Grace is always shocking
Grace always catches us by surprise. It is always rather shocking and unexpected.
When Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, His grace was bewildering to all who observed it, and unwelcome to some. The Pharisees and teachers of the law (the most religious people in the country) grumbled about Jesus sharing meals with “sinners.” They were strict about matters of right and wrong and about the consequences. From their perspective, good was rewarded; wrong was punished. They were upset with Jesus not just for eating with sinners; they were also upset with Jesus for healing sinners. According to their theology, injury and disease were judgments from God against sin. People were sick or disabled because they had earned such a punishment; to remove such a punishment was to go against God’s will.
After Absalom rebelled against his father David, the king of Israel, Absalom erected a pillar to himself so that he might be remembered in Jerusalem throughout the ages. However, the commemoration didn’t turn out the way Absalom had hoped. Throughout the centuries, there has been a custom in Jerusalem that fathers of rebellious sons bring their sons to Absalom’s Monument to throw stones at the monument so that these sons might learn what becomes of rebellious children.
When Jesus began to tell His story of the “Prodigal Son,” it would have sounded—at first—like Jesus was joining the religious leaders in judging rebellious sinners. After all, the description He gives of the younger son is how the religious leaders viewed sinners. Jesus painted this young man in the worst possible light. He describes a boy who comes to his father, saying, in essence, ‘Dad, I am sick and tired of waiting around here for you to die. Could you, at least, pretend that you are dead, so that I can get the inheritance you should give to me when you finally kick the bucket?” To dishonor a father with such a request would have been the height of rudeness. By Jewish Law, the elders of the community could have taken the boy out of the city limits and stoned him to death as a rebellious son.
When Jesus reached the point where this young man “longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything,” the religious leaders would have been cheering. They would have shouted out, “See what happens to rebellious sinners! They get what they deserve.” Indeed, the Pharisees used to tell a similar story—though the villain in their story was not as despicable as the son whom Jesus described. In the story the Pharisees told, a son who dishonored his father by moving away and engaging in sinful living repents of his sinful ways, returns home, and knocks on the door of his father’s home. Upon opening the door and seeing who is there, the father would slam the door shut in the face of the sinful son. For the Pharisees, the moral of the story was that when you dishonor your father, there is no coming back; you must bear forever the consequences of your sinful choices.
But Jesus turns the story around entirely. As He goes on, what Jesus tells is no longer a story of judgment but a story of inconceivable grace. It is no longer a story of someone getting what he deserved but of someone receiving a gift that is far beyond what was warranted.
While the son is still a long way off, the father runs to him. Pulling up one’s robe and baring one’s legs would have been shameful in that culture. But that’s what the father does because he cares far more about the return of his son than about the rules of decency.
He throws his arms around the son and kisses him. He greets his son not with the lecture the son deserved but with a loving embrace that went far beyond what was warranted.
Then the father calls for gifts that proclaim the son’s return to the family: The best robe (the family robe), a ring for his finger (with the family insignia), sandals for his feet (only family members could wear shoes in the home), and a fatted calf (to celebrate his restoration to the family)! The father explained, “For this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
Rather than getting what he deserved, this young man received a gift that went far beyond what was warranted. That is the shocking nature of grace—to him, to you, and to me.