Showing posts with label Prodigal Son. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prodigal Son. Show all posts

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Unwillingness of God

There are some things God is not willing to do, and this is marvelously portrayed in the three parables that comprise Luke 15. Jesus told them in response to the Pharisees and teachers of Jewish law who were offended that tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus, and were even more offended because Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. The parables are about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

The Parable the Lost Sheep
In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but one has strayed. He puts it to the Pharisees directly:
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Clearly, the answer is, Yes, the Pharisees, if they were shepherds, would go out and find that lost sheep. They would not be content with the ninety-nine while one was still out in the wild. The stray was just as valuable to them as the ones that did not stray.

Of course, we think immediately of Jesus in this story, not simply because he is the one telling it but because we recognize him as the Good Shepherd who lays down his lie for his sheep (John 10:11). He is the one the psalm writer cries out for: “Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever” (Psalm 28:9). He is the one the prophet foretold: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).

If the Pharisees would not be content with 99% of their flock, if they would not be willing to leave one sheep behind, why should we expect that Jesus would be. More to the point, because Jesus is the perfect image of God, why should we expect that God would be satisfied with only 99%? But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes out searching for the least one, the last one, lost one until he finds it. He simply does not give up. And when he finds it, he carries it home on his shoulders, and there is great rejoicing. (See also Until All Are Home)

The Parable of the Lost Coin
The second parable, in Luke 15:8-10, tells of the woman and the lost coin. Like the first parable, it is very brief, but just as powerful.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Imagine this woman with ten silver coins. They are likely her dowry and so would be very precious to her. But she has somehow lost one. Perhaps it fell into the cracks between the stones in the floor. She still has nine coins left, but she is not content to leave it at that. She is unwilling to let that tenth one go. So, she turns the house upside down searching diligently for it, shining a light into every dark corner, sweeping the floor in case she might hear it clinking in some crevice. She will not give up. She will not even think of giving up but will keep searching for it until she has found it. And then how great will be her rejoicing.

If the shepherd in the first parable points us to Christ the Son, and the father in the third parable, which we will come to next, is like God the Father, it seems only natural that the woman in this middle parable may perhaps be likened to the Holy Spirit. We would not be alone in thinking that. St. Ambrose, back in the 4th century understood it that way.

The Holy Spirit is always bearing witness to of us Christ, taking the things that are his and revealing them to us. How shall we suppose that the Spirit of God would ever stop before every dark corner has been made light, every crevice has been swept clean, and that which is lost has been found?

The Parable of the Lost Sons
Now we come to the longest of the three parables, too long to quote in full here but found in Luke 15:11-32. In this tale, there is a man, a father who has two sons. One day, the younger son comes to his father and asks that his share of the inheritance be given to him. This is terribly dishonoring to his father, tantamount to saying that all he wants from his father is his wealth and that his father might as well be dead. Nonetheless, the father loves his son. Indeed, he loves both of his sons greatly and he gives them both their inheritance.

The younger son takes it and goes off to a distant land, as distant as his heart is from his father. There he wastes away all he has received, squandering it in reprehensible ways. But then there is a catastrophe: a terrible famine comes upon the land, and the younger son, his wealth now gone, must hire himself out to a farmer who has him feed the pigs — quite a lowly job to begin with, but especially shameful work for a Jewish boy.

After a time, the younger son comes to his senses and realizes the terrible state he is in and how much better life had been for him at home. He decides to go to his father and beg to come back home, not as a son but as a servant.

Now, while he is still a good way off, his father sees him on the horizon, for he has never stopped watching for his son, being unwilling to give up on him. Then the father, in a culturally undignified act, girds up his robe and runs to embrace his son. The son is hardly able to get a word out of his mouth about how unworthy he is to be a son before the father cuts him off, commanding his servants that the best robe be put on his son, a ring placed on his hand and the bests sandals put on his feet — all of them signs that the father fully accepts him as his son.

“Bring the fattened calf and kill it,” the father says, “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 all celebrate and are very merry.

End of story. Or not. Remember, there is also an older son — an older brother. He finally becomes aware of all the commotion and asks his servant about it. “Your brother has come home,” the servant says, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” The older brother becomes enraged and refuses to join in the celebration.

