You know, you can hear a story so many times that it can begin to lose some of its force. Let me demonstrate:
A man had two sons. One preemptively took his inheritance, only to swiftly fritter it away on wild living. Finding himself living in squalor, he returned home, hoping his father might humble himself enough to take the son on as a servant. The father saw the son coming on the horizon and ran to him, not even letting him finish his self-effacing plea. Instead, he threw a party! But the son’s older brother, hearing the raucous party and then learning of its cause, became indignant and refused to join in. “Come join the party,” the father pleaded. “Don’t you see? This son of mine was dead and now he lives!”
Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal
It’s a beautiful story, one of my favorites in fact, but most of us have heard it so many times that it’s lost its controversial power. We hear about God’s undeserved grace so often that we forget how scandalous it really is. I was reminded of that during the past two weeks of our international Bible study when we discussed this Parable of the Prodigal Son and the less-well-known Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
Kazakh artist Nelly Bube’s Workers in the Vineyard
During the discussion of the prodigal, a Chinese student insisted that the older brother was in the right. The prodigal hadn’t really repented! He was just desperate. The older brother had worked so hard, and he didn’t get a party. It’s not right! Not fair! Or, the following week, when talking about how the landowner paid the laborers who’d worked only an hour the same wage as the ones who’d worked all day, an Iranian student agreed: it’s not fair! It’s not right! Even though, the first workers had agreed to work for what they were paid, shouldn’t the others get paid less?
And you know what? They’re right. It’s not fair.
We forget how these stories would have been heard by their original audiences. Western culture is so steeped in Biblical values that we can’t imagine someone not finding a story like The Prodigal Son perfectly reasonable. It’s beautiful. How could someone not think so?
I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is actually based on a well-known story in Jesus’ day, one His listeners would have all been familiar with. But there was one key difference: at the crux of the story, when the father welcomes his son back home and throws that party, the original story had the father demand that the son be a servant if he wanted to return! It was a story reminding Jewish children of the importance of keeping the commandment to honor their fathers and mothers. Imagine the shock Jesus’ hearers would’ve had at this good Jewish father accepting his rebellious son back! “Well!” they would say, “What would happen if the other Jewish children caught wind of this father’s forgiveness? Wouldn’t they all turn to lives of debauchery as well, knowing that they could return scot-free? How scandalous!”
These international students, hearing these stories for the first time, reminded me of what it’s like to encounter these ideas for the first time. They can seem almost dangerous (“wouldn’t every child turn to prodigal lifestyles?”). But watching the students got me thinking… maybe we, too, can understand their shock.
I was recently pondering First Corinthians 6:7 and its command against taking other Christians to court. Paul concludes by asking, pointedly, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” I’ll tell you why! Because “it’s not fair! It’s not right!” Or consider Luke 6:35 which gives us the crazy charge to lend money to our enemies, not expecting them to repay us. My friend, that’s not lending, that’s giving! That’s not fair! It’s not even reasonable.
Maybe we would do well to consider the honest words of these international students, in recognizing that we serve a God that lavishes on us an unfair, even dangerous, grace, and that He calls us to do the same. We believe these beautiful stories about God’s forgiveness of us. Now are we willing to recognize where we don’t truly believe, and to ask God to help us in our unbelief?
“Why not rather be wronged?”
Why not, indeed.