Tag Archives: prodigal son

Resisting the unfairness of God

Learning to enjoy the massive unfairness of God

The gospel message has a problem. Always has had. Here it is: a lot of the very people who embrace it most whole-heartedly seem like they don’t really like it.

At its core, the Christian message— the “good news”— is intended for all of life’s “outsiders”: you are welcome too! So how have we gotten into the “us” vs. “them” mindset— insiders vs. outsiders— so often encountered in relations between Christians and non-Christians today? One factor, found in scripture, is that some believers can find themselves offended by the “unworthiness” of those still “in sin”— the unfairness of claiming that God’s love is for “them” as much as “us”.

Biblical Examples

Believers have never liked the breadth of God’s grace; it goes way back before Christ. Jonah is a classic example. Forget  the whale; the real story is about the prophet called to preach to people he considers undeserving. He would literally rather be thrown in the ocean to drown. Spoiler alert: when the whole city of Nineveh finally turns to God as a result of his preaching, Jonah is furious at God for showing mercy toward “them”.

Several of Christ’s parables address the same point:

  • In the prodigal son, one of the bible’s great portraits of redemption, an inescapable feature is the anger of the righteous elder brother.
  • In the vineyard laborers, the hard-working laborers grumble against the master for over-kindness; he responds, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
Alive & Well Today

A recent study showed that atheists are nearly the least trusted group in America, ahead of only convicted criminals. Discussing the article on reddit, many posters used scripture to vociferously defend that scornful attitude. The only scripture I could think of, as I read their harsh, condemning remarks, was Romans 2:1: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else. At whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you do the very same things.”

In today’s culture wars, so much of our focus seems to be on detachment. If we can demonstrate from scripture that someone else’s behavior qualifies as a “sin”, we feel we have justified any possible range of responses without need for further reflection. But viewed in the lights of scripture, our responses may be more troubling to God— more “sinful”— than the sin that provided the justification in the first place.

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.

We may quote Psalm 14:1 to justify our condemnation of an atheist, but can’t we, surely, keep reading for just two verses more to see that our own shortcomings are every bit as offensive? “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man… there is none who does good, not even one.” You would have to change the scripture if you wanted it to read as an indictment of atheists only. We quote scripture to call another of God’s creatures “a fool”, but in so doing, in the eyes of God, we have literally used a word, and committed an act, that Christ said was no better than murder.

A Christlike Response

It is impossible to imagine that we are more aware of, or troubled by, the world’s sin than was Christ himself. So why do we feel we can justify responses so much more stringent than his? Christ’s separation from sin manifested in his own personal obedience, not in aloofness from others less pure. It was an article of faith among First Century pharisees that intermingling with sinners was tantamount to approval of their sin and rejection of God’s law. Christ’s free intermingling with “sinners” on non-hostile terms was consistently seen by the pharisees as scandalous (see here and here and here and here, for example). Why, then, does our behavior towards the sinful of our own day resemble their attitude so much more strongly than his?

In response to the problem of error and doubt and malice, Christ came near. Into a world where “none does good, not even one,” Christ boldly came and lived and called himself by the name “son of man”. To the heavenly ear, I imagine that sounded as discordant as a pastor unapologetically proclaiming himself as “son of harlots” or “son of drug-dealers”. The words of scripture abound with tenderness for those we reject as “lost” or “fallen” or “disgraced”: “feed my lambs“, “restore them gently“, “repent and live!

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.