Let’s face it. As followers of Jesus, we have our own language. There are words and phrases we throw around when engaging in “spiritual” conversations that we would never use in our “normal” lives. And if I am honest, some of them get under my skin a bit.
“Hedge of protection.”
Let me be clear . . . nothing is wrong with any of these, and I am not judging anyone for using them. It’s a me problem. I can’t really explain it, but for some reason, they make me squirm. And I’m sure I have a few of my own that don’t exactly resonate with other Christ followers. I hope that’s OK and that we can still be friends. While words are certainly important, preferences are mostly not.
(This is obviously not the focus of this post, but if you resonate with my comments about the “Christianese” language and you need a good laugh — and are able to laugh at yourself — check out this video: “Shoot Christians Say.” Just be sure to come back and finish reading when you are done!)
But while we are on the topic of words and their importance, I would like to discuss a couple that I believe are foundational to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And because they are foundational to our faith, these transcend personal preference. We must maintain a firm grasp on their significance, never allowing them to become commonplace or cliché. God help us if we ever believe we have grasped the fullness of either, and at the same time, God help us if we ever quit trying.
Without either, there is no such thing as salvation. Without either, there is no such thing as eternal life. And without either, God’s Kingdom cannot come, and His will cannot be done on earth as it is in Heaven. And last I checked, all of those things are pretty close to our Father’s heart.
The Parable of the Knuckleheaded Son
Several of my favorite passages of Scripture are found in Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. In this chapter, Jesus shares three stories, each demonstrating the Father’s passion for and relentless pursuit of those who have lost their way. Each parable presents a beautiful reality about the heart of God, and each is worthy of deep study and lengthy meditation. That said, here I would like to focus on the last of the three stories, commonly referred to as the “parable of the prodigal son,” found in verses 11-32 (we will only be examining 11-24).
Personally, I prefer to call this passage the parable of the knuckleheaded son, for reasons that should be obvious. Oh, and by the way, we are all knuckleheaded sons (NOTE: Being a “son” of God is not an issue of gender, but of identity and authority — just as both men and women can be the “bride of Christ,” both can be “sons of God” as well).
Anyway, here’s how the story begins . . .
Then [Jesus] said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”
“But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”Luke 15:11-16, NKJV
In short, the son believes his life will be better out from under his father’s authority and leadership, so he decides to bail. As if this isn’t a significant enough slap in his father’s face, the son adds insult to injury by asking his father to bless him with his inheritance while his father is still alive. So the son believes he knows what is best, seems to care little for his father’s feelings, removes himself from his father’s authority and covering, but still asks his father to bless him. Oh, and then he runs off and wastes the blessing from his father and ends up in a desperate situation.
See what I mean? We are (or at least, were) all knuckleheaded sons.
And lucky for us, our Father’s heart is filled with mercy and grace.
Mercy: NOT Receiving What We DO Deserve
At some point after insulting his father and hitting the road, the son apparently gets his hands on a copy of the latest Joel Osteen manuscript and determines that he is, in fact, not living his “best life now.” When the pig pod dinners just won’t cut it any longer, the son finds some humility and decides to make his way home.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”‘Luke 15:17-21, NKJV
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.'”
When the son meets his father, he launches into a monologue that includes some of the truest statements in all of Scripture:
“I screwed up.”
“I am unworthy.”
“I deserve to be disowned and treated like a servant.”
The son hits the nail squarely on the head with each statement, and the father does not argue with his son’s assessment. He doesn’t say, “No, no, son. It’s no big deal. Kids will be kids.” Interestingly, the father doesn’t say anything at all in direct response to the son’s words. This seems significant. Given that the father in the story is representative of our Father in heaven, I have to assume that he is a wise man who would have corrected any falsehood uttered by his son.
But the father remains silent.
It’s as though the son has said all that needs to be said about this subject. His humility is undeniable. His remorse and regret are clear. His heart change is evident. And like our Father in heaven, the father in the story is moved with compassion toward a repentant heart.
The son deserves rebuke and a place in the servants’ quarters. He receives neither.
This is mercy. This is our heavenly Father.
God’s Mercy, Our Need and a Man Named Jesus
I know I mentioned that I wanted to focus on two words that are foundational to the life of a follower of Jesus, and thus far we have only discussed one: mercy. Well, there is a little more to the knuckleheaded son’s story than what we have discussed thus far, and in that which remains, there is more to be learned about God’s character. But I would like to save that for next time. I hope that’s OK.
