“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.” -John Newton
A hallmark of human history, and especially our world today, is people pointing their fingers at other people. No one is immune from it. The democrats point at the republicans, the progressives at the conservatives, the socialists at the capitalists, the debtors at the creditors, the conspiracy theorists at the bankers and governments, the theists at the atheists, and vice versa, so on and so forth. It is an endless cycle of finding some alleged ignoramuses or agitators or elitists or sociopaths to blame. Where does any of that pointing get us? Does it bring us any satisfaction or any closer to the truth of our situation? Any closer to the solutions for our human predicament?
Jesus certainly knew better than that. His teachings revolutionized how people thought about sin, human nature, God and salvation. Instead of people pointing the finger at the sinners “over there”, he showed us that God wants us to help our fellow brothers and sisters by pointing the finger at ourselves. Instead of people toiling away to reach God through their rituals and works, he showed us that God will sacrifice for us out of pure love and bring us to him. Instead of people being redeemed through their legalistic loyalty or obedience to others, he showed us that we are redeemed by his amazing grace and by that grace alone. We find these revolutionary concepts captured brilliantly in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:11-16)
In the first century, a son asking his father to give him his future inheritance was an unparalleled insult and sign of rejection. It was the equivalent of the son wishing the father dead. The prodigal son not only made this insulting request, but he then took the inheritance out into the world and recklessly squandered it all on selfish luxuries, to the point where he was eventually living in hunger and poverty and filth. Here we have a picture of humanity post-fall, after Adam rejected his father (god) and went out into the world, and his descendants squandered their glorious inheritance on the unnecessary pursuits of this world. We have made our bed in a world of greed, violence, hunger, disease and suffering, and we have forced ourselves to sleep on it.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 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.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:17-20)
After much rebellion and suffering, the prodigal son finally comes to repentance; he comes to understand that he owes his father absolutely everything in his life and that he is not even worthy to be called his father’s son anymore. The amazing thing to see here is the father’s reaction – instead of waiting for his son to come begging for forgiveness, the father runs out to his son in an emotional frenzy. Back in those times, fathers would never be portrayed as being so emotional, and they were certainly never portrayed as running around in their robes and sandals… only mothers were thought to act that way. Jesus’ description of God here is the exact opposite of patriarchal wisdom of that time – God is a supremely emotional being who was brimming with love for his lost children.
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21-24)
God does not wait for his children to come begging for forgiveness, but instead brings them into repentance out of his limitless love for them, so that we may rejoin his family (Ephesians 1:5). Even before the prodigal son can begin to lay out his “payment plan” for his father, to make his request to become one of the father’s hired servants, the father stops his son and clothed him with his best robe; the one worn by the father himself. He ordains an extremely expensive celebration for his returned son, as demonstrated by the provision of a fattened calf. God does not ask that we repay our spiritual debts to him, because that is impossible. Instead, he brings us to repentance and then clothes us with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 3:22). Our eternal rewards in Christ’s redemption will be much greater than the innocent inheritance we originally lost.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 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.’” (Luke 15:25-32)
Here we find the most revolutionary part of the parable, as we are introduced to the older son. Most people of that time and still today would identify with the anger, frustration and jealousy of the older son. Instead of taking his inheritance and squandering it away on selfish pursuits, he remained obedient to his father and toiled away in the field. All of those years he remained within the loving embrace of his father, yet he never received a huge celebration like the one taking place for the prodigal son. Now, when seeing his younger brother return after a life of depraved sin and receiving this elaborate banquet, the older brother refuses to attend and castigates his father for such a display.
What Jesus did here was to revolutionize the very concept of sin against God; the definition of evil. It is true that the younger son lived a life of sin and was lost for many years, but now, in a surprising turn of events, we find out that the older son has become just as lost as the younger son was before. It becomes clear that the older son was living a life of obedience out of a desire to attain worldly benefits; to be the favored son of his father who would be rewarded in proportion to his works. In other words, he was using his “righteousness” as a means to an end. Jesus tells us that this type of self-righteous and covertly selfish attitude is just as rebellious to God as a life of disobedience and depravity.
Therefore, we must first and foremost point the finger at ourselves. Are we living a life of repentance and obedience to god for the sake of our own status, success, comfort, material rewards, etc., or are we doing it out of our love for god and nothing else? Scripture tells us that Christ is not a means to an end, but the end itself (Revelation 1:8). He is the absolute lens through which we must view every single aspect of our lives and the lives of others. Through him we will recognize that every human being out there, from the most depraved sinner to the most self-righteous “philanthropist”, is equally in need of god’s grace and redemption; that we are all lost in our own separate ways, but we share at least one thing in common – only through Christ’s love can we be found.