Why can't we just read the Bible for what it says?
I'm getting tired of every time I mention this parable in connection to God's incredible love that goes beyond our ability to comprehend, people watering that down by trying to comprehend it. I still have a mental picture of my late Grandmother wagging her finger at me with a smile and saying "But..! He really repented!" Did he?
Earth to Those With Ears To Hear: You are trying to make the Prodigal Son into a "Hero," and he most certainly was not.
The other day I got into two disputes with 2 different Brothers in Christ on 2 opposite poles in their view of things. One of them is a self-styled champion of Grace, and views anything even a little bit discipleship as veering into "legalism" and "performance." He subscribes to a Dispensationalist view that tends to regard following the teachings of Christ as not for this age & steers the believer towards selected passages Romans & Galatians. The other discussion was on the Prodigal Son parable that Christ told, and involved a Brother who quotes from Jesus' call to discipleship a lot (nothing wrong with that, really) and uses phrases like "easy repentance" "to denote anything that may be just a simple acceptance of the truth as it is seen in Scripture: We would never find God if he had not come to us first. Well, suffice it to say that I view the former view as rank heresy and the latter as just a bit misguided, but today, my gripe will be with the latter view. Why? because I'm quite frankly tired of Christians trying to make the Prodigal Son in any sense of the word, a Hero. Let's face up to reality: He was not.
Per the discussion that inspired this blog, we were talking regarding to what extent a Christin is supposed to be "Radical" or "On Fire For God." My response was that I don't know many people who are, but it's not a requirement for Salvation. I still say that. If it were, the Prodigal Son would have to be left outside the gates of his Father's place.
I could agree on this: Belief in the Father in an unbelieving world is "radical" in a sense- because the world would rather deny his existence and their responsibility before Him. But the Prodigal Son didn't exactly have a clear understanding of who his Father is, thus the surprise ending. It didn't take "Radical Faith." It just took the faith of a Mustard Seed.
I doubt that the Prodigal had any notion that he was giving anything up because it was the right thing to do- if his Stocks had all returned good investments and/or the Government Bailouts had kept him afloat, he'd still be out there, partying down. I don't think he really got hit with the lesson that the story is meant to convey until heactually arrived home. When I think of "radical," "on fire for Jesus," I think of George Fox or Mother Teresa. "Radical giving, radical loving, radical repentance, radical sacrifice." just doesn't look anything like the story he lived. The Radical one in the story is the Father. Naturally, we go by his example.
But let's skip the small talk. To unpack this, take a look at the son's personal turning point. After spending his Father' inheritance and going from Riches to Rags, he wound up getting a job on a Pig Farm. Here's what he says to himself :
How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!
Now, take a look at a New Testament description of the way Jesus lived his life, and the Mentality a Follower of Jesus Christ is supposed to have:
Philippians 2: 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Notice any difference?
The First is a person who says "Well, what I tried didn't work, and I really have gotten myself into a huge mess over this, so maybe if I go back and apologize and suck it up, I can at least get in better circumstances."
The Second is Someone who never left the Father's Presence, had no need of anything else the World had to offer, and set out to humble himself from the get-go. He was always on Plan A, because it never failed and there was no need for a Plan B.
Does the Prodigal really have the Mentality of Christ?
Adam Clarke, a centuries -old old Methodist Bible teacher, and as such not one certainly to shy away from the "Cross" aspects of Christian life, has this to tell us in his commentary on this parable:
Verse 21. Make me as one of thy hired servants, is added here by several MSS. and versions; but it is evident this has been added, merely to make his conduct agree with his resolution, ver. 19. But by this a very great beauty is lost: for the design of the inspired penman is to show, not merely the depth of the profligate son's repentance, and the sincerity of his conversion, but to show the great affection of the father, and his readiness to forgive his disobedient son.
I don't know if Clarke is correct about the early manuscripts not having "make me your servant." But I don't care, because he clearly is reading the text for what it says. The "son" in this story cannot in any sense of the word, be said to have been living a "sold out' or "radical" life. He more fits the picture of the person who repented at the end of his/her life to avoid dire consequences. Of course, that's not ideal. But God loves those people too.
But what about the repentance that he actually offered? Here's the Speech the missing son had concocted in his head that he was going to give to the Father:
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.
It must be said that we really don't know just how heartfelt this was for him. The 1st thing he says to himself is his personal realization: "I'm in dire straits & where I came from was more comfortable." The 2nd is a speech he put together to say when he saw Dad: "I screwed up and I'm sorry." How much of the 2nd thing was actually his true attitude, and not just a concocted mia cupla, is unknown.
