Thursday, February 09, 2012

Running to the Prodigal 6

... continued from yesterday.
Of course many prodigals may want to change but be completely unable to do so in their own power. This is one of the great insights of modern psychology, to realize the extent to which people can be enslaved to self-destructive patterns of behavior. We can find models in the New Testament that are similar.  Romans 7 pictures those who cannot do the good even though they want to.  Then there are the demon possessed of the gospels. Psychology, science, and sociology have filled in a number of details on enslavement to sin.

God of course can free the prodigal enslaved to the powers of addition directly, but more often than not he uses others who come alongside those who cannot free themselves from some addiction or self-destructive pattern.  Psychologists call it an intervention, and it was the kind of thing Jesus does throughout the gospels with miraculous power. Some prodigals will destroy themselves and everything around them unless someone reaches in to them from the outside.

That leads to my second take away from the parable.  Followers of Jesus run out to them, run out to the prodigal who wants to return.  We run out to them full of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Even beyond the parable, the spirit of Jesus would have us run out even to those who do not want to return.  We may not be successful. Perhaps failure is more often the outcome when it comes to prodigals, but that won't stop us from trying.

Who therefore was the main target of Jesus' earthly ministry? It was clearly the lost sheep of Israel. Again, these lost sheep for Jesus were not everyone, because "all have sinned." [1] Jesus' target were those who were blatantly lost, those who were most strikingly not included in the kingdom. These were the people most ignored by the righteous and the normal. These were the outcasts of Israel.

Who are our prodigal outcasts?  Who in our society have spiraled out of control?  Certainly there are countless children in our schools and youth in our towns who are on a path not only to their own destruction but to destroy many others around them in the process.  And we continue to have our share of prodigals enslaved to drugs or prescription medication, enslaved to alcohol, enslaved to poverty. There are those enslaved to sex, enslaved to gaming.

Most of these sorts of individuals do not have the power in themselves alone even to leave their "far away city." Their only hope is for someone to reach them, to penetrate their enslavement with miraculous power. Those of us in the West are privileged to live in a world where many non-Christian organizations and even governments have developed immense expertise in the human dimensions of human liberation. As Christians, we are smartest to work alongside these forces for good, realizing that God can use even a foreign king like Cyrus to do good in the world (cf. Isa. 45:1).

I want to make one final observation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son before moving on to others that Jesus included in the kingdom.  There are many pictures of what Jesus did on the cross, all of which probably give us part of the picture. One of the most popular right now is the idea that God's justice demanded a sacrifice, that someone had to suffer for the sins of the humanity.  Jesus did this for us and in our place.

There certainly seems to be some truth in this picture. Somehow Jesus' death seems to satisfy the order of things, the sense that wrongdoing calls for punishment. However, we should be careful not to assume that God had to do anything. To hear some talk about "penal substitution," the idea that Jesus took our punishment on the cross, it was almost a mathematical formula.  If the world had this much total sin, then someone had to be punished exactly that amount for anyone to be forgiven.

The God of Jesus in the gospels was not this sort of mathematician. The Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son simply forgives his younger son.  He does not demand that someone else pay back the debt for his son. He simply has the authority to pronounce forgiveness. We should be careful not to make justice a higher authority than God himself.

[1] While the insight that we are all prodigals of a sort is a very important truth, we Protestants have so emphasized it that we have lost sight of those Jesus actually focused on--the blatantly lost.

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