever resent that someone seems to have it easier than you? Ever think someone asking for forgiveness got it too easily? Are you constantly seeing lots of people as messed up, screwed up, or wrong, but don't worry too much about if you are?
Do you point the finger a lot? It doesn't matter why, and you may be calling someone a legalist or thinking you're calling them the older brother, but I got news for you -- it's you. (It's me too!)
Any time grace hits you as distressing or inappropriate, and it is not grace that has been given to you, you are the older brother.
Heck, we've all been the prodigal. The prodigal is the personification of every sinner Jesus has ever forgiven. So every follower of Jesus has been a prodigal at one time (and may be one now). The choice we make now, post-conversion, is whether we will be a scandalizing father or a scandalized older brother. Sometimes we don't know we're making that choice. Sometimes it just happens based on our demeanor, our assumptions, our personality, our theology, our upbringing, whatever. The scandal will always be scandalous; it will always disturb and offend. It will always revolutionize and reform. It will always redeem.
" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
Here is the application for me and you: Which side of the scandal will we be on? Resentment or celebration?