Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Prodigals Today 5

... continued from yesterday
So who are the prodigals today and how are we to treat them as Jesus followers?  Probably the most straightforward answer is to identify them with anyone who quite explicitly pursues a life he or she knows is wrong. Modern day prodigals have told the rest of the world that they do not want to "go work in the field."

Just to give perspective, there are a whole lot of us who go to church and at least try to appear to be good people.  Whether we turn out to be "older brothers" as in the parable is a discussion for a later chapter. The goal is for us to be like the father in the parable, to be a representative of our heavenly Father in our mercy and love. So I will return later to the question of hypocrisy and the more subtle sinfulness of the self-righteous.

But for now, let's just say that there are plenty of prodigals around as well. I could have said, there are plenty of people who have abandoned God, but I don't think a lot of prodigals experience their lives in such idealistic or spiritualized terms. To them, they are doing what feels good or what they want to do. They may not even believe that God exists or, if they do, he may be a fleeting thought at best.

Some prodigals know they are on the wrong path. They may be thinking they will eventually turn their lives around.  Or they may want to turn their lives around but find themselves enslaved to a pattern of self-destructive or wrong-doing behavior that they cannot extract themselves or change the pattern. And of course there are those that simply do not care. They are those who are like the seed that birds immediately snatch from the path in the Parable of the Soils in Mark 4--words of what their lives should be like go in one ear and out the other.

Again, the "older brother," the one that begrudges the prodigal, has his own subtle problems, but I want to focus here on the prodigal, the blatant wrongdoer.  Curiously, our realization that we "older brothers" have problems too has led some to accept problems as the status quo, rather than to see us as needing to fix things like the prodigal needs to fix things. But when we return to Jesus, we see that he wanted to see the problems of both individuals solved, not to create complacency with both sons as they were.

I would like to reduce our "take-away" on the prodigal to two points. First, followers of Jesus want to see prodigals redeemed. This works against our sense of justice. Justice insists that a person who does wrong receive an appropriate punishment. [1] Jesus wants to see the wrong doer reclaimed, forgiven.

This is not a "cheap grace," as if all the person who does wrong needs to do is say a few magic words. The prodigal son of Luke 15 was truly repentant. True repentance implies a real desire to change. The person who does wrong, says they're sorry, but continues to do the wrong over and over again, with continued apology, is either not truly repentant or perhaps is so enslaved that they cannot change in their own power...

[1] And of course the question of justice is its own question. One of the functions of government is to administer justice (Rom. 13:4). Systems of justice are arguably a different issue from the way we as individuals approach others.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think today there is a difference, as we have come to understand our Constitutional government, not as one that should legislate and over-intend our lives, as to our religious values, but allow all American citizens to live in relative liberty. Otherwise, we do live under a paternalistic oligarchy that demands our allegience at the costs of our salaries, as well as our liberties.

No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the sources of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed, and love of power. – P. J. O'Rourke

If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions." - James Madison

Jeff Brady said...

I am.

It wasn't until recently that I understand what it meant to be truly lost and therefore truly found. Only recently do I understand what pride and humility are truly about. Just in the last few months do I personally feel the freedom in Christ that Paul talked about... All it took was losing everything and being broken.

Because it was only by getting lost that I can now truly understand what it is to be found. I am the Prodigal.

We all are. Some of us have a harder time admitting it, and many Christians don't see or want to accept it. I wonder if there is a spectrum from lost to found, and we're all wandering on it. Most are at one end or the other (whether they like to admit or not), but many, I fear, are in the gray area between - they may not be sure if they are lost or found, or they may be fooling themselves into thinking they're something that they aren't (such as I thought I was found but was more lost than I could have imagined).

I also now have a deeper understanding of Christian justice. Many who have lived much of their lives thinking they're found but in reality are in the gray area or even lost are actually much harder, more judgmental, and difficult to work wtih or find the sort of forgiveness Jesus described in the face of repentance. It is the minority of Christians who truly were lost and are now found that mete out the same kind of reconciliation that Jesus described. Even for all our idealistic thoughts and words we may share together on Sunday mornings, until a person is faced with a prodigal in front of them it is a gamble as to who most Christians will react. In that moment is when we can truly see for ourselves if we are lost, found, or in between, because in that moment is when we are faced giving out the same gifts of grace and mercy that we supposedly received (Judge not, lest you be judged, etc.).

I am so grateful that my church family is in the minority of Christians who truly understand what it is to be both lost and found. I'm not sure how I might have reacted if faced with a church that acted like the older brother rather than the father. Luckily, blessedly, there are those in our faith who try to impart God's justice as they have received.

Because in the end, we're all prodigals. I'm glad my church family knows it.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think you have various assumptions (as we all do) in you comment, as well as questions.

You have assumed that your Church is a "family". That there is such a thing as "lost" and "found". And you also assume that you know what humility and pride are, as well as how "God" works to bring the Prodigal to repentance.

