We’ve been preaching a sermon series at Burke United Methodist Church called “Love actually” (titled after a favorite movie of my wife and me). We’re going through the four types of love in Greek: storge (family affection), philia (friendship), eros (romantic desire), and agape (Godly benevolence). To talk about family love, I chose to look at the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15, or as my favorite preacher Jonathan Martin calls it, “the story of the two lost sons.” I love it when Jonathan preaches about a passage before I preach on it, but two weekends ago we preached about the same passage at the same time, so I’ll be drawing a little from both sermons in this blog post. The better sermon on the topic can be found at Renovatus’ podcast here. I wasn’t enamored with my own sermon, but here it is:
I think what this parable teaches about the heart of God is that His goal is to create a safe family for all of us to belong to. All of His law, His expectations for our holiness, the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins, God’s prerogative to decide who spends eternity in communion with Him — all of these things have the radical hospitality of this perfect fatherly love as their goal. The way to exclude ourselves from God’s party is to insist on being permanent saboteurs of His hospitality, basically to refuse His mercy and reject His command to become His mercy towards others. As Jonathan points out, both of the brothers in the parable “give their dad the middle finger” in a different way, rejecting his vision of a safe and loving family.
Before looking at the story itself, it’s worth pointing out that we should not presume it to be entirely self-evident and natural to call the creator of the universe “our Father.” No other religion in the world views the source of the universe’s being as a personal loving parent the way that Christianity does. We can call God father because Jesus did, and as He declares to Mary Magdalene in His resurrection, God has become our father too (John 20:17). It is very easy to take God’s fatherly status for granted, but we shouldn’t. It is a product of Jesus’ incarnation, as Hebrews 2:10-11 explains:
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.For this reason Jesusis not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
God loves us as a father loves his children, regardless of what we understand about Him, but it is Jesus who makes this fatherly love known to us. In Jesus’ parable, we see two basic ways that we can sabotage the safety of God’s family. Jonathan points out that what both brothers had in common was that they wanted to be treated like hired hands rather than sons. That’s a huge insight that I hadn’t thought of before.
What makes the younger brother’s request for his inheritance so egregious is the way that he’s treating his own father like an impersonal business associate. You’re supposed to give me X amount of money as my inheritance; I’d like it now please. It is an attitude of presumptuous entitlement. Now just about every evangelical Christian who likes to share their testimony has a prodigal phase that they talk about before they “knew the Lord.” But this attitude of entitlement doesn’t exactly go away after we “get saved.”
I don’t know about you, but even though I was supposed to be convicted by my father’s love for me after he killed the fatted calf and gave me his robe and signet ring, I didn’t stay home for very long. I went back to the city again. I think of the 80’s movie Parenthood where the father Frank Buckman has repeatedly bailed out his youngest son Gary who has a huge gambling problem and he finally comes up with a game plan for Gary to take over the family business after he retires, to which Gary responds that he will take up his father on his offer after he explores one final “opportunity” in Chile.
I’m not sure what God does to prodigal sons who keep on going back and forth between their fatted calf homecoming parties and relapses of “city life.” I do know that when I take God’s grace for granted and engage in habitual sin, it makes my prayer and worship life into a farce that feels too awful and disgusting to count as a party where I am being welcomed home. I’m not sure whether God ever tires of giving fatted calf parties for the same prodigal over and over, but if we grow entitled enough to be unsurprised by and ungrateful for God’s mercy, then His insufferable kindness is going to become eternally torturous to us.
The older brother’s attitude is a different kind of entitlement. He knows that he’s good at rule-following so what he wants more than anything is a meritocracy that will give him power. He wants a contract that gives Him rights like a hired hand rather than a covenant that gives Him the honor and protection of sonship. He will slave away for his father as long as it gives him the mandate to be the gatekeeper of his father’s house (c.f. Matthew 23:13). What Jesus’ story suggests in its contrast between the younger and older brother is that it’s actually harder to be rescued from being perfectly right and utterly without love than from being a presumptuous, freeloading scoundrel who recognizes his wickedness.
This is why holiness is one of the most dangerous concepts in Christianity. Christians whose zeal for holiness is not directed toward the goal of becoming God’s perfect mercy for the world are trapped in the most poisonous of trances. If your perfectly exacting discipline in following God’s rules does not produce the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in your dealings with others, then you truly are no better than Lucifer. Obedience without love is disobedient to the purpose of all of Christ’s teaching: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (John 15:17). To be trapped in self-justifying rightness is paradoxically the furthest away from righteousness you can stand.
If your desire for holiness is truly borne out of love for the God who wants to be the perfect host of a safe and hospitable human family, that means you are striving to gain a heart purified of every idolatry and selfish agenda so that you can sit patiently at the feet of the most egregious sinners in the world, judging them with nothing more than the pure love that has broken your own heart every time your heavenly father picks up his skirts and runs down the road to cover you with kisses that welcome you home.
And yet, even if your “holiness” has turned you into a poisonous, self-righteous schmuck, God is still going to coax you gently back into the party where the free-loading imbeciles you hate so much are being celebrated for coming back home. He’s not going to say, “You disrespectful jerk! You say that you slaved away for me all these years. I’ll show you slavery!” He says instead, “You know that you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”
God won’t force us to come to His party. We can choose to disinherit ourselves from His family either with our self-justifying, loveless obedience or our presumptuous, free-loading entitlement. But God’s purpose in however He handles us is always to create a safe and loving human family in communion with Him. He’s not beholden to any rules that we want Him to enforce or any intolerance that we want Him to affirm in us. Whatever doors He shuts or leaves open express a love more perfect than we can imagine or embody. He does not honor our need for a meritocracy in which we can earn a gold star. He refuses to offer us anything except for mercy, and He demands that we accept it and become it. That’s what the love of a heavenly father looks like.