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Posts tagged ‘grace’

Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.



Rekindling Love

2 Timothy 1:6-9; 13, 14 [NRSV]

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.
Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Today’s scripture reading in 2 Timothy is a letter most likely written long after the apostle Paul had passed on. We can figure that out by looking at the literary character of 2 Timothy, the theology, and also the mention of historical things that occurred after Paul’s death. So most likely we are looking at a letter written by someone else, in Paul’s name [a ghost writer]. This isn’t trickery or meant to confuse us. This is simply a tradition of letter writing that honored a person and passed on his/her legacy. It is often referred to as a testament, the famous “last words” or legacy of a famous person. You can find this type of testament writing in the Hebrew Scriptures [Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.] and in the New Testament [Jesus].

The point of this testament letter is encouragement. At that time, probably the first part of the 2nd century, followers of Jesus of Nazareth were suffering persecution. False teachers were everywhere, promoting a false, agenda-based gospel, imperial cultures were spreading across the land, and people were scared and discouraged. So this letter encourages Timothy by reminding him of his roots. His mother, a devout Jew, and his grandmother, a follower of the Jesus way, were the ones who mentored him in faith. What was most important? Trusting God, finding grace in following this Jesus way, and embracing strength of the Spirit.

layingOnThe laying on of hands is of course a tangible symbol that we still use in the modern faith community. It is a physical touch that reminds a person of his/her connection to a wider community. It is a support  network. Typically, the modern church does the laying on of hands for ordination of clergy. But it really could be done at any time and in any place, and for anyone. Having experienced it myself on various occasions, I will say that it can be a powerful reminder that we are not alone.

Our practice of faith is not real unless it is lived out with other people, in the world.

The touch reminds us.

See, oftentimes the word faith remains just a word. This is a mistake.

Anyone can believe in something if he/she decides to believe it. We can believe some incredibly absurd things sometimes. If you watch a lot of television, you know where this can go. Some of us can believe someone or something without even checking the facts or even pausing for a moment to think about it!

Why is that? I think it’s because when we are desperate, we are willing to buy into anything that may relieve our suffering—even if it is completely hollow, empty, and even untrue. Suffering can cause that sort of desperation.

But this is not faith. This is just empty belief. I have plenty of experiences to back this up. Many people have come to me at various times in my life looking for concrete and quick answers to their suffering.

Give me the answer, Josh!

Make me feel better…and now!

What can I believe to make my suffering go away?!

Of course, they were always disappointed [and some got angry], because I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. There is no quick fix. Believing in some dogma or doctrine doesn’t heal your wounds, get you a good job, or fix your family’s issues. Neither does believing every word your religious leader says.

So here is why I find hope in 2 Timothy and what I hear it saying to us:

Faith is a muscle and must be developed and worked out over time.

Fear and suffering do not overpower grace and love.

Faith is a muscle. That’s right—it’s something we have to work on and develop. We can claim to believe in something or someone, but it doesn’t become real until that belief is tested in real-time, in the world. You say you love Jesus and believe in his teachings? Okay, that’s great. But it doesn’t become real until you are faced with applying that in your life. I have known plenty of people who said they loved Jesus but when it came to loving a person who identified as gay or lesbian, or someone they called immigrant; or someone of a different social level; or someone of another religious tradition; all of a sudden, that person’s love ran quickly out the door. I’ve also known too many people who claimed to be followers of Christ, but when they lost a job or got sick or suffered the loss of a loved one, they followed only a path of hate, depression, and apathy and sadly spread it around to others.

Faith is a muscle. If you don’t keep your muscles active, they develop atrophy. Faith can get flabby. It has to be tested by life. And it’s not easy. Throughout my life, my faith has changed drastically. Experiences have forced me to into a corner sometimes and I have had to adjust. Relationships with people have changed my way of thinking and living. Along this journey, I am so grateful for these slaps in the face, radical changes, and opportunities for growth. But it never ends.

pathNeither does suffering. And 2 Timothy does not ignore suffering. Fear is a real thing.
So the message is: don’t push your suffering and fear to the side.
Recognize them, and then embrace the grace and love you already have in you.

Rekindle it.

rekindleLight the match and illuminate the candles within yourselves.

Do not be ashamed is saying do no let fear rule your life.

Grace and love are fear-conquerors. In Timothy’s story, he did not come to faith because of fear.
He came to faith because people loved him and showed him grace. And he discovered God that way.

So do not be ashamed.

Love and grace are part of your story.

We need to hear this, you and I.

We too get discouraged with what is happening in our world. For sure.
It’s insane sometimes, isn’t it? How many wars need to rage on? How many people must suffer or die?
Why do some never get the food and water they need to live?
Why do others hoard money and resources all for themselves?
Why is there prejudice and racism in our communities?
Why do people seem to prefer violence over conversation?
Why do I suffer from physical pain?
Why are my memories of a horrific past still haunting me?
When will this suffering end?

These questions are unanswerable.
There are no cookie cutter solutions to make us feel better.

But, in honesty and in community, I think we discover that grace and love are more powerful than fear.

Yes, I know. Consider this planet–we are all very, very different and unique. We speak different languages, wear different clothes; we pray differently; we have different ideas; we often don’t agree. But we do share this: we all suffer and deal with the day to day struggles of life. We all do. In the midst of that suffering we search for meaning and peace. We all do. No matter where we live, there are times when we just don’t know if we’ll make it and there are moments when fear surrounds us. All of us around the world want children to be safe, loved, mentored, and fed. Everyone wants access to healthcare, and clean water, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and education, and a job that makes them feel useful to the world.
world.communeAn honest faith admits that this is not reality for everyone. Suffering is real. But an honest, developing faith doesn’t wait for things to get better, or for death, or for the second coming.

Instead, love and grace must be rekindled.

Today we should light that fire again, because this flame can consume fear.

That is our encouragement.
This fire–this light–exists in everyone.

And sometimes we will especially need others to lay hands on us and give us encouragement and a simple human touch. Other times we will need to re-light the fire in someone else who is depressed or without hope. And other times, as a community, we will need to join our flames together with others who also seek grace and love.

Friends, rekindle the flame of love and grace in yourself.

Look out into the world and see that we are not limited by these walls, nor permanently paralyzed by fear. We are indeed global citizens, light-bearers of a world in need of compassion and love.

So build that muscle.

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