It’s fitting that Andy Stanley chose the end The Grace of God with the story of the prodigal son.
It’s a familiar story. The younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, squanders it in riotous living, repents and returns home, hoping to work as a servant. The father welcomes him with open arms, and orders the fatted calf to be slain for the celebration dinner. The dutiful older son resents this favorable treatment for his brother, and his father has to take him to taks for his attitude. We don’t learn what happened after that.
When I’ve studied this passage (Luke 15) before, and I’ve heared preached many times. We usually focus on the younger son, or the father, or the older son. For some reason, reading the account as told by Stanley, it struck how like both sons we are.
We are the prodigals, and we are the dutiful sons – and often at the same time. It’s the genius of the story – we can identify with both sons, because we are both sons. We are the prodigal who indulges in sin, and we are the obedient older son who keeps faithfully at what’s set before us.
And there’s tension between these two sons, these two ideas, and Stanley calls it the tension of grace. “It’s this tension that makes grace so slippery,” he says. “Perhaps it’s this tension that has driven churches and Christians through the centuries to add to and subtract from grace. There’s something in most of us that screams, It can’t be that easy. But as much as we want to qualify grace, it can’t be qualified.”
We identify with the prodigal, because we are sinners. And his repentance was genuine, and recognized by that father as genuine.
We identify with the obedient son, because we have all been there. Like Martha washing the dishes and preparing the food while Mary lounges around with Jesus, we wonder why our contribution isn’t being recognized. After all, the older son stayed with the father, stayed at the homestead, and worked beside his father while his brother indulged himself in pleasures (however fleeting).
And there it is – that tension. We want the younger son to be forgiven, because we were forgiven. But shouldn’t he have to prove himself? Couldn’t God make this a little harder?
It’s helpful to remember the context for the story. Jesus had been teaching and preaching, followed by large crowds wherever he went. He was especially popular among the tax collectors and known “sinners,” and that rankled the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
So Jesus tells them three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost, or prodigal, son. All three stories have the same point – the importance of the sinner who repents. Telling three stories with the same point punched the point home. Saving the story of the prodigal son for the last really punched it home – there was no evading whom Jesus was talking about.
The interesting thing about Jesus was that his listeners always understood his message, even when it was clearly aimed at them. The Pharisees got the point of the story. They knew Jesus was talking about them.
And no matter which son we chose to focus on, Jesus is still talking about us.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Grace of God. Today’s discussion concludes the book. To see more posts on this final chapter, “How Sweet the Sound,” please visit Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.
Painting: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (circa 1669). Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.