When God incarnated through the person of Jesus nearly 2000 years ago, the poor and marginalized were drawn to him.
When we look at the Christian church as it exists today in particularly in the Western world (I’m thinking American evangelicalism) the poor and marginalized are not typically drawn to these churches, but rather to the lottery, liquor stores, government healthcare, casinos, cheap entertainment, and many other things… but not the church. What gives?
I have been leading a small group Bible study through Tim Keller’s book/study The Prodigal God which deals with the parable commonly referred to as ‘The Prodigal Son.’ In the book, Tim Keller rightly argues for a title bearing the name ‘The Parable of the Two Sons’ because the story Jesus tells in Luke 15 actually is about not 1, but 2 sons.
One son becomes lost, Tim Keller describes, by pursuing his father’s wealth and squandering it on material pleasures. The other son, often left unmentioned in many sermons and Sunday school lessons, also desires his father’s wealth, but strives to be perfectly obedient to his father’s will by working hard and being “good” and in his rigid morality becomes lost himself. One son pursues self-discovery and the other moral conformity, as Tim Keller words it. Ultimately, both sons are lost.
Amid the questions in the discussion guide for this study of The Prodigal God there is a question akin to the opening questions I have posed in this blog post. The poor and marginalized were drawn to Jesus and his message, are the poor and marginalized drawn to the church? Why or why not? (Something like that.)
The answer is no secret and it’s probably on the tip of your tongue this very moment, isn’t it?
The church has become like the older brother in the story who strives for moral conformity and when a younger brother has gone astray instead of seeking to save the younger brother from his folly, the older brother stands far off and scoffs and focuses on how good he is in comparison with the younger brother who is clearly behaving poorly.
In the parable, Tim Keller explains, there is a cliff hanger at the end because those hearing the parable (when it was first taught this would be the Pharisees) were left to see where they fit into the story. It’s as if Jesus leaves it open with an under the table question of “So, which brother are you?”
When we hear this parable many in American churches identify with the younger brother and think the younger brother represents all of humanity who has gone astray and we ought to be more like the older brother, and as a result many in the American church have become more like the older brother in the story. The poor and marginalized in the world are at a distance because the church keeps them at arms’ length. We want to help the poor, we know we should, but we don’t really want to. We really want to be in the church and look pretty for our Father because we desire what God’s got, salvation. The trouble with this is that it is void of God’s grace. It is spiritually bankrupt and empty. Instead of trusting in Jesus, our true older brother, to save us, we behave more like the poor older brother in the parable who is meant to be like the Pharisees and that is be super-religious, super-moral, super-obedient to the Word, but to not really strive to be like Jesus because all we care about is our self-preservation and the wealth of the Father.
In summary, we don’t really care about the Father himself because we are trying to earn our forgiveness instead of trusting the grace offered in Jesus Christ who has already obeyed perfectly, but we deny Him by seeking to supplant the true brother with the false one, that is, ourselves. That is what much of the church has become.
Now, this blog is not meant to be a means of bashing the church and condemning Christians. In order to do that, I would need to say what I have just said, and leave it at pointing out the problems, laying blame, and then “peacing out” as I sit back in my own pride and achievement at analyzing something according to the way I choose and see things and sitting on that and relishing in the replies that agree with me and harshly criticizing those that don’t. Like I said, this is not that blog.
So, as Martin Luther King Jr. worded it in a title of one of his books, “Where do we go from here?”
We live in a world that is full of pointing out problems. Christianity, American Christianity, is no different. Books and magazines are full of problems in the Christian world and in churches and in culture and society. Blogs are written all over criticizing this and that and right at this very minute someone is replying to a blog somewhere and complaining about something whether in Christianity, the church, or society. The solution to the problem I have posed in the opening question is simply stated, yet, not easily applied.
What is the solution? The solution is for Christians to stop being the older brother and to not try to be him either. Also, the solution is to not be like the younger brother either in the story. The solution is neither moral conformity nor self-discovery or moral abandonment. The solution is to trust in the promises of God in Jesus Christ wherein the grace of God is fully displayed and to strive to imitate our true brother and not the two lost brothers. Our love should be for the Father, not the Father’s things, and our hope should be in Jesus Christ who is the evidence of God’s ‘extravagant spending,’ his going out of his way for, his being ‘prodigal.’