But the father loves both of his sons, so he goes out to find the older one, who has distanced himself not only from his younger brother but from his father as well. The older son pours out his fury, about how he has always obeyed and slaved for his father but was never given even a young goat to celebrate with his friends; about how the younger son, “this son of yours,” has whored everything away — and now here is the father welcoming him home with the greatest of feasts!

The father pours out his love: “My son,” he 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.”

The father has two sons and loves them both very much, and he is unwilling to give up on either one of them; unwilling to have the older but lose the younger, and just as unwilling to have the younger but lose the older. He will not be satisfied until both are reconciled and safely home. (See also The Lifter of Our Shame)

God is Unwilling
This is how God is. God is like the shepherd who is unwilling for even one of his sheep to remain lost. God is like the woman who is unwilling to let even one precious coin remain missing. And God is like the father who is not willing to let either of his sons remain unreconciled.

“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness,” we read in 2 Peter 3:9, “but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

See, it is not God’s will that anyone perish but that everyone come to repentance. There is never a point at which God gives up on anyone. Never. God’s love always perseveres, and not even death can finally keep God’s love or God’s will from prevailing.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Get Out of Hell Free?

There are many Christians who are offended at the thought of post-mortem conversion — that repentance and faith might be a possibility after death for those who had none before, so that they might turn and know God and be rescued. “They should receive a ‘Get Out of Hell Free’ card?” they chide.

“Get Out of Hell Free” is a mocking crude way to put it, but there it is, and it shows us something of the mentality of these offended ones. They assume that those who did not have the foresight to repent during life ought to suffer the torments of hell forevermore after death. It is too easy, they think, to repent once one has experienced that infernal place.

Leave aside that they often have a very unbiblical idea of hell. For them, hell is some sort of imprisonment — an eternal jail — imposed by God upon the wicked for having rejected God. Leave aside also the crudeness of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card analogy and let’s think about this for a moment. Would that not also be the same thing God has done for all who turn to God in this present life? Are such not considered to be rescued from an infernal existence in the age to come?

Why, then, should they be offended at the thought that God might offer the same for those who experience torment in the age to come? Is it somehow more difficult to repent in this present existence than it is for those who suffer torment in the next? That would seem to cast timely repentance as some sort of meritorious work. But repentance is always a gracious gift from God. Otherwise none of us should ever be able to break free from our bondage to self and turn to God.

Now think for a moment about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This son treated his father very shamefully then went off to an alien country far from home. There he squandered his inheritance on an immoral life. A terrible famine came and left him in a desperate situation. But then, Jesus says, “he came to his senses.” He remembered his father’s house and the goodness of his father. He was ashamed of how he had acted. He repented, got up and returned home.

And what did the father do? Did he say, “No, you don’t get a ‘Get Out of Famine Free’ card. Your repentance was too easy and came too cheaply”? Quite the opposite, the father saw him coming in the distance — he had been watching for his son all along, you see — and ran out to meet him. He embraced him as his son, receiving him fully and completely into his house. Then he threw a great feast in celebration, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

But the father’s older son was upset by all this and thought his father far too gracious and forgiving of his younger brother. He wanted to shame his younger brother — and his father, as well — but the father would have none of it. “We had to celebrate and be glad,” he said, “because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (I have written more about the Parable of the Prodigal Son here.)

Should we suppose that God is any less gracious than the father in Jesus’ parable, that he would ever turn away anyone who turns to him in faith — even if it be from the bowels of hell? But of course, the question remains: Is post-mortem repentance even possible? My answer is that it is not only possible, but I believe it is inevitable. The reason I hold this is that the New Testament tells us how everything will be in the end. There are several Scriptures that indicate this, but I will focus here on two. The first one is found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. This will be universal; there will be no being of whom this is not true and no realm in which it is not so. The language of knee bowing and tongue confessing is not the language of what has been coerced by force or threat or anything else. It is about what is freely and willingly offered, worship freely given. In another letter, Paul tells us that no one can confess Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The confession that Jesus is Lord is the language of faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The second Scripture is 1 Corinthians 15:28, where Paul describes the final state of all things and tells us that God will be “all in all.” That is an all-inclusive statement and leaves nothing and no one out.

