I started reading Michael Spencer’s “Mere Churchianity” yesterday. Leave it to the iMonk to not even make it through one chapter without making me stop dead in my tracks. Although I love Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God“, Spencer has managed — in three paragraphs — to make me reconsider the entire parable of the prodigal son more than Keller did in an entire book. In examining the part of the story where the prodigal son realizes that he’s at the end of his rope, and so he creates the plan to return to his father’s house and ask to be a servant, Spencer writes:

… our boy decides that his dad could help him escape his pigpen lifestyle, but he doesn’t want to deal with the full implications of his stupidity. So he creates a plan for apologizing to his father, whom he (rightly) assumes will be angry. That plan includes negotiating the son’s new role in the family — that of servant. He will live out back and be useful, but he won’t be a son any longer.

His plan should sound familiar to all of us, since it is the religious answer to our problem as human beings. It seems like the perfect solution, since it’s our idea. But it’s never God’s idea, since he’s not into religion.

Religion is our negotiation with God to try to get his help in exchange for our good behavior. We promise to do what we’re told, and we expect God to reward us. This is a straightforward business arrangement, and we fully expect it to work. Meanwhile, we talk about being God’s child as if we’re family. But in our performance-for-reward arrangement, things don’t operate on grace. Under the rules of religion, God is kept at arm’s length and is expected to be involved only to the degree that he gives us what we think we deserve.

Um. Wow.

To be honest, until yesterday, I had always seen the prodigal’s plan as misguided (especially since I knew the ending of the story), but well-meaning. In retrospect, the latter is incredibly untrue.

In Yiddish, it’s chutzpah.

In the Old Testament, it’s filthy rags.

In the New Testament, it’s skubala.

In plain English, it’s pride, arrogance, stupidity, and pure crap.

When am I going to learn what grace is really about?

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17 Comments(+Add)

1   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
June 22nd, 2010 at 7:10 am

Good stuff, brother. Good stuff.

2   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
June 22nd, 2010 at 7:46 am

Hey, Brendt. This post prompted this parable: http://www.borrowedbreath.com/2010/06/22/prodigal-twist/

3   Rick Frueh    
June 22nd, 2010 at 5:52 pm

God’s grace is actually unknowable. We can only experience it and learn more and more of its immeasurable expanse.


4   Brendt Waters    http://csaproductions.com/blog/
June 22nd, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Check out the big brain on Nathanael! Slipping Newton’s laws into a discussion of grace.

5   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
June 23rd, 2010 at 6:55 am

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, Brendt, just the tip of the iceberg. ;)

Rick, that’s a very provoking parable. Well done.


6   Neil    
June 23rd, 2010 at 7:58 am

so where does discipline come into play. i agree with the general sentiments of this thread – and the various variations on the theme… but does our behavior not have an effect on our relationship with god? the prodigals behavior drove a wedge between him and the father… not ultimately, of course, he is still our father and will always welcome us back – maybe that’s the answer.

in the parable the father and prodigal were separated by the latter disobedience. unit he repented and returned, at which point grace kicked in.

7   Phil Miller    http://pmwords.blogspot.com
June 23rd, 2010 at 8:19 am

in the parable the father and prodigal were separated by the latter disobedience. unit he repented and returned, at which point grace kicked in.

I would say that grace was in play throughout the entire parable. The very act of the son asking for his inheritance while the father was alive was an act deserving of death according to the law of the land. Not only did the father overlook this offense, but he gave into the son’s wishes. So the father was gracious to his son even before the son realized the depth of his rebellion.

To answer the question of where does discipline come into play, I’d say discipline is a matter of becoming the people we’re meant to be. So, yeah, it’s not like living anyway we want to has consequences – it certainly does. In many ways, the longer we live in rebellion, the easier it is to stay there. The fact that the Father welcomes us back does not erase the scars or magically change the past. I guess the miraculous thing is even through all of our running and rebellion, God is able to bring redemption.

8   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
June 23rd, 2010 at 8:33 am

Discipline is not retribution.

9   Neil    
June 23rd, 2010 at 10:50 am

Discipline is not retribution.

agreed. discipline has as it’s root motivation the growth of the one being disciplined. you could also say discipline is not punishment.

i was just pondering the fact that there is, in that parable, an element of sin driving a relational wedge between the son and father, so sin does have consequences when it comes to god’s perspective and his dealing with us.

though i guess another question is – is the point of the parable the ongoing christian life, or someone coming to god in faith for the first time?

10   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
June 23rd, 2010 at 11:08 am

Good question, Neil.
I know in my life, the parable relates to my first surrendering to Christ, and also to our ongoing relationship of me leaving and squandering my inheritance; and my Father not disowning me.

11   Neil    
June 23rd, 2010 at 11:14 am

it can fit both scenarios – i just wondered if it was obvious which scenario jesus may have had in mind… guess i should just reread it and see.

12   Phil Miller    http://pmwords.blogspot.com
June 23rd, 2010 at 12:11 pm

though i guess another question is – is the point of the parable the ongoing christian life, or someone coming to god in faith for the first time?

N.T. Wright would say the point of the parable is Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel despite her unfaithfulness to Him. The individual aspect of the parable can be extrapolated to an extent, but it probably wasn’t the original intent.

Of course Jesus also told parables that foretold of the coming judgment to Jerusalem, which was the consequence of sin and unfaithfulness. I guess my point is perhaps we need to be a little cautious trying make parables about us. I’m not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done, but that’s not usually the first order meaning.

13   Neil    
June 23rd, 2010 at 1:20 pm

you are right, phil, that we need to be cautious how far to push/apply a parable – it is, after all, a parable not an allegory.

in context jesus was addressing the issue of pharisees complaining about his dealing with sinners.

14   Rick Frueh    
June 23rd, 2010 at 2:40 pm

All bases cannot be covered in any one teaching. This parable does not deal with discipline and its interjection reduces the focus on grace, love, and forgiveness. Perhaps the youngest son suffered the loss of his inheritance on earth, but that still is conjecture.

Let us bask in the grace that is projected wonerderfully by this parable. The father recieves sinners, even those who are part of His family!

15   Brendt Waters    http://csaproductions.com/blog/
June 23rd, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I think it can be both (initial salvation and ongoing Christian walk). After all, I’m in no less need of grace now. ;-)

That said, I think the point that iMonk was making — and what I subsequently pulled out of it — is more (but not solely) applicable to our ongoing walk. At least it is for me and my stupid brain.

16   Brendt Waters    http://csaproductions.com/blog/
June 23rd, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Phil (#7): The very act of the son asking for his inheritance while the father was alive was an act deserving of death according to the law of the land.

I once heard it said that the son was, in essence, literally telling his father, “I can’t wait til you’re dead.”


17   Rick Frueh    
June 24th, 2010 at 2:25 pm

All that may be true, however the gist of the parable is grace and forgiveness. The father’s exhibition of them and the elder son’s rejection of them.

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  1. Borrowed Breath » Blog Archive » prodigal twist    Jun 22 2010 / 7am:

    [...] at Prophets, Priests and Poets, Brendt posted these thoughts from Michael Spencer’s book, Mere Churchianity. And that prompted this little [...]