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The Point of the Prodigal Son

Thursday, November 07, 2019

I know that one should not have high expectations of religious memes, but the one above grinds my gears.  Every time I saw it, I rolled my eyes a little bit harder, until I knew that either I’d have to write about it, or my eyes would get stuck that way permanently, just like my Communications teacher said they would.

Certainly, the meme is in line with the pop-culture understanding of the parable, and even in line with the hymns we sing.  I think “Love for All” is a moving hymn.  Indeed, it makes a better hymn than a hymn about the actual point of the parable would!

However, we need to be better Bible students than that.  First, I don’t think Jesus ever said anything to make “one simple point”.  His teaching has so many layers to it that I think it’s the most difficult thing in the Bible to understand fully.  You can get the surface meaning pretty quickly, but the deeper aspects take years or decades (or never, this side of Jordan) to understand.

Second, if the parable of the prodigal son has a simple point, “Just come home,” isn’t it.  I think you could make the argument that “Just come home,” is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry (as per Luke 19:9), but He’s doing something different here.  Luke 15:1-3 tells the story:

  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."  So He told them this parable:

Then, immediately following, you’ve got the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.

Notice that the context begins with the observation that the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus.  There was no need to tell those prodigals to come home.  They already were coming! 

The problem was that the religious elites who saw all this, rather than rejoicing, were grumbling because Jesus was associating with riff-raff, which they themselves surely would not have done.  They are so obviously in need of a dramatic attitude adjustment that it is to the “righteous”, rather than to the sinners and tax collectors, that Jesus relates His trio of parables. 

First, He uses the parables of the sheep and the coin to show that even if the Pharisees aren’t rejoicing over all the repentant sinners, all of heaven is.  God has invited the angels to share in His celebration!  Contextually, then, the point of the parable of the prodigal son is that if the Pharisees don’t join in the rejoicing (as the older brother didn’t), they will remove themselves from the household of the Father, refusing to come in, even as He begs them to do so.

The parable of the prodigal son, then, isn’t a lighthearted offer of reconciliation, complete with cute cartoon pigs.  It’s a sobering warning from Jesus to the Pharisees (and indeed to everyone who is “religious”) to check their hearts.  We, not the sinners around us, are the ones who are in danger of ending up on the wrong end of the parable. 

The only people who are going to enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who share the goals of the King of heaven.  Even though sinners have grieved Him by their rebellion, He longs to be reconciled with them.  We are His chosen instruments for doing exactly that.

How do we feel about our work?  Are we as zealous for the lost as God is?  Or, instead, are we indifferent to them, or even actively hostile, like the Pharisees were?  Are we the kind of Christians who, deep down, don’t want messy people in our neat little church? 

Jesus wants us to understand that that spirit will leave us on the outside looking in too.

Holiness Versus Reconciliation

Friday, October 25, 2019

Yesterday’s discussion about family withdrawal was notable both for its length and its civility.  It certainly made me think a lot about what I had written, and eventually I realized that the back-and-forth was about one underlying theme:  the tension between holiness and reconciliation.  In our dealings with those who have fallen from grace, should we be more concerned about restoring them or protecting ourselves from temptation?

If we wanted to, we could create a long list of Scriptures arguing both sides of the point.  Paul’s incredulous question in 1 Corinthians 5:6, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”, appeals to the Corinthians to consider their own holiness.  On the other side, Jesus’ declaration in Luke 5:32, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” certainly affirms His desire to reconcile.

What are we to make of this?  Is Jesus’ example not one we are to follow?  Is Paul instructing the Corinthians to be un-Jesus-like (not that they needed much help with that)?

I think the answer has to do with the spiritual condition of both Jesus and the Corinthians.  In our interactions with anybody, our first concern has to be our own holiness.  Worldly people are dangerous; lapsed Christians are even more dangerous.  They are on a downward spiritual trajectory, they have a pre-existing relationship with us, and if their sin is not identified, they potentially can corrupt an entire church.

In our dealings with such people, we shouldn’t try to pull them out of the water if they are going to pull us out of the boat instead.  This, of course, was the Corinthians’ problem.  Instead of condemning sin, they were celebrating it!  As a result, Paul counsels them to protect what little holiness they have left by cutting off contact with the sinner.

Jesus’ conduct was very different because His spiritual condition was very different.  Rather than shunning covenant-breaking Jews, He sought out the worst covenant-breakers he could.  He ate and drank with prostitutes and tax collectors. 

However, this doesn’t reflect foolishness on the part of our Lord.  It reflects righteousness and love.  He knew that those wicked people wouldn’t drag Him down.  Instead, He would lift them up.  Because His holiness was secure, He could afford to seek reconciliation.