Instead of fleeing the morally conformed and theologically rigid brothers in the church (or sisters), we should love them as the Father loves them. Instead of fleeing the worldly brother who has gone away from the family, we should love them and seek to bring them back home. If we want to be like Jesus, then this means getting your hands dirty.
Love isn’t easy. I’m not talking about that junk on the internet or what you might find in the hottest club or bar. I’m talking about real genuine love. This is the stuff that Gandhi was enchanted with when he read about Jesus in the gospels. This is the stuff that Martin Luther King Jr. became moved by when read about loving one’s enemies as yourself. As Switchfoot says appropriately in a song “Love is a Movement.” In fact, it is far more than that. The Bible tells us that God is love, read 1 John. It was love that moved God to create and it was love that moved God to send the Word to become incarnated among us in Jesus Christ in order to live, suffer, die on a cross, and rise from the dead for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus did nothing to merit the punishment for the sins of the world, but willingly went to die for our sins in order to redeem us by his blood because he is both fully God and fully man and the only one capable of doing. The embodiment of God’s love and God’s justice being God himself, Jesus Christ, a member of the mysterious and Holy Trinity. If love is so hard that God the Father had to send God the Word/Son to die on the cross to bring about justice for the sins of humanity, than I wonder how easy it is for us as Christians to love one another and to love God every single day?
Fail, right? I know I do. It can be depressing how we Christians fail at times no matter how hard we try to “be good.” Instead of seeking to please or appease God with our behavior and offering our good morality, pastel colored polo shirts and khaki pants, or suburban middle-class consumerist Christianity that is chock full of orthodoxy and bone-dry of orthopraxy, why not seek to cling not to our own works, but to the work of the true older brother, Jesus Christ, and offer that to God and receive it at the same time and not merely consumer, but also give it to others? This is the solution and it is what the church needs and the world, though blind and deaf, is seeking as well.
What if Christians didn’t just care about the number of converts or the spiritual well-being of people, but also for the physical well-being of people? This was the Christianity that Jesus taught and lived in the gospels. We are invited to experience and to live this Christianity which was so named after the one who embodied the only true Christianity – Jesus Christ.
What if the world looked at the church and didn’t see a bunch of older brothers (aka – Pharisees), but saw a community fueled by love for both the physical and spiritual well-being of people and this was evidenced in their desire to go out into the world to care for the younger brothers and to boldly condemn the older brothers who are in the church?
Christians need to stop holding the world at arm’s length and seek to embrace the world while not wearing the same clothes the world wears. Christians need to embrace the arts, science, academics, and the like, but not seek to become enlightenment rationalists nor try to dominate these things with our type of Christianity like a form of imperialism that won’t seem to go away. Christians need to listen to those who are different. Christians need to care for those who are worldly. Christians need to study hard, but not simply study what they agree with, but study what they disagree with as well and as vigorously. Christians shouldn’t seek to abandon the arts, but redeem them. Christians shouldn’t seek to push movies and music that boast of different morals off on an island, but seek to be knowledgable of what is out there and discerning and be able to engage in meaningful conversation about them because these are things that resonate with the world and connect with people who are not like the church.
Christians would do well upon becoming a Christian to not forget what it’s like to not be a Christian because if we cannot relate or identify with those who are not Christian, we cannot really share and show the world what the Gospel is all about. Instead, we become nothing more than an annoying flyer that violates an unsuspecting windshield wiper on a vacant automobile or what appears to be an angry person yelling in the streets and thrusting small pieces of paper into people’s’ hands as they go about their day thinking little to nothing about what they are holding except only to find the nearest trash or recycling bin.
May we Christians engage our culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a listening ear and an attentive heart. May we strive to imitate our true older brother, Jesus Christ, and less the older brother who cares only for himself and his “retirement plan.” Amen.