Saturday, July 22, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 25

We've been exploring what Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son tells us about God the Father.

Here's a third thing it tells us: The Father throws a party every time a sinner turns away from sin and comes back to Him to receive life.

This is a point Jesus drives home throughout Luke 15. The tale of the rebel son and his waiting father comes as part of a trio of stories told to the religious in-crowd of Jesus' day. They had asked, accusingly, why Jesus hung out with the ne'er-do-wells of society: extortionists and prostitutes and other unsavory characters. Jesus explained that these folks were lost, people who had wandered far from God, and He was in the business of going to them in order to bring them back to the God Who loved them and wanted to give them life. That was His job.

The first story in the trio is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, loses one, and risks all just to get the one back. When he comes back, the once-lost sheep slung across his shoulders, he invites his friends to a celebration.

Next, Jesus talks about a woman who loses a single coin. She turns her house upside down to find it, checking between and beneath the sofa cushions where everything from popcorn to pocket combs always seem to go, until the coin is found. When she finds it, she too contacts the neighbors and invites them all over for a party.

In the story of the runaway son, the father kills the fatted calf--something saved for only the most special of occasions--and invites all the neighbors for a big blow-out.

"This is what happens," Jesus tells us, "whenever one of you turns away from sin and returns to God."

We've said that God our Father is nothing like the earthly fathers the people in Jesus' original audience would have experienced. We've also said that He's a Father Who cares little for His dignity when it comes to begging us to come back to Him. And He's a Father Who has a celebration when we, his lost and rebel kids, come back home to Him.

But we need to be careful that we don't take the Father for granted. He is still the King of the universe and not to be played for the chump!

Years ago, I remember a man telling me how he thought life worked. (Always beware of people who tell you how they think life works. They're almost always wrong. The only such statement you can trust comes from those who point to the Bible as the only reliable record of God's self-revelation and tell you, "This how God has revealed life works.") This guy told me: "I think all of us get to do whatever we want and then, on our deathbeds, we tell God we're sorry and He lets us into heaven."

This cynical approach reminds me of something George Bernard Shaw once said: "I love to sin. God loves to forgive. It's really an admirable system."

There are several things to be said about viewing God as some indulgent uncle.

First, the Father's desire to forgive sin, to be reconciled with us, doesn't make His a soft touch. We need to go back to Him. If the son hadn't turned back to the father, there would have been no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no party. This turning back is what the Bible calls repentance.

Second, we have no guarantees about the circumstances of our deaths. So, to bank on our being able to repent before drawing our last breaths is a the highest-risk gamble we can make.

Third, repentance of the kind this guy spoke to me about is, I think it's safe to say, less than authentic.

The gracious acceptance that God extends to the human race through Jesus Christ is free. But, as one great Christian thinker, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it, accepting the eternity of forgiveness and love God offers as a free gift will nonetheless cost us our lives. Repentance entails emptying our hands of all the little gods--including ourselves--on which we are prone to build our lives and to instead, rely on only one God, the God revealed as Father, Who sent the Son to call us back home.

Repentance is sort of like being thrown overboard while and holding onto an anchor that will surely drag us down until we let go of it and grab hold of the rope extended to us from the helicopter hovering over head. Repentance is more than grasping God's forgiveness then, it's also letting go of all that would otherwise kill us.

(The fellow who said he would put off repenting until he was on his deathbed also misunderstood what sin is. I'll address the nature of sin in a later installment of the series.)

In the next installment: What the older son in Jesus' story shows us about God the Father.

[Here is the link to the previous installment of the series.]

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