Grace is one subject one hears very little about in conservative Churches of Christ except it be prefaced by a stern warning of what grace is not. If people truly understand what grace is there would be no need to constantly warn of what grace is not. They would be inviting everyone to share in that amazing grace God bestows on every one of his children. When you continually hear that grace is not this and grace does not permit that and how grace does not remove the responsibility of obedience and on and on you have to wonder if those giving such warnings really understand what grace is.
There is a class of people who fear grace. Jesus was continually confronted by these people. They were the Pharisees and law experts of his day. They were what would be known today as legalists. There is one notable example of such a confrontation found in Luke’s record of the life of Jesus. In Jesus’ response to these people he gives what I believe to be the clearest exposition of grace in all the New Testament.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2).
Notice that the Pharisees and scribes “grumbled” or “murmured.” It was like the courtroom scenes in the old western movies when a surprise turn of events caused the crowd to start mumbling and muttering. These people were looking for anything to use against Jesus and when they found him receiving and eating with sinners they just knew he couldn’t be a prophet sent by God. A true prophet would have known better than to associate with sinners.
In response to their grumbling Jesus taught three parables. The parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and what we call the parable of the prodigal son. I believe the last parable deserves a better title. It is really about the father and how he responds to both his sons in their very different situations. It is a story about what becomes of those sons because of the grace of the father.
In both the two earlier parables the focus is on the rejoicing – the partying – that takes place even in heaven when a lost sinner is found. That certainly is an element in the last parable, but there is much, much more than just the rejoicing.
Look carefully at the details of the parable. Look first at the younger son who goes to the father and asks for his portion of the inheritance. Is he tired of the restraints of living on the family farm, toiling in the fields day after day and having no fun? Is he tired of the watchfulness of his father over him, longing to be free – to be his own man? Does he think he is overshadowed by his older brother? Whatever his reason, the father grants his wish and allows him to go his way, no doubt with deep sadness of heart with dread and fear for his beloved son. He can’t stop him from going. The son would only have resented his protectiveness and chafed under the doting restraint of the father.
There were a number of Roman cities in the country on the east side of the Jordan River. One such that place might been the destination of this boy from the country was Gerasa, in the country now known as Jordan. The ruins show it to have been a rather large city of perhaps 800,000 people at one time. It is one of the best preserved ruins of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. It was an elaborately adorned city with a colonnaded forum, a large amphitheater, and many classic buildings. It was the kind of place a young farm boy might have gone to see the sights and experience new things.
Wherever he went, it did not take long for him to spend everything he had in “prodigal” or wasteful living. He was having the time of his life – until the money ran out. About the time the money ended “a severe famine arose in that country” and he “began to be in need.” Hiring out to a hog farmer would do little good since in a famine there is nothing to buy, even if one has money. For this Jewish lad, having to stoop to feeding unclean swine was the ultimate indignity. He had to be desperate to take such a job. The depth of his desperation becomes evident when the Lord says “…he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” Can you imagine wanting to compete with hogs for a meal of the coarse carob pods which they were rooting among to find a morsel of nutrition to sustain themselves?
He probably faced the reality that he was on the verge of starvation. Jesus says that he finally “came to himself” and decided that his only hope for living was to go to his father and beg to be hired as a servant. He wouldn’t ask his father to forgive him and take him back as a son. He didn’t feel he deserved that. He was willing to take the punishment of servanthood and not ask for the honor of sonship.
When the father sees him coming in the distance down that hot, dusty road he had compassion on him, he ran to meet him, embraced him and kissed him. Before he could get his prepared speech out, the father was giving orders to the servants to get everything ready, kill the fat calf and prepare for a party – a celebration – because “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!” The next statement is… “And they began to celebrate.”
What a wonderful story! But it isn’t just a heartwarming story. It is the story of the sinners Jesus was eating with. It is the story of the heavenly Father’s love for all of mankind, indeed, his love for you and me. The father didn’t scold the boy, “I told you this would happen!” He did not do anything to make him pay for his misdeeds. He would not hear his proposition to make him just a hired servant. He made no demands of a probationary period to see if the son was going to “hold out” or whether he would get the wanderlust again. He restored him then and there to his place in the family along with the family signet ring, robe, shoes and all!
This was grace. This is the character of God. Even though the son might have deserved the worst the Father could have given him, he gave him only his unconditional love – his unmerited favor. The boy had done all the father wanted him to do. He had come home. He was penitent. And he was open to his father’s warm “Welcome home, son!” It was a new beginning for the son and for the family. A resurrection to a new life.
This was a new beginning – a new creation! This son who had been as dead was alive again! Only a father could wipe away the past and allow this son to start living a new life. Here is where the story of this lost boy ties into the eternal story of God and his new creation. God is always making things new.
Or at least for this family that is what one might think. But …
…look at the older brother who was in the field when his sibling came home. As he draws near the family dwelling he hears music and dancing! A party is going on! “What right does anyone have to party when I have been out in the field toiling like a faithful son ought?” He asked one of the servants, “What does this mean?” The servant told him of his brother’s return, but instead of rejoicing, he was angry! No doubt he didn’t want to see his brother return. Had he died in that far country it would have been only what he deserved. When he did come back he should have been punished and made to pay for his misdeeds. The law should have been upheld! A verdict of “guilty” should have been pronounced and sentence passed! Justice had been denied! It just wasn’t fair!
But that is the way of grace. Grace isn’t about being fair. It is about being more than fair. For us, the demand of law was met in Jesus’ death on the cross.
This bitter, legalistic brother missed the joy of welcoming his lost brother back into the family. He missed the warmth and happiness of celebrating his brother’s homecoming. He missed the food, the music, the fun, the dancing, the fellowship of family and friends. He probably went on in his dogged determination to be the “good son,” resenting every minute of his labor, mumbling his discontent with every breath, his soul becoming more and more shriveled each day for the rest of his life.
Now, let’s return to the younger brother for just a moment. Think of what it would have been like for him had the father accepted his offer to work as a hired servant. He would have gone about every day from then on beating up on himself for being such a failure as a son. The days would have been long and the nights longer. He would have been a beaten man, going about in a state of perpetual dejection, sad, sorry and unforgiven, never being able to earn his father’s forgiveness.
But the father had forgiven him! He had taken him back! He made no demands of him! He had been unconditionally accepted and restored to his position in the family even though he did not deserve it. To the father he didn’t have to do anything to make himself acceptable to him. He was his son who had come home. That was enough!
How do you think that young man felt that night after washing the filth of the hog sty off of himself, being well fed, well dressed and having enjoyed the festivities of the past evening? How do you think he felt the next morning when it came time to do his chores? He had grown up on that farm. He knew what was to be done. Do you think he had to wait for the father to tell him what he needed to do? Don’t you know he went to work early and worked late with a song in his heart and a prayer of thanksgiving on his lips! For him the sky had never been bluer, the flowers more fragrant nor had the birds ever sung more sweetly! He knew what it meant to be loved! He knew what it meant to love his father because he was loved by his father! He knew how he was meant to live his life! With his forgiveness he had been given true freedom! His life from then on was lived joyously in response to the grace of his father. This is what grace will do for those who simply accept it!
Receive his grace! Live in it! Rejoice in it! Hope in it! Love in it! It is as real as God himself!
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).