In a brief Bible study this weekend, a group of us looked through the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke. One of my favorite parts of that story is remembering that BOTH of the sons are lost, not just the so-called Prodigal.

One of the people in the discussion mentioned that there is no way a party would be thrown in their family for one of the children returning home if in fact that child was returning home after living like the Prodigal–you know, squandering away everything the parents had given for fun and to fill one’s belly…

Since this person was a parent, I think I can empathize with the sentiment. What parent, in understanding the calling of a parent (or thinking they understand) could allow a child to return home after squandering away everything in godless living.”No party for YOU!! Glad you’re home, indeed, but what you did was STUPID. And you need to live with those decisions for a while.”

Indeed, who could respond like God (the Father character in the parable)? After being abandoned by the child and then knowing that child abused and wasted all that was worked so hard for as a parent, forgiveness and unconditional acceptance in the form of the kind of party the Father threw seems implausible and impossible. Certainly this passage does have much to say to each of us about how often WE are the child who prostitutes away all the God has given and continues to give.

But the thought that struck me in this discussion of the parable was the there is no option of whether or not to throw the party. If as a parent, one thinks their calling by God is to teach the child a lesson and not reward their bad behavior with a party (thus being an “enabler”), then such parents are mistaken. God forbid if every time we come to Him in repentance, when we return to Him after prostituting away all His goodness, He plays the retributive parent who sees it as His job to teach us a lesson.  Aren’t you glad that isn’t who God is: we’d NEVER experience grace. So in the end, there is no option: there must be a party.

But rather than turn this into a parenting principle, the point of the story is a forgiveness principle. That is, forgiveness must always be (and as we receive it from God Himself, it always IS) unconditional. The way I read the story, there is no need for a retributive parent figure–no need for anyone to teach the prodigal son a lesson. He is returning home repentant, already well aware of His sins, certainly not expecting forgiveness BUT retribution. Yet what does He receive but unconditional love, a reception impossibly beyond his deserving!

So where does this leave us in the world where the law tends to have a primary place in the role of parents, or, for that matter, in most of our relationships where people have hurt us, abused our gifts, grace, and love (like I said, in the end this isn’t a parenting principle, but a forgiveness principle — I’m just using the grammar of the parable)? Well, ultimately, when they return seeking forgiveness, there is no other option but to throw them a party, so to speak.

But let’s return to that idea of an “enabler” I mentioned above. Doesn’t that kind of receptivity, of welcoming the sinner back with open arms a kind of “enabling bad behavior”? If someone knows they can get away with whatever they want and always will be welcomed back with unconditional love, why would they ever stop doing the hurtful, abusive, immoral, selfish things? Because the wisdom of this world which tells us that people who behave that way need to learn themselves a lesson in good morals, that they need a kick in the pants toward good works and being a better person–that wisdom is foolishness in the Kingdom of God. That wisdom is the same kind of wisdom that the prodigal son’s brother lives by–he thinks he deserves so much more because he’s done the “right thing” and “worked hard” while his idiot brother has gone off and acted the fool. This worldly wisdom, this self-righteous thinking centered on our own good works with an over-emphasis on “good behavior” is what makes us Pharisaical, judgmental, and (this is quite sad) severely hardens our hearts against forgiving others, much less receiving forgiveness from them and more importantly, from God Himself.

The wisdom of the Kingdom, which is “foolishness to the Greeks” is the wisdom which is a stumbling block. It is the wisdom of the Cross. That wisdom says throw a party for the sinner. In other words, shower them with so much love, regardless of the sin (unconditionality), that all that is left is room for transformational response. The world has taught us that reform cannot possibly come through retribution, punishment for breaking the rules. People can’t be made better by “tough love” — for those who think so, they are the equivalent of the prodigal son’s brother. God doesn’t love like that. The cross took retribution out of the transaction and left room only for forgiveness. No payment needs to be made anymore. There is no economy now; there is only Gift, even if we can’t totally understand it.

The Gift is so shocking; so impossible to imagine and impossible to receive, that when we encounter it in the Cross and the grace of forgiveness from both God and others, we are actually encountering an entirely new reality. Only there, in this new reality where retribution doesn’t exist can we begin to conceive of living life different. In the overflow of love, in the unexpected banquet of our forgiveness, we respond transformed, as new creatures. We actually then begin to live like what we’ve experienced–out of love, with unconditional forgiveness, with true grace and charity. At that point, “good works” don’t matter anymore, because the life that is lived in love is finally exemplifying what the Scriptures actually mean when they speak of good works–that is, those actions which witness to and glorify God and which are only brought about by His transformative work. No longer must we concern ourselves with “good works” for they will flow freely. But as long as we are concerned with them, our attention is wrongly diverted–we might actually be one of the two lost sons.

I also wrote on Good Works for my last post. Check it out.