I popped onto Facebook to wish someone a “Happy Birthday” and read one or two posts by somewhat fundamentalist Christian friends along the way. Both were busy telling others how they were “less than” in God’s eyes either because of what those others thought or how they’d spoken in favor of another group “bound for hell” based on some relatively obscure verses in the Old Testament that have been taken out of context.
I found myself feeling sad, as I usually do after reading posts like these, though there are times when my frustration pops through in something I write in response, and I’m as guilty as the next. Once my anger dies down, I’m usually even sadder, discouraged even, because I think that if those fundamentalist Christian friends would only stop and think about what they’re saying, they might see that they’ve bound themselves up into rule-ridden boxes. I always go back to the fact that Jesus reportedly said that knowing the truth would set us free—not tie us up.
I almost always come around, too, to the parable of the prodigal son. But it isn’t the prodigal that I think of—it’s the other brother, the one who is outraged at the very idea that his father would make so much over the prodigal when he was the one who had been there. He was the one who had followed the rules, who’d stayed behind to do his father’s bidding (or what he thought was his father’s bidding). He was the good son. At least that’s how he’d thought of himself before.
I imagine that if there were other siblings in the family, he’d pontificated many times about how one was supposed to act. He’d probably talked about how that prodigal brother of theirs was evil and how he’d squandered his birthright. He was proud of the fact that he’d never strayed away. And on one level, I believe he should have been.
But the problem, I think, is that the older brother had made a mistaken assumption about his father’s love. He thought it was to his credit that he’d stayed at home and done the “right” thing. To say that something is to one’s “credit” is an accounting term, suggesting that on the score card of debits and credits, he’d deposited “cash” in his account that would be there when judgment came to call—leverage against the day when he’d be called on to pay a debt.
And then the prodigal came home. And his father, instead of demanding payment, had had the audacity to run out to meet the prodigal on the way. And then, OMG, to throw a party for him! Because the older brother had made that misassumption about his father’s love, everything on which he had based his sense of security, his pride in himself, his plans for the future crumbled right there in front of him.
We don’t know if there was more to the parable. We don’t know what happened in the days and weeks and years after the party was over. But I know what I hope happened, because it’s what I hope every day will happen to those fundamentalist friends of mine. You see, I hope that it dawns on them one day that although it is wonderful that they live what they consider to be “clean” lives—because they save themselves a measure of pain by never waking up in a pigsty—that that fact has nothing at all to do with their father’s love. I believe that if the older brother had waked up in a pigsty, his father would have responded in exactly the same way for him, but they never seem to think about that.
I’ll go out on a limb here and confess that I don’t believe the often trite pronouncement that Jesus came to “die for our sins,” so any argument based on that falls flat for me anymore. I don’t think Jesus came to die, though because he was human, he would’ve eventually anyway, like the rest of us.
Rather, I think Jesus came to show what it is like to live absolutely, positively, unconditionally loved—freed by the assurance that there is nothing we can believe or stop believing, nothing we can do or refrain from doing, zero, nada, nothing (which encompasses what anyone, including my fundamentalist friends, has to say about it) that can separate us from God’s love. (Paul said that, by the way.) My God doesn’t love us because. My God loves us, period. End of story.
So why am I sad? At the thought that anyone is so focused on following (and trying to force others to follow) a set of rules that he’ll never know what it is to live loved and discover the joy of living a “clean” life for no other reason than because it feels good. And I’m sad at the paradox that, of the two of them, it was the prodigal son who really understood the meaning of God’s grace.