Tag Archives: grace

Son or Slave?

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With weary steps he trudged homeward, the twin burdens of leadership and famine weighing on his shoulders. Yet another shepherd had left, weary of the near-constant attacks by wolves and lions. Their normal prey—herds of deer and wild goats—had been decimated by the drought, forcing the predators to brave the slings of the increasingly-wary shepherds. But the hyper-vigilance took its toll, too, and many of the hired hands simply walked away, seeking respite from both sun and battle.

Yet hope grew with each passing day. The rainy season so long absent was near, and reports from the west had often included signs of increasing clouds. He had even seen a few himself when gazing toward the unseen sea. Passing tradesmen, with their stories of adventure and excitement, had made him wistful for the same. But his home was here, his father was here, his responsibility was here.

The evening shepherds on their way to the fields were silhouetted by the sun as it dipped into the distant Jordan River valley. They were just slipping on their outer cloaks against the gathering dark and cold as he came upon them. Their voices were unusually animated, but in a brief space between words, a breeze from the east carried the faint music of … celebration? He asked what it was about.

“Your brother has returned!”, said one with unmasked wonder.

“They’re starting to party!”, said another. “They even butchered the fatted calf!”

Brother? Returned? He stood staring after them as the shepherds hurried on their way, then he stared down the path toward home. The old anger rose again in his heart. Venomous words gathered in his throat as he started once again, his pace quickening with every step until he was almost running. More than once he stumbled over an unnoticed stone as the blinding resentment returned.

Suddenly he was outside the house, his whole body shaking with adrenaline and the anticipated confrontation. The pungent aroma of leeks and peppers mixed with roasting beef and insulted his nostrils. Joyful sounds of lutes and lyres, cymbals and drums, struck discord in his now-raging breast. A servant passing just inside the window noticed him—noticed the reddened face—and found his master.


“My son! Come celebrate! Your brother is home!” The old man came running, as breathless in his enthusiasm as the son in his anger. His brow glistened in the lamplight, wet with the perspiration of the dance.

“Brother? I have no brother!” Spittle flew from his lips, spraying his father’s face and tunic. “That lech is dead to me – dead to you!”

“Yes, he is dead – was dead. But he has returned. He lives again!”

“Yes, he lives – lives with whores and rakes! He lived it up on your hard-earned money. What he didn’t throw away on women, he guzzled until he awoke in his own vomit. You’ve heard the stories as well as I have. He dragged your good name through the mud and dung and threw away your life’s work.”

The father looked down in shame-filled remembrance. A tear coursed down into his beard, mingling with the spit that still clung there. He knew all too well the bitter truth of his son’s words, and gathering both thoughts and feelings, he quietly acknowledged that truth. “Yes. He did.” Then, looking up again, he continued. “Yes, he shamed me, humiliated me. He buried me that day: told me I might as well be dead. But that’s not the half of it.”

“And this is how you reward him?”, the son interrupted, anger rising with his father’s admission. “You squander the fattened calf just as he squandered your estate? And here I’ve worked for you—slaved for you—all these years and you’ve done nothing for me! I’ve done everything you’ve asked, never left your side. I even did your work while you sat all day on that rock looking for him. And you never so much as offered a goat for me to enjoy with my friends.” Wrath and spit dripped from his mouth.

“Yes, you have been with me. You have been faithful and wise and industrious. You have managed the flocks far better than I could have in this drought. You have even managed to increase them; no one does that in a famine! You saved us. And I have been lost these past months – as good as dead myself. But your brother was dead, too. And his was a death worse than death itself. Like Cain of old, he killed another but was condemned to walk among the living. The stench of death clung to him, overpowering his drunkenness, his vomit … even the pig slop. The shame he brought to me hung from his shoulders everywhere he went; as he lay naked with each prostitute, the one garment he could not remove was that shame.”

“He deserves the pigs!” The son spat.

“Perhaps. You said you slaved for me these years. That is all your brother has asked now to do: to live here as a servant, to sleep in their quarters and eat their meager portions. But he is no servant, he is a son. My son. My blood flows in his veins just as it flows in yours. And today he has come home. Today he has come alive.

“If you would be a slave, then I free you from all obligation. If you, like your brother, would be free to live as you wish … all I have is yours. But you are no slave in my eyes. You are my flesh and blood, my son – my dear son – my first-born. And I love you, just as I love your brother.

“Come. Eat. Dance. Celebrate. Rejoice in resurrection.”