You presuppose that family and Christians will act in mercy and forgiveness. And you also question whether there is a grey area and whether we all are in the process of a journey whough we might not recognize it.

I think you are onto something about the journey because we are all becoming something as life is a journey in human experience. It is just a matter of what we desire to become and what we might want to do. Some might not be focused on the same character traits as you are, yet, they would acknowledge goals toward some journey, even as you describe them, and these might be unbelievers. Should we make values judgements upon what they choose for and in their lives? We do when we have some other vision or understanding of what "is best" for the other person, or if we fear for society and what these are doing.

I'm glad to hear you are reflecting on what "faith might mean" for you and whether you are being fair to others in making judgments. That is commendable in my book.

Such tolerance is necessary to protect and value in a free society, so that others that find thier "faith" in other ways, can.

Jeff Brady said...

Hi Angie,

I'm not sure if you're mocking me or not, or whether or not you're coming from a faith-based standpoint or not.

Yes I assume the Church is (or at least should be) a family... look at Acts 2, especially. If only my family acted that way!! The church is supposed to take care of each other, build each other, provide for each other, teach other, guide each other to growth even rebuke each other... some do it better than others. But aren't these the characteristics of a family?

And lost and found... if one believes in God, the Bible, and the Christian journey, then yes there is a very real state of being lost and one of being found. Lost (apart from God) may not be a state that a person realizes they're in, and it's not for me to judge who else may or may not be. I can only judge myself. Found (fully aware of how lost I was and now a recipient of God's grace and mercy and attempting to follow and emulate Him) is where I think I'm at, but in fact I could still be lost and not realize it until I reach some new level of self-awareness (more likely than not through some self-destructive tragedy, much as my most recent epiphany).

As far as pride, humility, or how God works to bring the Prodigal to repentance, I can most definitely attest. It took me losing my family (for a time), my job, my educational pursuits, and everything that I identified myself with to realize how selfish, prideful, and arrogant I was. In essence I realized how lost I truly was because I learned how truly meaningless I was to the world (thank you Ecclesiastes). And yet in this darkness, in the lowest place I've been and humbled lower than ever, God found me. He spoke to me. He ministered to my broken soul. He gave me worth. He gave me hope. He gave me joy despite having nothing in my life. He helped realize what my true priorities should be. It is these things that make me found. God isn't done with me, despite my selfish wanderings. I can be found squarely in His embrace.

As for your other criticisms of my presuppositions... well of course the Christian family SHOULD act in mercy and forgiveness. Ken alluded to it in his post, and Jesus only commanded it. So naturally we should, even though many don't.

As for us recognizing our journey... most people presume they're on some sort of journey. But until I was "found" I didn't realize how lost I truly was. By my reckoning, therefore, I was not lost or found but in gray area, because I had been living as though I was found, but acting a double life and was truly more lost than I could have imagined. However, in the moment... before God got hold of me, I thought I was securely found. That is why I say that most people, like myself (n=/=1 fallacy) don't even realize how lost they truly are or where they fall on the spectrum. To this end, then, is why I say that most are in a gray area until something happens (typically a tragedy of some sort, Wesley would have called it a Crisis of Faith) to show them where they truly stand and can then act on it to make their lives right according to the God they serve.

Yes, I have assumptions and pre-suppositions. But they create the framework of my life, and they have been drawn from my interactions with the Bible, my experiences with God, and the situations in my life that have formed my philosophies up to now.

Thanks for the interaction.

- Jeff

Ken Schenck said...

I hope your life is full of hope, Jeff...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jeff, I was not mocking you, just trying to be a little more organized than I usually am.

If you find peace with where you are, then, that is not for me to judge. I was only making the point that neither is it yours to judge another, which your questions reveal you struggle over. No one knows what another person has been through or how they have understood their lives, and if or how thier lives might have fallen apart, but we certainly should not make correlations about it to God!

We should set our lives on what is important and of value to our own lives and not feel like we have to be responsible for everything...we can be sure tha everyone will not agree with our "proposals or understanding". Find a place that is like family and can live with what you value, and live there in liberty!

FrGregACCA said...

First, Jeff, thank you for that witness, for sharing a bit of your story with us. It is often only those who have "been there" can really help those who are currently "there". (Of course, we are all, in a sense, "there" but many wish to deny that.)

The best model of which I am aware for real repentance is the 12-Steps. As part of the 12-Step process, making amends is required, not only for reasons of justice, but so that the one repenting and being healed is no longer bound by the sins of the past.

For those who are not aware, here the 12-Steps of Alcoholics' Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Steps 4-9 are most relevant here, but the first three steps are indispensable, laying the foundation for what is to come.

These steps come of a Christian context (the Oxford groups) and it is clear that with but little editing, they can easily be returned to their native soil and applied not only to alcoholism, but to any sin that has become an addiction. I would argue that everyone has such an addiction in their live, even if that addiction is simply the refusal to love and empathize with other human persons.