Monday, 18 March 2013

The abiding presence...

‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’

Luke 15:20

Often, when our illusions about ourselves are uncovered (see the last blog), we are convicted of our sinfulness, the mistakes we’ve made and the mess that our lives are in.  And though we ascent to idea that Jesus knows us as we really are and loves us anyway, we often fail to grasp it as truth.  So, instead, we’re left stripped of our illusions and conscious of our sin and shame.

That experience echoes how the prodigal son must have felt as he was longing to eat the pods that he was feeding to the pigs in that far off country.  As famine strikes, his illusions of a life of luxury are well and truly over.  There he was, knee deep in pig dung and thinking, in all probability, how apt a metaphor that was for what his life had become.  So, without even entertaining a thought that his father would receive him back as anything more than a hired servant, he decides to return to the family home.

All the while, the prodigal’s elder brother has been in the family house the whole time.  All that time this brother had been dutifully fulfilling his responsibilities, under his own illusion that love is earned.  In his world, you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ depending on whether or not you have kept the rules and remained obedient.  And I suspect many of us think that way too.

And yet, when the younger, wasteful, disobedient brother appears as a dot on the horizon, ‘the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’

What the older brother – with his worldview built round rules, obedience and responsibilities – had failed to appreciate was what Miroslav Volf, in his brilliant book Exclusion and Embrace notes: ‘before any rule can apply, he is a father to his son.’  It is not, of course, that rules and obedience aren’t important.  It’s simply that, as any parent will tell you, love and compassion triumph over rules and obedience every time. 

A.M. Hunter is quick to remind us that parables, in the specific way Jesus used them, are ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings’ or, if you want to get more precise, ‘comparisons drawn from nature or daily life designed to illuminate some spiritual truth.’ As such, then, this parable is about the way in which God the Father loves us.  1John 3:1 reads, ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!’  We are not subjects governed by a rule of law but children embraced by a king who governs by the rule of love. 

We need to grasp that truth, even in the midst of our shame, and whether out of humility, courage or sheer desperation, throw ourselves into the arms of God; God who, even in the midst of our self-rejection, self-contempt and self-loathing – our perception of ourselves as an unwanted child – thinks we’re worth scanning the horizon for.

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