Because every knee will one day bow to Christ and every tongue confess him as Lord, and because God will finally be “all in all,” it seems quite apparent to me that even those who have not turned to God in this present life will have opportunity to do so in the age to come — and will indeed do so. For God, who knows the end from the beginning and what he has purposed to do in Jesus Christ, has told us what that purpose is and how it will all be in the end.

Call it “Get Out of Hell Free” if you must, though that is a crude depiction and betrays a man-centered understanding rather than a Christ-centered one. But I will speak of the eternal love, grace and mercy of God that pursues us even in hell.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Lifter of Our Shame

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Many people came to hear Jesus teach. Among them were the “tax collectors and sinners,” considered alike to be low-lifes and shameful. But they were welcomed by Jesus — and the Pharisees and teachers of the Law did not like it one bit. “Look who this Jesus is keeping company with,” they grumbled. They were out to shame him, too.

Jesus answered them with three stories. First, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Then, the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). But it is the third parable that really laid it out for them, the Parable of the Lost Son, a.k.a., the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

A father had two sons. The younger son came and asked for his share of his father’s estate. He cared more for his father’s wealth than he did for his father, and it was as if he wished his father were dead. He behaved very terribly, shaming not only himself but his father as well.

But the father loved both his sons nonetheless and divided the estate between them, giving each their share. And though it broke his heart, he let his younger son go his own way — what else could the father do? So the younger son gathered up all he had been given and went off to a distant country, far away from home. He wanted nothing more to do with his father or his family.

There in the alien land of his self-imposed exile, the young man wasted his wealth, indulging himself in a life that only tore apart his soul even more. Eventually, he had nothing, and to make matters worse, a hard famine came. The son became so desperate that he took what was considered a very vile work form or work, and especially degrading for him as a Jew: feeding swine. Yet he would gladly have eaten the unappetizing, barely digestible pods they ate — he was that hungry — but there was no one who would give him even that.

That would have been a suitable ending to the story for the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. “Disgraceful Young Man Gets What He Deserves,” would have been the caption. But Jesus was not yet finished and there was an unexpected turn-around to the tale (seems like Jesus was always doing that):
When he [the younger son] came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants 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 servants.” So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)
The younger son had come to a realization, not only about how low he had sunk or how much better the life was that he had left behind, but about how reprehensibly he had behaved. However, he did not run from his shame nor did he wallow in it, but he owned it and, repenting, returned to his father. He prepared the confession he would offer: “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 servants.” He had no hope for restored sonship, only that he might be allowed to stay and serve as a slave in his father’s house.

The Pharisees would have, perhaps, been appeased by that. But that was not yet the end of the story. See now what happened when the son neared home.
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. (Luke 15:20)
Here was an amazing thing: Even while the son was a long way off, his father saw him. That was because the father never gave up watching for, even longing for, the return of his son. And when he finally saw him off in the distance that day, his heart was full of love and yearning and deep sympathy for what his son was going through.

He ran out to meet his son. This was another amazing thing, because it was quite undignified for a man of his age and position. But he simply did not care. He loved his son too much for that. He finally reached him and with great joy he threw his arms around him and covered him with kisses.
The young man began his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He was scarcely able to get it out, and did not even reach the part about being nothing more than a hired hand, before his father shouted out 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.” (Luke 15:22-24)
The father did not heap any shame on his son — he lifted it off him. He did not receive him as a servant, which was the most the young man had hoped for, but fully as a son. Here was unexpected grace and undeserved mercy. In fact, what was deserved or undeserved was not even on the father’s mind, only on the son’s. All the father cared about was that his son had been dead and was alive again, that he had been lost but now was found.

Happy ending? Probably not so much to the Pharisees, for this is exactly the sort of thing they criticized Jesus about: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But there was still a little bit of the story left to tell, and the part the Pharisees most needed to hear.

Up until now, the parable was about the younger son and the father. But remember the other son, the older brother. When he heard the noise of celebration and found out it was because his younger brother had returned, he was quite angry, not only with his brother but even more with his father. His father went out and pleaded with him to come and rejoice, but the older brother would not receive it:
“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!” (Luke 15:29-30)
The father had lifted all shame off his younger son but the older one wanted to heap it back on. “This son of yours,” he called him, distancing himself not only from his younger brother but also from his father. But the father would have none of it.
“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.” (Luke 15:31-32)
The father would not heap shame back onto his younger son, and he would not tolerate any distance between the older son and the younger. He treated them both fully as sons: “This brother of yours.”

