What Legalists and Atheists Cannot Understand
In his new book The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief, Christian apologist Larry Alex Taunton recounts an intense, late-night conversation he had at a Birmingham restaurant a few years ago with Oxford mathematician John Lennox and the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As Hitchens, who died last year of throat cancer, downed one Johnnie Walker Black Label after another, the three debated the merits of Christianity.
When the discussion turned to the subject of grace, Taunton wondered what was going through the fertile mind of Hitchens. "What he was thinking," Taunton said, "I cannot know, but it had always seemed to me that grace was the very thing that atheists did not---perhaps could not---understand. Instead of a merciful, gracious God, they saw only the Rule of Saint Benedict on a cosmic scale."
Such thinking, of course, is hardly the exclusive property of atheists such as Hitchens, or even of the Benedictines whom Taunton caricatures. The impulse to see God as a perpetually frowning, imperious tyrant has a much longer religious pedigree. The religious leaders in the time of Jesus were often trapped in this warped view of their Creator. In Luke 15, Jesus challenges them to think differently.
According to Jesus
"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). Instead of simply upbraiding them for their proud and selfish hearts, Jesus tells them three quick stories, or parables.
The first is about a shepherd who loses a sheep, leaves his remaining 99 sheep out in the field, searches for it, finds it, and celebrates with friends and family. The lesson, according to Jesus: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance" (15:7).
The second features a woman who has lost one of her 10 coins, searches for it, finds it, and rejoices with her neighbors. "Just so," Jesus summarizes, "I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (15:10).
Jesus' third story, the parable of the lost son, is the most famous, and the most subtle. In it, one of two sons of a wealthy father loses himself, taking his inheritance and squandering it on wine, women, and song. The young man, finally destitute, comes crawling back to his father, who has remained in the background until now. The man, however, rushes to his bedraggled son, clothes him with honor, and throws a sumptuous party. Yet the celebration, unlike in the first two parables, is far from the end of the story.
The older son, who has been working out in the fields, comes in, hears the sounds of revelry . . . and is not amused. "Look," he fairly hisses at his father, "these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends" (15:29b).
The older son refuses to join the party because his sense of fairness has been violated. In his mind, he has slaved away diligently, yet it is the wastrel who gets the royal treatment, not him: "But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!" (15:30). In his pride, he cannot even spit out the words "my brother"!
In Jesus' story, the father's response to the elder son is aimed right at the scribes and Pharisees. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours," he says. "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found" (15:31-32).
Joining the Celebration
The parable ends there. Unlike the earlier stories, there is no explicit lesson from Jesus. We don't know whether the formerly lost son's big brother joins in the celebration, though it is clear that he should. The point, you see, is not bowing to some crabbed notion of fairness, but losing ourselves in God's grand graciousness. Will the son forsake his pride and jealousy and become more like his gracious father? Will the Pharisees and scribes?
The question also applies to us, especially to those of us who are considered religious leaders, who faithfully serve and obey God. Have we entertained the same kinds of warped notions about God? Do we secretly feel that serving the Lord is duty that deserves some sort of reward? If so, are we dangerously close to a soul-stifling legalism? When a sinner repents after a lifetime of dissipation, are we happy about a new brother or sister in Christ, or are we unhappy that he or she "got away with it"?
In these stories, we learn that celebration is the natural response of heaven to a lost sinner being found. Do we feel the same way? I am reminded of a message by Tony Campolo, "The Kingdom of God Is a Party." While the kingdom is surely more than that, it cannot be less.
Christopher Hitchens was wrong. God is no cosmic tyrant. To entertain this kind of slur even for a moment dishonors the Lord and contradicts the good news we have been sent to share. So as we persevere in doing the good and hard work of the kingdom, let us never forget that if we see our gracious God as he is, chances are that others will see him that way, too.