Noted that the Father's welcoming of his Lost Son began when he saw him coming home "from a long way off" and that when they met up, the former didn't even let the latter finish his spiel!
Adam Clarke concurs:
His tenderness of heart cannot wait till the son has made his confession; his bowels yearn over him, and he cuts short his tale of contrition and self-reproach, by giving him the most plenary assurances of his pardoning love.
He sought "fire insurance" and was more sorry that he got caught than anything else. When he "came to himself" as in Jesus' parable, there was no thoughts of how it's better to live an ascetic life free from the worldly pleasures that he just spent the last several years indulging in. It was how he can get a free meal & a place to stay thatwas better than slopping hogs.
What's "radical" about this parable isn't the Prodigals repentance, it 's the radicaness of the Father's embrace. Every "common sense" person would tell the Father that he was unwise in accepting back a son that hadn't done anything but spit in his face. We get hit with a very "radical" notion, however- the Brother thought he deserved better and -surprise- he did not. God pays you the same whether you start at 6am or at 8:45pm. We don't have any thing in the son in this parable that's worth modeling a Christian life after. We have the example of the Father.
But we have one more spiel to take a look at here. And it's that of the Angry Brother:
Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.
What's this? "I have never disobeyed your command?"
The entire parable is the result of the situation that is described in verses 1 & 2 of Chapter 15: That of Jesus' allowing Tax Collectors & Sinners to come near him, and the fact that the Pharisees complained about it.
Following this, Jesus tells 3 parables: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and the Lost Son. All of which reveal the heart of the Father in finding That Which Was Lost. Not so much on the ability of What Was Lost to get found. Or of how sincere the Found was behaving.
I have to ask: Just how likely is it that in the face of the Pharisees' criticism, Jesus is replying with an apologetic for the Sinners, telling critical people to ease up because they don't see the "Radical Repentance" these people are engaged in?
It can't be proven by the Father in the Parable of the Lost Son. After his Angry Son threw a fit and insulted the Old Man by not going into his house, the Father gives the Angry Brother this rejoinder:
And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
"He was lost and now is found." That's it. Same reason for rejoicing that's offered in the 1st 2 parables. Not "Well I know he screwed up royally, but he promises from now on to be a good boy." Jesus means to tell us 3 stories of something that was lost and now is found.
And the Brother? He's a picture of the Pharisees, complaining of the guy who got off easily. Well actually not, because the Lost Son got beat up by life in the process. And he's lying through his teeth when he says "I did everything you told me to."
Really? Just how compliant with the commands of God were the Israelites, if the truth were to be known and the tack were down to brass? He's saying two things here "Father, you are letting this guy off easy" and "I deserve better." No you don't. Israel spent as many decades as it could trying to stretch every limit of the Covenant as possible, even going beyond the Covenant if possible.
It seems like we have a story of 2 Sons whom God invited into fellowship in his household, without making an issue of their less than exemplary performance.
I have a "Radical" idea: Let's stop trying to make every verse fit the grid that we overlay on it. Let's just admit there are exceptions to every rule, and no one knows the reason why except the Inscrutable Mind of God. Otherwise, we wind up committing the Opposite Extreme error of Martin Luther, who wanted to throw out the Book of James beacuse it didn't fit his undsertanding of Grace. Certainly, we ought to teach Following Christ as it is, something that calls us to count the cost. But when I see Brothers and Sisters In Christ repeatedly stumbling in their attempts at getting "On Fire For God" and falling back into sin and self- conmdemnation, then I say it's time to call for a different strategy:
Matthew 11:28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
In this story, the One who Jesus asks us to be like is The Father. That's the only cast member in this play that's at all the picture of the Christian life as it was meant to be lived, and the only real Hero of the story. But -and this is where it gets tricky- part of the character of the Father was his Radical Acceptance of someone who most agree was a Selfish Shmoe. That's where he teaches Selfish Shmoes- and those who would cast them out- a thing or two about Radical Love, buy doing the unexpected for the undeserving.
And while I'm at it, since this blog is partially aimed at those who have interest in Mennonite thought, just how can God expect us to love our Enemies, if it was up to them to get their hearts right before we showed them kindness? John Drescher is a Mennonite Bible teacher who has a great quote about this, and as soon as I find it, I'll edit this entry to add it later.
The converse is to fall into the trap of the Angry Brother and demand more than the Father does, and not be happy with the Kindness the Father shows, since he really doesn't have to show any kindness at all!
- Romans 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?