“God is a two-faced, back on his word, Indian-giver,” the man sputtered with a forcefulness that caught me off guard. He stood there fuming, halfway in and halfway out of my office doorway, straddling a threshold much greater than he understood.

The man was an office ‘walk-in’ off the street. This happens a lot in our small town, and in my office in particular, which sits in the middle of the historical district like Main Street’s fishbowl, large glass windows inviting the scrutiny of the curious. The man had been curious. Stepping inside, he’d introduced himself with the question- “What does this place do?”

When he realized that “this place” was a church office, the man immediately began hinting at his displeasure with God, all the while prefacing these hints with assurances that he had great reverence for ‘The Man Upstairs.’ “I was raised catholic,” he said reasonably, “so I respect God.” I wondered what ‘respect’ meant to such a man. Little did I realize how soon he would spell this out for me— it became all too clear that for the man in my doorway, respect had more to do with resentful fear than submissive trust.

It was near the end of a predictably typical ramble about religious abuses in the world that the lit match finally reached the powder keg that apparently lurked just beneath the surface of his measured facade. In this case, I unfortunately served as the match. “God is in the business of redemption,” I had said meaningfully, intending to exude a ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ sort of attitude. That’s when he turned on me. Snapped. Face flushed red, eyes widened, pupils dilated, voice, trembling. “God is a two-faced, back on his word, Indian-giver.” He spat it out. Wow. I stood there like a deer in the headlights of his blinding anger and thought— ‘Was it something I said?’ It was. It was the idea of mercy. Of Grace. Like a balloon on a blade of grass, it rubbed him the wrong way. The mere idea of mercy, that God could set aside punishment and grant second chances had triggered instant rage.

“Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?” he demanded, hands opening and closing erratically at his sides.
“I do,” I acknowledged.
“The Father in that story is supposed to represent God, right?”
“So He splits up His livelihood between His two sons, one responsible and the other not. But when the irresponsible son returns, the Dad throws a party for the irresponsible son—it’s like He rewards him for his bad behavior!”
I admitted it certainly could feel that way. He brushed off my comment with a dismissive wave of his hand—“That’s exactly what he does—rewards bad behavior and ignores responsible behavior.” By 'responsible behavior' I could see he meant the older brother. And, I could see, he meant himself.

It eventually came out that the man in my doorway was indeed an older brother, a responsible brother, the brother who had always followed the rules and resented the second chances afforded his younger sibling who was now “born again.” He said those two words like a four-year-old says ‘spinach.’ It was as if he saw it as some sort of spiritual redundancy, an “again” he had never needed. I realized then that this man saw the mercy of God as leniency. I tried to explain the difference between leniency and grace--that one is a blatant abuse of justice, because no one pays for the crime (leniency), while the other is only possible because justice is first satisfied by another. God can only be merciful towards us because His own Son was already punished in our place--! But this key to grace was lost on him. All he could see in his tunneled-vision fury was the other son.

For most of us, we frame the story in much the same way this man saw it— it’s the story of the other son, “The Prodigal Son.” Singular. But I think that’s a title that misses the full scope of what’s going on in Jesus’ lesson. Most people understand that this tale comes as the third in a trilogy of parables, all about the recovery of lost things, with this final story as the anchor. There’s the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then we go and lose the ‘lostness’ in the name of the third story—by calling it “The Prodigal Son.” One commentary said that in these three parables, “more fuss is made over the recovery of something that was lost than over the safe-keeping of what has been there all the time.” I would agree; the emphasis on God recovering, or ‘receiving back’ what was lost is the big idea of all three parables—but I think we miss a key point if we think only the first son was lost, while the second son was in the category of “safe keeping;” I think in a sense, he was lost too.

I recently found a Bible with a heading for this story that I like much better—“The Two Lost Sons,” it’s called. The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Two lost sons. “Two?” you might be thinking—“Only one of them lived out his sin fantasies.” Perhaps. But if “found” in this story means living again like part of the family, both of them were lost, because neither of the boys were living like sons. One was a son, living like a self-made orphan. He had a family, but he'd emancipated himself from it. He’s the one we call ‘prodigal.’ He’s the show-stealer who disowns his father and family to go it alone. And it's really easy to look at the speck in his eye and distance our own lives from the bulls-eye of Jesus' target audience-- but there’s another character in this story. One was a son, living like an orphan. The other was a son, living like a servant. If ‘prodigal’ means “extravagantly wasteful,” both sons have wasted their Father’s inheritance because both sons prove they believe the benefits of sonship must be worked for. It must be earned. The younger son proves this by thinking he has to work off his debt in order to be received back as part of the family. The older son proves this mindset by acting like it’s been his faithful labor, his spotless track record all along that has earned him, at the very least, the right to share a goat from the family flock with his friends. We do this with God all the time-- it's a "Life for God" mentality. The Father sets the record straight— And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). What did that mean? It meant the older son could have enjoyed his Father and the privileges of being part of the family (including the use of the family wealth to throw a party for his friends) any time he wanted to. This is a "Life with God" mentality. Enjoy, live off the wealth of the Father with Him! That he hadn’t, to date, was his own choice. You can’t enjoy the gifts you're too busy trying to earn as paychecks. 

The man in my office left, unwilling to accept that God’s receiving of him didn’t depend on his own faithfulness, on his own responsibility. He left the office determined to hold God in contempt of justice, so focused on the unfair mercy shown his own brother that he refused to see the equally extravagant gift of grace being held out to him. Like the older brother in the Biblical story, he didn't see that neither he nor his brother could ever 'deserve' or 'earn' sonship-- it was a free gift! And yet... he was determined to continue comparing who had worked harder for it.

Do you see yourself as God’s servant, or His son? Do you run through mental checklists of things you have to “do” to make God happy with you, to keep Him loving you, to assure that He approves of you and lets good things happen to you? If so, you’re living like a servant.  A servant has to work for food, for shelter, for protection. His work must be worthy for him to receive such benefits. But a son “does” nothing to earn being a son or to experience the benefits of sonship. Being a son is not something you “do”—it’s something you are received into on the day of your birth. It’s something you are, by virtue of having a Father who claims you as His own. Why was the party thrown for the younger son? Because he allowed himself to be received as a son—he accepted the love of his father in full knowledge that he hadn't done anything to earn it or deserve it. He humbly accepted the receiving-back love of his father in full knowledge of his own unworthiness and lack of merit
Will you allow God to receive you? He longs to embrace you like the Father in the story ran to embrace the younger son, lifting him off the ground in such a fierce bear-hug that the boy no longer stood on his own two feet, until the only thing supporting the young man became the strength of his Father's arms. Do you know, He tried to embrace the older son too--? Because God's in the business of redemption. Because God wants all His children to live like a sons.

"So the sinner is received- not because of the service he is going to render, not because of the love he is going to show, not because of the value he is going to prove, but absolutely and wholly through the divine mercy, and for the sake of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, our perfect Ransom and our only plea."          -A.B. Simpson on the Prodigal Son

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*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~