Here I will recast a biblical parable and a biblical sermon into something closer to our own language:
A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, “Give me my inheritance now.” The father divided his money between the sons. A few days later the younger son took all his new wealth and traveled to a distant land. There he wasted it all with wild living.
Then a severe economic depression began where he was, and he needed to make a living. He got a job feeding pigs. He was so hungry that he wanted to eat pigfeed, and no one was giving him anything else to eat.
But he came to his senses and said, “My father has several hired hands, and they have more than enough to eat, while I’m dying of starvation. I’ll go back home, apologize, and ask for a job there, since I’m not likely to be received as a family member anymore.” So he headed home.
But before he’d arrived, his father saw him coming and ran and embraced him. The son recited his rehearsed apology and asked for a job. But his father received him lavishly as still his son. He dressed him up and, though it wasn’t in the budget, hired a band, made lots of barbecue, and threw a party for his son.
Meanwhile, his older brother was just coming in from work. He was surprised to see a party under way and asked one of the hired hands, “What the hell is going on?”
The hired hand told him, “Your brother’s come back, and your father is throwing this party to celebrate. I think there’s some potato salad left.” But the older son was so mad that he wouldn’t go in.
His father came out and begged him to come on in, but he said, “Look here. All these years I’ve been slaving for you, and I always did what you said. But you never let me bring over my friends just for dinner. But now, when this guy, your wonderful son, who’s spent all your money, no doubt on hookers, comes crawling back, you throw a big party in his honor!”
The father said, “My son, you’re always here with me. What’s mine is yours. But it was right to be happy and put out a big spread because your brother, who was good as dead, is alive again. I’d lost him, but now I have him back.” Luke 15:11-32
My idea of how the father of the prodigal son should look is captured by “The Little King,” a short and rotund comic strip character of the past, particularly in a strip in which he is inspired by passing foot racers and takes off running in his underwear (click on the pic to see the full cartoon). Without his royal robes (see the “Nakedness” post), his body is just drawn as a perfect circle. The king and the prodigal’s father both look comically out of place as runners.
The comedy works not just visually but in the whole character of the father. This would have been more obvious to those who heard Jesus tell the parable, though some were probably not so much amused as shocked. Instead of acting like a commendable head of his family, the father first gives in to his son’s outrageous request for an early pay-out of the old man’s inheritance, and then seems to reward his son for recklessly blowing the whole bundle.
The prodigal’s brother is more sensible, as the prodigal himself is once he has sobered up. My recital of the story might make the prodigal seem insincere as he rehearses his speech to his father, but there is really no reason to think of him that way, as necessarily anything less than fully genuine in his repentance. At any rate, he comes to expect the same thing that his brother has always preferred, namely that their father’s giving respond to their own past responsibility or lack thereof. But that sensible expectation is not met.
In fact, nothing happens in the parable to make the father’s actions, either before his younger son’s departure or after his return, sensible. He is a bit of a buffoon. “Mercy is comic, and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously” (T Bone Burnett in “The Wild Truth” on the CD Talking Animals). Just like that father, grace is comical, shockingly so. If logic and sense prevailed even over God, then we might as well eat pigfeed and not go home.
When God speaks, he speaks of grace. And so his words are necessarily illogical and nonsensical. And it is not by a simple application of logic that we understand them in the manner in which they were spoken. “No one will enter the kingdom of heaven without becoming a child” (Matthew 18:3), that is, without becoming more open to God’s nonsense.
The meaning of grace is that the more we structure happiness or justice, the less we can receive it from God. This is so because our best, most rational knowledge has no place for grace. Like the prodigal’s brother, we want things to make sense. However things might look to God (and our mental periscopes cannot rise to that level), grace is counter to order and structure as we conceive them. It does not complete some structure that we already know. It is not carried out according to a list of rules we already have in hand. God breaks the rules — any rules that we could know or formulate — to love us.
Sermons about the cross seem stupid to those who are on their way to hell, but the saved see divine power in them. Like it says in Isaiah 29:14,
“I will smash the wisdom of the wise.
I will negate the discernment of the discerning.”
When you look around the church, do you see any so-called smart people? Do you see people who know all the rules? God knows that that sort of knowledge doesn’t get anybody closer to him.
God wants to save people who believe our stupid sermons. Some people want to see spectacular miracles. Other people want everything to line up with what they think is rational and sensible. But we’ll just keep preaching those stupid sermons about the cross. That’ll knock that first group of people down and make the others think we’re idiots. But for Christians, Christ on the cross is God’s miracle and God’s logic. After all, God, even at his stupidest, is smarter than any of us. And when he loses, he still beats anything we can offer. That’s why so few of us church people are smart or powerful or high and mighty.
- God chose what people think is stupid to shame those who are considered smart.
- God chose what people think is weak to shame what people think is strong.
- God chose what people despise and pass over to negate what people give most honor to.
He did all that so that nobody who gets close to him will have anything to brag about. 1 Corinthians 1:18-29
“Divine power” out of its context in the first sentence of that quotation sounds like it should be the name for something spectacular, obvious, and triumphant, not for the gory and deliberately humiliating death by execution of a man regarded as a possible revolutionary leader (Luke 24:21). Or maybe it should be the name for an argument that wins by being devastatingly logical, but certainly not for the words of a short, bald, near-sighted preacher like Paul. So much for how it ought to be.
Ancient reports, though not the New Testament, describe Paul as about four and half feet tall and bald with crooked legs. In 2 Corinthians 10:10 Paul quotes his detractors: “His physical presence is weak….” Galatians 4:15 has commonly been taken as suggesting that Paul’s eyesight was weak (cf. Acts 9:8-9, 17-18).