As we make decisions about how we should approach erring brethren, especially erring family members, we must ask ourselves whether our spiritual condition is closer to Corinth or to Christ.  This is not an easy question!  It is often true that those who are closest to the fallen-away are on spiritually shaky ground themselves.  If we lie to ourselves about our own strength and minimize the danger, they will drag us down too.  Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall, indeed! 

On the other hand, it may be that we have the spiritual maturity we need to follow the example of Jesus.  Again, never should we reach this conclusion lightly!  Otherwise, like Peter, we may be out of the boat before we figure out we don’t have what it takes.

However, if our faith is strong enough, we may have opportunity to engage in that most praiseworthy of Biblical pursuits:  turning back the sinner from the error of his way.  Maybe cutting off all social interaction is the best way to accomplish this (and if our holiness is not what it should be, it’s the only tool we have); maybe continued contact and loving admonition is.  I’m not here to judge anybody else’s judgment calls.  I am certain, though, that we must keep the goal in mind and seek it as best we know how.

Truly, blessed are the peacemakers, but so too are those who suffer loss while they themselves are saved.  Let us seek the first, if possible, but let us never forget the second, always bearing in mind the wisdom of Galatians 6:1:  “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

Is Family Withdrawal a Biblical Practice?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Over the past several years, I’ve become aware of a practice among brethren that I’ll call, for lack of a better term, family withdrawal.  Here’s how it goes:  a child of Christian parents falls away, usually in some dramatic fashion.  In response, their family, particularly their parents, “withdraws” from them.  They won’t eat with them.  The erring Christian is no longer welcome at family gatherings.  Sometimes, they won’t even talk to them.

This is certainly a severe sanction.  As a young man, I would have been devastated if my parents had chosen to shun me like that.  However, I do not believe that it is Biblically required, and I am not at all certain that it is even wise.

First, it’s worth noting that all of the passages in the New Testament that concern generic withdrawal, Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, are addressed to churches.  These are texts about how communities of believers are to censure unruly members. 

There is no corresponding command given to individuals (I believe that 1 Timothy 6:5b in the KJV is a later addition and does not belong in the text).  Just as it is error to presume that anything an individual can do, the church can do, it’s equally erroneous to presume that all individual Christians are granted the powers of the church, and church discipline needs to be left in the hands of the church.

Even in cases where the church does withdraw from an individual, that decision will have different effects on the Christian family members of that individual than it will on anyone else.  For instance, the woman of God whose husband is withdrawn from is still responsible for honoring 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, which calls her to the most intimate relationship of all.  Indeed, if we read the text strictly, 1 Peter 3:1-6 appears to be addressed specifically to women with out-of-duty husbands.  She is to attempt to win him back not by showing disapproval, but by showing love.

It’s appropriate to view other family relationships through a similar lens.  Most Christian fathers understand Ephesians 6:4 to be primarily about young children, but secondarily to be about adult children.  Certainly, my father continued to instruct me as long as he lived!  Is family withdrawal more likely to be recognized as discipline and instruction, or as a provocation to anger?

We need also to consider 2 Thessalonians 3:15.  Whatever actions we take as the result of a withdrawal, they need to communicate brotherly love and admonition rather than enmity.  This is a particularly powerful instruction in a family context.  Natural affection  (the absence of which Paul condemns in Romans 1:31) calls families to associate with one another.  If I stopped inviting my siblings to my house for the holidays, all who heard of it, even in the world, would assume that we had become enemies. 

Of course, in the final analysis, all of us can associate with whomever we please and shun whomever we please.  If someone believes that cutting off social interaction is the wisest way to deal with a child who isn’t faithful to the Lord, they can do that.  However, that’s far from the only godly way to proceed, and I suspect that it is rarely the best. 

Certainly, things cannot continue as they were between any Christian and a family member who turns their back on God, but there’s a lot of distance between that and cutting off most/all contact.  In my experience, parents are most successful when they negotiate a middle way between those two extremes.  Continued interaction combined with godly admonition seems to be the combination most likely to win an erring child back.  Ostracism, on the other hand, rarely convinces anyone. 

Ellen DeGeneres and Kindness

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A few days ago, Ellen DeGeneres made headlines by sitting next to George W. Bush and daring to interact cordially with the man.  Many expressed their shock that she would be civil to a conservative who did lots of conservative things while he was president.  In response, DeGeneres opined that you’re supposed to be kind to everyone, regardless of what they have done.

As unremarkable as this might sound to Christians, apparently it too was controversial.  Yesterday, this op-ed from Vanity Fair wandered across my news feed (side note:  how many Vanity Fair readers these days are aware that the title comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress?).  In it, the author takes DeGeneres to task for her never-never-land moralizing when presented with an enemy like Bush.  Among his sins, the author numbers not only his intentional actions (starting the Iraq War) but also his unintentional errors (botching the response to Hurricane Katrina).  One should, apparently, not socialize with those who make mistakes.

