A relationship with God is not primarily about rules and expectations, rituals and religious jargon. It is about joy and celebration expressed through receiving and giving. Remember, the God who created it all is intimately engaged with you and demonstrates this through love, even when we are not perfect, when we are, by others’ standards, unlovable because of the things we’ve done. Or not done. Or not been.
One of the most famous stories Jesus ever told is the story of a son who breaks his father’s heart to the core. After a life of giving his son love, honor, respect, and all the earthly security money can buy, the son packs up everything and moves out to live a life of pleasure and partying. He turns his back on his father, the family business, his brother, and all the great traditions and heritage he had. He longed to live a different kind of life, to experience the party culture of a foreign people, and he gets his wish. Cashing in everything he had, he wastes his time and money in drunkenness and sex parties, which quickly eats through his life savings. In the end, he finds himself experiencing foreign culture— okay, starving—as a farmhand feeding pigs. While he has no interest in a relationship with his father, he begins to reason that the farmhands who worked for him at his own family farm at least had enough to eat. He plans to go back to his father as a day laborer and makes the long trek back to the family farm. That’s where we pick up the story:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20a-24)
The son, in the midst of his realization, uses a religious word that has lost a lot of its meaning in today’s culture—sin. He says that he has “sinned against heaven” and against his father. This son has done lots of things wrong—he broke his father’s heart, wasted his inheritance, turned his back on his brother and family business, and brought shame to their name by becoming famous at partying. Sin, however, goes deeper than just the way he caused pain. Sin is something within us, a drive deep inside us that gives rise to the things we do. Sin is like a disease, a cancer of our soul, and even though some people are good at hiding that cancer, eventually it shows. It pops up as an outburst of anger, daydreaming about harming others, or using others for our own pleasure. It pops up as we take what isn’t ours, lie to others around us, and tear them up with our gossip and cruel posts online. These actions are the effects of sin, the symptoms of the cancer eating us up from the inside out.
“Grace tells us that we have worth and that we belong.”
The disease of sin has its symptoms . . . but so does love.
Love is also something deep within us, a yearning for beauty and for everything to be made right. And through God’s deep love and forgiveness, we can be set free from sin’s grip. That’s what we see here in this story.
Because of the father’s love for the son, as soon as he sees him, filled with compassion, he leaps into action. The father thinks of his son’s return as a second chance, as if his son who was as good as dead has come back to life! The father’s response? A party with extremely special and symbolic gifts. The gifts the father gives the son are not just material possessions—they represent relationship. The ring was a special ring representing the family’s power over financial and contractual transactions. The robe would have differentiated the son from the day laborers and employees; it would have shown others that he was an insider, a member of the family. The fattened calf was a special animal reserved typically for holidays when family and friends would have gathered. The father expresses his love in the form of celebration, joy, and special, meaningful gifts. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate!” These are the words of a gift giver who is overflowing with joy—and this is exactly how God looks at the possibility of a relationship with you.
What makes this story so incredible is that the son did not deserve the things he received. If anything, the son should have gotten the opposite. If we were writing the story, we would have made the son suffer, at least for a short time, to teach him a lesson. Make him sleep in the barn. If we were writing the story, we would have made him pay back what he squandered. Or maybe we would have refused to take him in. The story turns common sense on its head because it springs out of another idea we’ve lost track of in modern-day society—grace. Grace in the Bible is seen through expressions of love from God. These expressions of love from God to us have nothing to do with whether or not we are worthy of them. In fact, normally grace is given in the shadow of our unworthiness. These gifts are given to us not on the basis of anything we’ve done but simply because God desires to give them. Grace. Grace tells us that we have worth and that we belong. Grace. Grace is confusing because the world and every fiber of our flesh tells us that our worth is tied to what we bring to the party. We believe we belong only when we have something to contribute . . . but that’s not how God’s love works. God loves you. God expresses that love through the gift of grace. He says let’s have a feast and celebrate.
by Gary Chapman and R. York Moore
In a world of varying beliefs and endless opportunities, determining how to spend our lives can seem impossible. And even more difficult than...
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