The younger son had returned home realizing his shame and his helplessness, and was joyfully welcomed by his father. The older son acted shamefully, too, by the hardness of his heart, and was just as helpless as the younger, though he did not realize it. Yet he, too, was received with just as much love by the father, though he did not believe it and so took no joy from it.

Jesus welcomes publicans and sinners, for that is the heart of the Father, who has loved us all along and is always watching for our return. He does not heap shame on any who turn and come home to him, for they have already realized their shame and helplessness. But he removes their shame, lifting that terrible burden off their weary souls and receiving them not as slaves but as sons and daughters.

Jesus has lifted our shame and carried it to the cross. By that shameful death, he put shame itself to death, for he is pure and righteous, and shame had no right to him. There is, then, no shame so deep that the love of God is not deeper still, pouring itself out, even on a cross, for our sake.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

God Gave Them Over, That They Might Return

The judgment of God is not about retribution but about restoration. So also the wrath of God, which for Paul is revealed in the words: God gave them over. We can find several examples of God’s restorative purpose in this in the New Testament. Let us begin, first, with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32):

A man had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. This was tantamount to saying that he was done with the father and that it would be just as well if the father were dead. It was a tremendous dishonor to the father, but the father let the son go with his inheritance.

The son wandered off to a far country, far way from his father’s house, and squandered his inheritance on things that are dishonorable. Soon reduced to nothing, he took a job slopping pigs, which was a shameful occupation for a Jew. He was so hungry that he would gladly have filled his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, except that they were indigestible for him. And nobody gave him anything. Then one day he came to his senses, remembering his father’s house.

How many of my father’s hired servants 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 servants.

So he got up and headed home to his father. The father saw him coming, for though the son had turned away from the father, the father never turned away from the son but watched patiently for his return. When he saw the son, he ran out — quite an undignified thing for a man of his position to do — and met his son, embracing him and smothering him with kisses.

The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father hardly heard, he was so busy giving instructions to the 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.”

The father demanded no restitution for the inheritance that had been squandered. He required no satisfaction be made for the dishonor that had been shown him. What mattered was that his son, who had been lost was now found, and who had been dead was now alive. And they both greatly rejoiced together.

Another example of God’s restorative purpose is found in the book of Acts, in the gospel preaching of Stephen. In it, he reviews the history of Israel, how they had often turned away from God — and it first happened not long after God delivered them by the hand of Moses from bondage in Egypt.
That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. (Acts 7:41-42)
They turned from God to idols, and God gave them over to it. But that was not the end of the story, of course, for the history of Israel is also the history of God’s covenant love and faithfulness always seeking to reconcile Israel to himself once again. That is why Jesus the Messiah came, about whom Stephen was preaching.

We find the same principle several times in the writings of Paul. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he addressed the situation of a man who was into a form of sexual immorality that not even the pagans would tolerate — yet the Christians at Corinth we tolerating it, and the man was unrepentant (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul’s instruction to them was this: “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

They were to put the man out of the fellowship. The purpose was not he should ultimately be destroyed but, quite the contrary, that he might delivered from his depravity and come to his senses. This discipline soon had the desired effect, for in a follow-up letter, Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). The man repented of his immoral behavior and was restored to fellowship.

We find another example in Paul’s letter to his young protégé, Timothy, concerning two leaders who had turned away from the gospel and were teaching a false message:
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)
Again, Paul does not hand them over so that they would be permanently “shipwrecked” and ultimately destroyed but that they might come to their senses and return to the message of Christ.

One more example we find in Paul, in Romans 11, concerns Israel, particularly those who had rejected Messiah and were, because of their unbelief, broken off like branches from the “olive tree,” Israel. Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Jesus the Messiah, and Paul uses that as an opportunity to provoke unbelieving Jews to faith in Jesus, too, so that they might be “grafted in” again. Paul speaks specifically to Gentile believers here:
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:22-24)
The purpose was not the branches that were cut off should be destroyed but that they might be grafted in again. And Paul was confident that this is exactly what would happen: “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Restoration was always in Paul’s heart, and indeed, that is the way it is with God, too. Though God may give someone over to their depravity, he never gives up on them, because his purpose is not retribution but restoration. He gives them over so that they might one day come to their senses and rejoice in the Father.