Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Coming to My Senses

My devotional reading this morning was Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. A familiar story, I know. Yet the author of the devotional thought raised a theory I'd never heard, and I'm not sure I agree with. He said:
There were three kinds of servants in those days: day workers who were paid on a day-to-day basis; hired servants who worked long hours on the estate but lived in town with their independence intact; or bond servants who lived on the estate and gave all of themselves to serving the family.
When the prodigal son hit rock bottom, it's interesting that his planned apology involved asking if he could be like a hired servant [see Luke 15:17,19]. Why not a grateful bond servant? Perhaps he was trying to negotiate a deal--a way to get a paycheck and keep his independence as well.
While I can appreciate the author's point, and think it's certainly plausible, I tend to think there's another possibility. Perhaps because the younger son had finally come "to his senses" [v.17], he was so ashamed of his behavior and choices he didn't want to have to live (as a bond servant), moment-by-moment with the family. Perhaps he feared facing repercussions from family members: whispers behind his back as he left after serving at the dinner table, exasperation in their voices as they corrected his workmanship in the shed, mocking tones if he expressed an alternate point of view or suggestion about something in the field. (And apparently legitimately so, based upon the later responses of the older brother in v.28ff.) Maybe it wasn't independence he was seeking as much as it was shame he was escaping. To return home took amazing humility, coupled with determination to make life better. If the son asked to be the first kind of servant, a day-to-day worker, I'd buy the devotional author's argument about a search for independence. But his desire to have a steady job on the property (not just for harvest season or something like that) seems to indicate a new maturity. In that maturity, he knew he needed a place and opportunity to escape the ever-critical eyes. Not only will pride lead us to make certain choices; shame will as well.

But Jesus' continuation of the Father's welcoming arms assures the listener there is no reason to be afraid. As John later writes, "As we live in God, our love grows more perfect...Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love" (1 John 4:17-18). The younger son didn't need to allow shame to control his future. He was accepted with perfect love, with no fear of punishment. I suspicion if Jesus had continued the story, he might have explained there were consequences to the poor choices the son had made previously. The results of his decisions were not erased, but his hope and future were no longer determined by them. No longer dead, but alive; no longer lost, but found [v.32].

And we've been invited to experience the same, unconditional, ever-giving and forgiving kind of perfect love. Yet, too often, I look for ways to escape, believing God looks at me with critical eyes, ever-reminded of my failures. Oh, not that he'd be so unkind and ungentlemanly as to bring them up, but alert and aware, expecting me to fail again, waiting (in disdain and mere tolerance) for it to happen. If you struggle with this as I do, (let's come "to our senses" and) read aloud the following words from Psalm 103. Let them wash over your mind, heart, body and soul. In fact, I wonder if these words weren't in the back of Jesus' mind as he told his prodigal son parable nearly 2000 years ago:
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins;
he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our sins as far from us
as the east is from the west.
The Lord is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
he remembers we are only dust.
On a side note, Jesus never describes the younger son as a "young" man. He merely describes him as being younger than the older brother. Which indicates to me that at any age people may lose their "senses"!

Monday, July 12, 2010


Yesterday I had the privilege of teaching in a Bible study class at church filled with people who are "more experienced" than myself. (It's the class my parents visit when they're in town.) The teachers graciously invited me to teach one of the lessons I'd written for BaptistWay published in this summer's curriculum. It was a lively discussion and very enjoyable for me. (I hope a majority of them felt the same!) The lesson was about Hospitality as a biblical mandate; and I'm happy to report the class showed me a great deal of it!

As I began the lesson, I showed Jerry two miniature pound cakes. One looked light and delicious; the other dark and unappetizing; both sprinkled with powdered sugar. I then asked him which one he'd like. Naturally, he pointed to the first. But my point was this: as the giver, I could choose to give him whichever I wanted, regardless of his preference. Hospitality, in the biblical sense, chooses to give the best, the preferred, to the other person, meeting his/her needs. We mentioned various examples of hospitality throughout Scripture: God's provision of everything they needed for Adam and Eve; God's offer to the Israelites of a land which flowed with milk and honey; God's law that provided for Ruth to glean in Boaz's field; Jesus' teachings and example of humble service; even God's provision for our eternity in heaven - everything we'll ever need in grand style! As I consider it now, the Gospel story itself and the act of sharing it with others are probably the two greatest hospitable demonstrations of all!

Writing that lesson, and now teaching it, have further challenged my perceptions of my own practices of hospitality. I've been "weighed in the balance and found wanting," to quote Daniel. I too often find excuses of finances, time or well-being to exert the energy and effort it takes to show hospitality - and I don't just mean throwing a party. Hospitality, first and foremost, is a state of mind - an attitude of welcome that communicates to those around you that they are valuable and desired. That's what God demonstrates through Jesus' sacrifice-his desire for us. It then manifests itself through action - striving to meet the greatest need of the person in your path: emotionally, physically or spiritually. When we express the message of saving hope to others, we express our desire for them to be with us for eternity! While I have moments of "success," in this area of hospitality, I still have so far to go.

The discussion branched off a couple of times into an examination of political law and practice, particularly regarding immigration issues, which, to be honest, I was totally unprepared for. In fact, in my naivete and general avoidance of politics, I didn't even see it coming. What I wish I'd said (you know, in those brilliant conversations you have on the way home in the car), to divert that road mine, was while political immigration issues are certainly of importance, our focus for the day was to be an examination of self - how I am practicing hospitality in daily life. Oh, well. Maybe someone, somewhere in the room grasped that concept!

The funniest moment of all came after the majority left the room. One sweet lady walked up to where I was standing with the mini-pound cakes and marveled at why Jerry had picked the one he did. After all, she'd "pick chocolate every time!" I laughed, and holding it up for her see, said, "It's not chocolate. It's burned." I think there may be a future devotional [or illustration] in that somewhere.