For now, my goal is to help you fall more in love with God because of His great mercy. If you grasp this reality, your heart cannot help but swell with love for Jesus. If we discuss His mercy and grace simultaneously, it might be too much for either of us to handle.
So, here are a few reflection points on the mercy of God that we learn from the parable of the knuckleheaded son and/or other places in Scripture. Please take some time to meditate on these and chat with the Holy Spirit about them. He loves to talk about this stuff!
- First “rule” of mercy: you need it more than you know.
Don’t fool yourself. You are more depraved than you think. So am I. Don’t fall for the lies of the comparison game. The standard is perfection. Given our fallen nature, God might as well have asked us to jump to the moon. Just because you have a five foot vertical leap, mine is only three, and Joe Burrow can only jump a few inches (I kid, I kid… I’m a Chiefs fan, and still a little bitter after this past Sunday), we all still have 238,900 miles to go (Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23, etc.).
- God’s natural inclination is to show mercy.
It’s who He is, not just something He does. “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy” (Psalm 145:8, NKJV). He looks for opportunities to be merciful.
- God’s mercy is not dependent upon us.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NKJV). God was merciful and showed us the greatest mercy imaginable while we wanted nothing to do with Him. As with everything else, He is the initiator (if this resonates with you, you might enjoying reading my post entitled “Because God First Loved Us: The Gateway to Holy Passion“).
- God’s mercy is unending.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23-24, ESV). Make no mistake, there is a day of final judgment (Revelation 20:11-15), but until that day comes (and on/beyond it for those who repent and believe that Jesus is Lord), mercy is available. In fact, it is yet another example of God’s mercy that the day has not yet come. He desires that everyone would repent and turn to Him, and in His mercy, He continues to offer time for that by delaying judgment (Romans 2:4).
- It is a good thing that God’s mercy is unending, because our need for it is ongoing.
Hopefully this one speaks for itself. If not, see #1 above.
- Sometimes God’s mercy can be offensive.
Be honest. There are some folks who you really don’t want to experience the mercy of God. Maybe they have hurt you personally. Or maybe their general actions are simply detestable on a whole different level, and in your eyes they deserve nothing but the harshest punishment.
The prophet Jonah felt that way about the Ninevites. When God asked Jonah to be his conduit for showing mercy, he wanted nothing to do with it! Jonah knew the merciful heart of God, and when it came to the Ninevites, he actually despised it: “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
Sorry, Jonah. It’s who He is! And trust me, it is in your best interest. Mine too.
- Experiencing the fullness of God’s mercy (forgiveness) requires humility and repentance.
God demonstrates mercy even to those who despise Him most. But let’s be clear, mercy and forgiveness are not one and the same. God’s mercy is revealed by the fact that you and I are still sucking oxygen. We deserve death, both physical and spiritual, but God withholds what we deserve. This is mercy. Forgiveness goes a step further, in that is results in a restored relationship with God. Scripture is clear that in order to receive forgiveness, humility and repentance (confessing and turning from sin) are required.
If you wonder what this type of heart looks like, take another look at the knuckleheaded son at the end of the passage above. He is broken. He hates his sin. He recognizes his need. In the midst of all this, he turns to his father, and His father runs to meet him and welcome him home! And suddenly the knuckleheaded son looks a whole lot less knuckleheaded.
- Jesus is the face of mercy.
Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is “the exact living image [the essential manifestation] of the unseen God” (AMP), and nowhere is that more true than in His final moments on the cross. As He hangs naked, beaten and dying, Jesus looks out at the very ones who put Him there, and He cries out to His Father, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34, NKJV).
This is the same Jesus who showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). This is the same Jesus who knew Judas would betray him unto death, but washed the traitor’s feet anyway (John 13:1-30). This is the same Jesus who will later restore Peter (John 21:15-17), His friend who abandoned Him in His greatest hour of need (Luke 22:54-62).
And this is the same Jesus who offers mercy to you and me, pleading with us to receive it and repent so that we might experience the fullness of His grace and rule/reign with Him for eternity!
Even a knucklehead like me can’t pass that up.
If you are thankful for the mercy of God in your life, tell somebody! In fact, I would love to hear about it myself, so consider dropping a comment below or connecting with me on social media. And if you found any of this post helpful, please consider sharing it so it can help someone else. Next week we will talk about the second word: grace. Talk to you then!