In this, I can’t help but see a twofold reminder of a) how badly we need Christ in order to be kind, and b) how bad things get without Him.  Have self-professed Christians been ungracious and vengeful too?  Of course they have!  However, even atheists realize that this is not how things are supposed to go.  The most religiously ignorant American out there is still aware that Jesus stands for the idea that you are supposed to be nice to people.

For those who are in the faith, the relationship between Christ and kindness is profound.  Because of His grace, our lives are hidden in Him, and we have the hope of eternal life.  His example teaches us to be gracious, and His blessings free us to be gracious.  I can be kind even to my enemies without fear of being taken advantage of, because the damage they might do to me pales in comparison to the riches of His grace.  Jesus makes His people invincible in doing good.  No matter what happens, we still will overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us!

Take Christ away, and the invincibility drops out.  If our lives aren’t hidden in Him, they can’t be hidden anywhere.  Instead, we have to be eternally vigilant against threats to the things we value, and we must attack our enemies constantly to make sure they can’t harm us.  Without the wealth of Christ’s forgiveness, we can’t afford to forgive others.  In a dog-eat-dog world, the only imperative is to be the top dog.

It is only natural, then, for folks like the Vanity Fair writer to be vengeful, to be angry at DeGeneres for not scoring political points when she had the opportunity.  Doesn’t she understand that this is ideological war to the knife???  You should only dole out kindness when you know it is safe and it will cost you nothing.  Certainly, kindness should not be lavished on enemies!

To the worldly mind, all of the above makes sense and is logically consistent (and note, by the way, that I believe such worldliness is all too evident on the left and right alike.  Donald Trump is not noted for his kindness to his enemies.).  However, when a society embraces norms of ungraciousness and vindictiveness, the potential for disaster almost cannot be overstated.  Civil wars don’t come from political disagreement.  They come from the hearts of people who believe their enemies are hateful and worthless. 

Christ stands for kindness because He stands for the intrinsic value of everyone.  Apart from Him, I don’t know of any way to reach the conclusion that everyone matters.  Without Him, we inevitably will behave as though no one does. 

Amber Guyger and Forgiveness

Friday, October 04, 2019

My father liked to observe (not original to him, I’m sure) that the parable of the prodigal son had been preached on from every perspective but that of the fatted calf.  You’ve got the prodigal’s perspective, the father’s perspective, and the older son’s perspective, all of which offer different spiritual insights.

I think the same is true of the story of Brandt Jean forgiving and embracing Amber Guyger, the murderer of his brother.  Because Jean is a Christian (and how!), many brethren have been drawn to write about the grace he showed.  Indeed, I’ve agreed with and endorsed everything I’ve read from them.

However, I think there’s another perspective here, and that’s the perspective of the murderer herself.  If you are a worldly person, how do you feel about forgiveness on such an epic scale?

I think the question is easy to answer with respect to forgiveness’s opposite.  Let’s say Jean had gone up to Guyger and coldly informed her that he did want to see her rot in jail, and indeed, to see her rot in hell. 

I think most people, Amber included, would see that as a natural (Ephesians 2:3 overtones intended) reaction from an 18-year-old whose brother had been brutally gunned down.  Indeed, Titus 3:4 observes that being hateful and hating one another is the expected state of the sinner (side note:  is it any wonder that as Christian values decline in our nation, hatred seems to be on an inexorable increase?).

We understand that.  We get that, and I think that Guyger would have understood and gotten hatred and condemnation.  Perhaps, in light of her expressions of remorse, it further would have crushed her and added to her guilt.  Perhaps it would have made her defensive and hardened her heart against Jean and his family.  These things too are reactions that are natural to us.  We are prepared to see them and even to experience them.

On the other hand, if you are Amber Guyger, what in the world do you do with forgiveness?  Hatred makes sense.  Love does not.  It is not what you are prepared to receive.  Something that is not natural has occurred.  The ground under your feet that you thought was stable has suddenly shifted. 

That sense of mingled unease, awe, and fear is the sign that God has touched the world again.  It appears literally all the way through the gospels, following hard on the heels of many (most?) of the miracles that Jesus works.  He leaves people reeling, struggling to comprehend that the light of an ordinary day should have shone upon such a thing.  This is most evident in the terrifying stillness of the empty tomb.  His closest disciples flee the scene of His greatest miracle because a dead Jesus is easier to accept than a living one.

I believe that God touched the world again when Brandt Jean said, “I forgive you,” Every time a Christian does something that awes us, we see and feel the evidence of His handiwork.  Does this constitute proof in any rigorous, scientific sense?  No, but I think even the atheists in that courtroom that day know in their heart of hearts what they experienced. 

Do as you will with your life, Amber Guyger, but know this.  The kingdom of God has come near to you.

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