Family Reunion

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Racing, shameless, breathless, the old man never took his eyes off the ghost as he ran. It must be … but it couldn’t be. His son? A bewildering tangle of relief and horror, of joy and fear, muddled his mind. The face, though sunken and empty, unmistakably belonged to his son; yet the unfamiliar silk rags hung limply from an unrecognizable frame gaunt with starvation—not the chiseled proportions of a youth born to the hard work of a rancher.

He nearly fell over reaching for his son, but the boy had collapsed at the old man’s dusty feet. From a throat parched and dry came the word he’d longed for months to hear: “Father….” Like sweet, cool water pouring over his head, the word refreshed his heart, bringing life where death had dwelt.

Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

If he heard the words, he paid them no mind. Lifting the boy to his feet, he held him tightly, fearful of letting go, of once again losing his son, of waking from this dream at the end of a nightmare. “Father….” His son lived!

With arms around each others’ waists, father and son walked slowly home. No more words passed between them. Both choked back tears, the thoughts of each absorbing the past months, wondering what the next would bring. A servant, in wide-eyed wonder, emerged from the house. “Quick!”, the master commanded. “Bring sandals and my best robe! My son has returned! My son is alive!

As the boy bathed, washing off months of deceit and despair, the father barked orders to other servants: “Butcher the calf! Set the tables! Assemble the musicians! Tonight we celebrate!

And so they did. And no funeral, no memorial, no celebration of life, before or since, was ever such a party. Life had returned to the valley of death.


This is Part IV in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find the earlier installments here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs
Part III: The Prodigal Father

Gays, Guns, and the Gospel

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gays and gods planLast week, amidst all the outcry against zoos and irresponsible parents after an endangered gorilla was killed, I posted about the similarities between that situation and the gospel: “the innocent dying that the guilty might be made innocent.

Yesterday, the world awoke to news of a different kind…and a different response: 49 people (not a gorilla) gunned down by Omar S Mateen (not a zookeeper) in a gay nightclub (not a zoo) in Orlando, Florida. Here was no sacrifice of one innocent to save many guilty; Mateen’s death—the 50th of the tragic day—was as inevitable as it was willing.

I confess that my own response troubles me more than any other. I read no news stories, watched no coverage of the event. Perhaps I’ve seen too many such headlines and have become callous to terror. Perhaps I’m weary of the arguments for and against guns that I know will result. I’m certainly leery of the political posturing that will take place—and already has—about Muslims in America. And I’m especially wary of the responses we’ll hear from those who claim to follow Jesus but will speak only of judgment on the victims.

But my ostrich-like silence could last only until this morning, when an email appeared with this challenging headline: “Orlando Shooting: Why Christians Must Not Stay Quiet.” Indeed, it was that headline and the article that followed that motivated this post. But what words could I possibly add that would be more than mere noise?

Perhaps the place to begin is to offer a confession on behalf of the Christian body of which I have been a part for nearly half a century. As would-be followers of Christ, we—and I—have shown far more condemnation than grace toward homosexuals. We have complained about “agendas” and “lifestyles” but have not invited conversation. We have judged and called for judgment but have not shown grace. We have argued for doctrine and against science (which need not be mutually exclusive, by the way). And I am sorry. We—I—have been wrong, have lived and loved so unChristlike. All of this is changing, at least in some circles, but not enough, and not quickly enough. (Note: I am not calling for a change of theology, but action.)

A shift in our thinking on guns is also needed. This is hard for me, perhaps the hardest point of conflict between my Christian faith and my American citizenship. I don’t own a gun, though I want to—ostensibly for protection, though I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed that level of protection, nor can I truly imagine a situation where I would need to protect myself or my family with a firearm. But I don’t want to give up my rights as a citizen even though I pray to a Savior who gave up not just his rights, but his life, for me. Friends have posted things like “it’s not about guns, it’s about our godless society.” That may be true at one level, but can I really share the gospel with a gun on my hip? Jim Elliot—whose life and death brought the Aucas to faith in Christ—already answered that question:

Jim Elliot reached for the gun in his pocket. He had to decide instantly if he should use it. But he knew he couldn’t. Each of the missionaries had promised they would not kill an Auca who did not know Jesus to save himself from being killed. (See a short biography here.)

Something needs to change, and I need to begin with me. Most of all, I need to live, speak, and share the gospel I say I believe. I am most comfortable around people like me—Christians. But comfort never sold anyone on Jesus. I need to get uncomfortable, to get around gays and Muslims and anyone who doesn’t know Jesus, then live in such a way that when the see me, they will see Him and want to know Him.

Man, that’s not going to be easy. Maybe you can help.

