A friend asked me to explain grace. And it turns out, that’s hard. Sometime ago in a previous post, I wrote that grace was about how God will make us good because we are loved, rather than God loving us because we are good.
I still hold to this, but thought I’d attempt a bit more of an explanation with the aid of that well-worn parable, the prodigal son.
What makes us worthy?
I think everyone reading this will have considered this question in some form or another at some point, and everyone will have some sort of an answer.
And I think a lot of answers will hinge on an idea of ‘goodness’.
Goodness is often framed in an abstracted, idealised form. Some people are more good, some people less good. There’s a sliding scale, and we have a handle on the extremes, but it’s sort-of murky in the middle.
Maybe there’s a threshold somewhere along that scale, at which point you achieve goodness. And God fits into this picture by a) being able to determine your position on aforementioned sliding scale, and b) knowing where to set the threshold. Life after death involves this measuring process and whatever life-after-death consequences your religious doctrine espouses.
But grace means the metric of worthiness is not goodness.
The Prodigal Son
I think you can only understand grace by thinking about the personhood of God (sorry, oxymoron!).
In Luke, Jesus is teaching to two very different groups of people. There are people who are marginalised social exiles, people who you would mentally put towards the bottom of your sliding-goodness-scale. And then there are Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They are respectable, religiously devout, careful to keep all their social, religious and moral duties. They’re going to be placed higher on your sliding-goodness-scale, except – they know it. So Jesus tells the following story –
There was once a Father with two sons. One day the younger son comes to his Father and says,“I want my share of the inheritance now.”
In asking for his inheritance, what he would have upon his father’s death, the younger son expresses a wish for his father’s death.
The Father is, obviously, heart-broken. He loves his son, but his son doesn’t care about him and wants to leave. Strangely, the Father says yes. He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t throw him out on the street with nothing – instead, he sells half his land, hands his son the money, and lets him go.
The son spends the money having a great time – parties, prostitutes and the like. And then, the money starts to run out, and his friends with it. A famine hits and he ends up struggling to survive with a job as a pig feeder, so hungry he wants to eat their food.
At some point he is hit by where he finds himself, and remembers his Father’s house. He thinks he’ll go back. He’ll have the shame of it, he’ll have to apologise to his Father, but maybe he will be able to work as a servant and work to pay off some of the money. So he starts off home.
Then, so the story goes,
While he was still a long way off, the Father saw him in the distance.
The Father has been waiting for him, hoping for his return.
When the Father sees him – bare feet caked in dust, disgusting and ragged – he hitches up his robes, and he runs. He runs out to him, and he doesn’t care that the people in the village are pointing, and he doesn’t care that this is ‘not the done thing’. The Father recognises his son, and he throws his arms round him, and calls back to the house – for the best robe, the family ring, sandals for his feet. And he announces a feast.
The first group of people listening to this story are, I imagine, wide-eyed at this point. I’m less sure about the second group, the Pharisees, which is why the story continues to the older brother –
Remember the other brother? That evening he’s out working in the field like always. He’s good, very respectable, always does his duty. And when he hears all the laughter and the dancing coming from the feast inside he calls a servant and asks,“What’s happening?” The servant explains that his brother has come home and his father’s thrown a feast, he beckons him inside. But the older brother turns his back and walks away.
I imagine there’s a bitterness in this brother’s heart which reverberates with the way the Pharisees are feeling as they hear these words.
When the Father realises that his eldest son is still outside he runs out to him.
He runs out to him. Just like he ran to the younger son. Just as humiliating for the father. But it’s the oldest son who’s far off now.
He says, “Son, come inside, come to the feast!”
But the son replies, “Look. I’ve been slaving for you all my life and you never even gave me a goat to have a party with my friends. But now this son of yours, stinking of prostitutes and pig shit comes back and you kill the fattened calf for him?”
Once again, the father is gutted. He’s hurt. He never asked him to ‘slave’ for anything – it wasn’t supposed to be like that. He says to him, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.”
And that’s the end of Jesus’ story. And we’re left asking, what happens? Does the son go inside?
And I think that’s the point. This parable is Jesus’ way of asking everyone, ‘won’t you come inside?’, it’s an explanation of the offer of grace.
What does God want from us?
In this story God is pictured as a Father.
(A word on this – I said earlier that grace requires us to understand the personhood of God. This is not to say either that God is a person, or that God is male. Unfortunately patriarchy has made the close identification of men with God overly easy. This has many awful consequences, none of which are intended or welcomed here. God does not have a gender, and therefore the use of female pronouns to refer to God are equally appropriate, and indeed God is identified as a mother multiple times within scripture. Maybe this is a subject for another blog post?)
This is revolutionary for the people listening to the story, for whom God is exactly the distant moral arbiter from earlier. And of course, the Father in this story is in no sense unfamiliar with the wrongdoing of the younger son.
The younger son violates every idea of goodness. He is dissolute, rebellious, sexually promiscuous, and even non-kosher with the pigs.
But what is the father concerned about? It’s not any of those things. It’s that his son has run away from home. It’s that his son wants his things but not his love. It’s that his son wants him dead, and is living life as if he was.
The father is mostly concerned by the rejection of his child and the restoration of their relationship.
And this is where the older son is also the father’s concern. The older brother has done everything he’s supposed to. But only out of obligation, out of a sense of earning his place and ‘paying his way’. Again, this son wants the father’s things, but the father? Not so much.
“Won’t you come inside?”
The father in this story must go out to both sons. They are both lost (- albeit one of them is only in the back garden!)
Jesus is challenging our entire paradigm of worthiness and goodness: it’s not about bad and good, it’s about lost and found.
In some senses this is beautiful, and it’s exactly what I long for. We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The offer to belong, to be welcomed, to be redeemed, is always extended. The Creator God loves creation and longs for all created things to be reconciled to him.
In some senses this is deeply offensive. Being reconciled with God is challenging. What an incredible claim, that I need God! That I belong to God. Accepting the offer of grace means renouncing my own pride, and like the Pharisees, that’s not something I’m very willing to do.
What makes us worthy? That we are God’s.
Just like the Pharisees, my pride makes me feel resentful that others who are worse than I am are so eagerly welcomed by God, and resentful that others are so much better able to accept this offer. It makes me confront that I, at some level, think I am ‘better’ than those others.
Thank goodness, that the open offer of grace is not willing to operate according to such metrics.
Grace has the biggest catchment area there is. All things have been made by a loving God, and all things – though lost and estranged – are invited to count themselves as belonging to God, to be found.
So this is my explanation of grace.
It’s the topsy-turvy outworkings of the truth that I believe in a God who has made this world, and delights in restoring all he has made.
And it’s messy, because it means saying that we belong to God, which doesn’t go well in an age when we put such high stakes on ability and independence. It means accepting God on his terms, and therefore accepting that we have no right to set the terms, no right to declare who else is ‘in’. And it means accepting we don’t belong to ourselves
(I think this is why the people with learning disabilities in communities like L’Arche teach the church so much – they know they belong to God, they accept their need, and goodness do they have a joy that reflects this.)
This is grace. A father running out to a worn-out, ashamed, guilt-ridden son. A father dressing a son in the best robes, declaring him to be a member of the family he tried to destroy.
Grace is lost-then-found. It’s an all-embracing invitation to belong. It is finding home with God.
(Would highly recommend Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ on this theme)