But it was right to be glad and to have a feast; for this your brother,
who was dead, is living again; he had gone away and has come back.
Luke 15:32, BBE
The thing about grace that many have a problem with is its appearance of being carelessly and indiscriminately thrown around by our Heavenly Father as if there is no limit to it and He doesn’t care who has it. It just isn’t right by human standards. After all, fair is fair. Give people an inch and they’ll take a mile. Go soft on those who have sinned and the next thing you know everybody is doing it. People make their beds and they should lie in it. They need to learn their lesson. You’ve got to think about the message you’re sending!
All religions are built around the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. Many people have even distorted authentic Christianity into a religion that insists on a check and balance system revolving around reward and punishment. After all, isn’t that how life works?
To answer that question, it is how life that has been built around a judicial system of this world works, but it’s not how things works in the kingdom of God. As popular as that view might be, that isn’t how authentic Christianity looks. Law rules this temporal world but grace is the template by which God rules.
Grace is the thrilling (or horrifying to legalistic religionists) news that God isn’t into payback for the wrong things we’ve done. That isn’t to say that we may not still reap the consequences of wrong things we do, but the grace gospel does announce the good news that our Father isn’t in the business of balancing some kind of morality-ledger by punishing us when we’ve done something wrong. He’s not a divine bookkeeper trying to balance the books to make sure that the punishment doled out balances the misbehavior listed in a long column.
The story of the way the Father treated his prodigal son should put that misunderstanding to rest. In the parable of the prodigal son we find a hyper religious zealot’s worst nightmare. Here, we can imagine this young boy in the youth group decides he wants to leave it all and move away. He asks His father to give him his inheritance (a subliminal insinuation that he has been thinking he’d be better off if his Dad was dead) and off he goes to the big city. His life soon becomes a blur of all things he had been warned against as a child.
When all his money is gone and this young Jewish boy wakes up as a food-flinger in a pigpen, he is jolted back to reality. “I’m out of here,” he thinks to himself. “Even Dad’s minimum wage guys at home don’t have to live like this.”
You know how the story ends. The moment comes when this scraggly looking, nasty smelling, son comes stumbling up the long driveway. His Dad sees him and immediately tears out running at full throttle.
The neighbors must have been horrified. First, it would have been a very undignified thing for a grown man to run like that. Proper protocol would have required that the father wait for the son to come to him, but that’s not what he did. He ran, and abandoning all dignity, he ran fast.
To run toward his son also required a clothing adjustment. Like all fathers in that part of the world, this father wore long, flowing robes. In order to run, he had to pull the robes up between his legs, above his knees. As if running weren’t shameful enough, now the man is exposing a part of his naked leg for all who see. That was the height of shamefulness! A running old father! Partial nudity! What was the respectable neighborhood coming to now?
This father didn’t care. He was, in essence, drawing the shame of his approaching son off the boy and taking it onto himself. The only thing that would shock the neighbors worse than the son’s behavior was the behavior of the father! The foolishness of the son dissipated under the father’s loving actions. Maybe that was the father’s point. Grace always is bigger than sin and people have always needed to learn that.
The father then falls on his boy and, oblivious to the stench of the pigpen on his son, starts laughing and crying, hugging and kissing him, all at the same time. The son is forgiven before he even asks.
The boy chokes up and tries to talk. This isn’t what he had expected. He gets out half a sentence when Dad interrupts and yells orders to fire up the grill, call our family and friends, see if JJT is available (Jerusalem Jazz Trio) and let’s get this party started!
Some surely must have thought, “That’s a strange story, Jesus. Don’t you think it might give the wrong message?
“No,” our loving Savior would answer. “It gives the right message. The message is this: It doesn’t matter how pathetic you are, how low you have gone and how long you have been there, I love you and accept you.”
The religionists of Jesus day were just as concerned about the implications of a story like this as they are in our day. There was the fear that it might sound like this sort of grace gives people a license to sin. There was the indignation that the story communicated that somebody got away with something. There was the assumption that this kind of grace might actually encourage, rather than discourage sinning.
Jesus didn’t seem to worry about all that when He told this story or in His ministry in general. He just loved people and poured out grace, grace, and more grace on the most unlikely candidates. It galls the self-righteous when their own sense of justice is violated, but Jesus never seemed to care about what they thought. He seemed to show such little discernment in how and to whom He gave so much. Even His stories seem to communicate a message that sounds downright wrong to religious ears.
Is it possible that grace is counterintuitive to the religious mindset? I believe it is. Religion is about us and what we do to gain God’s favor and to make spiritual progress. It’s focuses on doing better to be better.
Grace takes a totally opposite approach. Grace assures us that isn’t about you and me and what we do to improve ourselves for God. It never has been and never will be. It’s about Him and His ridiculous, irrational, excessive, loving grace. The self-righteous crowd might as well calm down. Jesus is Jesus and He’s not going to change to fit their expectations or ours. Thank God.