God, Gorillas, and the Gospel

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cincinnati-zoo-gorillaThe news made headlines around the world, sparking outrage and protests: a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo was killed in order to save the life of a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into the animal’s exhibit. The story has all the elements of a literary tragedy, from the happy beginning to a disastrous ending, with a series of misfortunes leading from one to the other.

In another setting, perhaps, the public outcry may have been different. Had the toddler been camping with his parents and carted off by a grizzly bear, then perhaps the boy and his family would be receiving the lavish love of a relieved public—even amidst grief for the death of another endangered animal. But that’s not the story.

Instead, we have as main characters a boy being a boy, curious, adventurous, and predisposed to crossing a clear barrier erected for his own good. We have the boy’s mother, who—like any parent of a 3-year-old boy—undoubtedly gets exhausted just trying to keep his curiosity in check; who would love to keep her eyes on him every second of every day but just can’t (any better than you or I). There are the zookeepers, whose passions and careers center around loving, nurturing, and protecting the animals, and sharing that love with the people—even the ignorant, careless, sometimes stupid people—who visit the zoo. And, of course, there is Harambe, the central character, the majestic silverback gorilla born and raised—and now killed—in this very zoo. Some have suggested that, at least in the first moments, Harambe was even trying to protect the young, frightened, hairless ape who had fallen into his world.

Conspicuously missing from this cast is the nameless, faceless individual who took the shot; the one keeper who most had to face the reality of bringing death to the innocent in order to bring life to the guilty.

The parallels to our lives and the gospel are great.

We—you and I—are the boy. Few would call us evil; we are simply curious, wanting our own way, prone to wander, heedless of the barriers erected for our safety and protection. Or perhaps we are the mother: loving and caring, but tired; perhaps only a momentary lapse has reverberated throughout our lives, bringing guilt, shame, and even notoriety.

Jesus is (I never imagined saying something like this) the gorilla: innocent, loving, and offering safety from the certain death our wandering brings. God is the keeper of this human zoo in which we live. He is the one who gave His Son, Jesus (the gorilla), to live among us. He is the one who “took the shot,” as it were; who ultimately laid that Son on the cross: the innocent dying that the guilty might be made innocent.

And here the similarities end, for in Cincinnati and around the world, voices demand justice for the gorilla and judgment for the boy and his family. in the gospel it is Jesus, the innocent sacrifice, who is mocked and scorned; while the guilty crowds are celebrated in their wandering. In Cincinnati, the gorilla is gone for good; in the gospel, the sacrifice lives again, that the guilty may also live. 

In Cincinnati, calls are being made for changes in zoo practices; the gospel calls us to consider what changes we need to make in our own lives. Are you the wandering boy, ignoring the security barriers God has erected? Or are you the mother who turned her back for a moment, now weighed down by guilt and shame?

How can you use the story of Harambe, the silverback gorilla, to tell the story of Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb? 

Restoring the Fortunes

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Grace_wordleAs I continue, slowly, to work my way through the prophetic book of Jeremiah, I’ve come to a section of prophecies against Israel’s neighbors: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, and many others. It doesn’t make for nice, cheery reading! Words like woe, disaster, and desolation pepper the text. Shame, slaughter, calamity. Clearly, Yahweh—the personal, jealous, almighty God of Israel—is not happy with these nations that have waged centuries of war against his chosen people.

But then something else caught my eye: a familiar phrase that I’ve often read in reference to Israel’s own misfortune; a promise God has made to his people in the midst of their distress:

I will restore the fortunes….

What grabbed me this time, though, was the object of that promise: Moab, one of Israel’s perennial antagonists. Tucked in at the very end of a lengthy series of judgments against Moab is this promise to restore the very one against whom the judgments are made!

Wow! That’s grace. And it reveals God’s heart. The “chosenness” of Israel has troubled many people throughout history. Why Israel? Why is this tiny nation so special? Why—over some 8,000 years—has this people been so resilient? The “chosenness” of Israel drives politics even today, such that some believe any nation at enmity with Israel will bear the curse of God.

But these words—I will restore the fortunes—reveal God’s true heart, his true purpose in choosing Israel: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

God’s purpose in choosing Israel was so that everyone on earth—all nations, all peoples, all people—might ultimately receive God’s blessing.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (what we Christians call the “Old Testament”), God judges those nations that fight against Israel because he wants Israel to bless those nations. And he judges Israel when she walks away from him because all peoples cannot be blessed through an adulterous Israel.

God promises to restore the fortunes of Israel because he wants to bless her. And he promises to restore the fortunes of Moab—and Elam, and other nations—because he wants to bless them.

God’s heart, his great desire, is to bless all nations, and to welcome people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” into his kingdom (Revelation 7:9). That’s grace.