A father had two sons. The youngest came to his father and asked for his inheritance, and his father gave it to him. This son then left home and went on a spending spree. He squandered what his father had worked so hard to earn on worthless things and eventually he ran out of money, forced to live in squalor and longing for home…
You might have heard this story before.
In fact, you might be living this story right now.
In the beginning God created everything and it was very good. But not good enough for us. We thought we knew better, we thought we could get what we wanted by ourselves. So we took this life that God gave us, and rebelled against God. We squandered what we had on worthless living. On what we thought we needed, what would satisfy and make us happy. We came to hate the things of God, so we dig deeper and deeper into our rebellion, making an enemy of the God of creation.
We settle for this, because we are told that the answer is within us. We are content with life without God, so we sit in our squalor, making castles in the mud, believing them to be of some worth. But the truth is, we are like the son in the story: poor and lost and in desperate need. The best life we could have without God, is no life at all.
So the younger son makes a plan, he will go back home. Back to his father. He will tell his father that he is not worthy to be his son anymore and he will be his servant instead. Because it would be better even to be his servant than living where he is. He will beg forgiveness. So he rises and goes back home. Back to a father who owes him nothing more. A father who might condemn him and justly so. A father who might utterly reject him.
Not this father… He sees his son coming and runs to meet him, throws his arms around him, kisses him. The son tries to say what he planned to say, but the father showers him in gifts, gives him things he doesn’t deserve and makes preparations for a celebration. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
God is gracious and good, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Maybe you can’t relate. Maybe you don’t feel as though you owe anything to God.
The other son, the older one, the one who stayed, the one who worked hard, the one who thinks he deserves the praise and adulation, looks at this scene and is disgusted. He refuses to join into the celebration. What is the old man doing, this younger son deserves to be punished, not rejoiced over. The elder brother should have the party, he should have all these things. He has slaved away for years. He deserves all of the father’s love.
You may feel like this. You may be counting on the good deeds you have done, or perhaps your status as a good person to earn you some rights before God. I am not a bad person, you might say to yourself, I try to live the best I can, therefore God cannot condemn me. He has to accept me, because I deserve it.
Even the very best of us fall short of the standard God demands, for God demands perfection. Our good deeds account for very little when weighed against the evil in our hearts and our lives. All of us are guilty before God for we do not listen to the only one who knows what true life is. We all lie, we all fail to keep God first in our lives, we hate (which God sees is as bad as murder), we lust (which Jesus equates with adultery) and whether we like it or not, we show we don’t want God by these things. We all want to go to heaven, but very few want the God of heaven, without whom heaven has no meaning.
The father in the story goes and pleads with his eldest son to come in. The elder and the younger are in the same position, both undeserving of anything from their father. The younger left and the elder only stayed because he wanted the gifts of his father, but not the father himself. Both have great need to come back home. Back to God.
So do we. But in order to show that we cannot earn this, that God alone saves, God saves us by the very act of giving grace. Grace is getting that which we do not deserve. God sends his son Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, to earth. To humble origins. To live a perfect life, a life we could not live, and to suffer and die a death we all deserve to die. Cut off and separated from God he cries out in pain as the nail him to a cross and lift him up: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
He became forsaken, so we could be found. He gave us grace. He is the way back to the Father. He tells us that our works are worthless, that the only thing we can do is come humbly back to a God who should condemn us, to know we deserve only death and condemnation from Him and to throw ourselves at His feet, trusting only in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And the Father will by no means cast such a person away.