When I was young, I was a voracious reader, and that’s the main way I came to learn about the religious practices of others, practices so unlike those of my Lutheran church.
I must have baffled my parents when I asked if we could become Catholic or Jewish. When my mother asked why I wanted to join those religions, I could only stammer out something about liking the dietary habits or wanting to do penance for my sins.
My patient mother tried again and again to explain the Lutheran notion of grace to me, but my child’s mind was suspicious. It sounded much too easy.
Similarly, when I led a retreat Bible study focusing on the Prodigal Son, one of the participants told us of her experience teaching this parable to high schoolers, who hated it. The Prodigal Son who comes back to love and a party infuriated the teenagers.
What about the son who stayed behind, behaving the way that he should? Their sympathy was decidedly with the non-prodigal son. The Sunday school teacher asked, “What am I supposed to tell them when they ask why they should behave, if they can misbehave and God will always welcome them back?”
It’s a tough question. It’s one of the problems with the concept of grace.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love and appreciate the Lutheran concept of grace, in a way that I couldn’t as a child. The idea of grace seems to be one of the major concepts that differentiates Lutheran spirituality from so many other manifestations of faith.
We cannot behave our way toward God’s love. We do not have to perform a set number of good works before God will love us.
We can behave in ways that we shouldn’t, and God will still love us. We can commit the same mistakes again and again, and God will never say, “That’s it. I’ve given you three chances, and you’ve always blown it. I’ve had it with this relationship. I’m leaving.”
I have Christian friends who have a vastly different view of God. Their God is an angry judge, a deity always ready to smite. Their view of themselves as Christians is one of never measuring up to God’s exacting standards.
As a Lutheran, I see God as a parent who envisions a better life for us than we could ever dream up for ourselves. My view of God is the vision of a partner who will always forgive, even though I repeat my mistakes.
My God feels sorrow, not anger, when I act in negative ways. It’s the sorrow that comes when we watch people behave in self-destructive patterns because we know that, with some changes, they could live a life that’s so much more fulfilling.
Of course, just because I live in the wonder of God’s grace, that fact doesn’t give me permission to behave in any old way that I like because God will forgive me anyway.
Those high schoolers were probably thinking of all the illicit activities that they could do, and they wouldn’t be banned to hell, and what was the point of all this church stuff anyway? It takes some time to understand this vision that God has for humanity, and even when we start to grasp it, we can only see the vaguest outlines. We continue to stumble toward the life that God offers us.
How do we do that? Jesus shows us the way. We set the table for dinner, and we invite everyone we know, along with the poor and the outcast.
We work toward a world of justice, where everyone has enough, even if we don’t have equal amounts. We pray and take longer retreats from the world when we need renewal. And for daily sustenance, we gather at the table, where we break bread together, talk about our days and tell stories.
At the same retreat where we studied the Prodigal Son, we looked at the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The ones who come late are paid the same amount as the ones who have been working since the first light of day. Like high schoolers, we might protest, “That’s not fair!”
But what if we changed the metaphor? What if instead of laboring in a vineyard, we talked about people at a party? The people who get there early get the freshest food and their choice of drinks. They get to enjoy the party for more hours than the people who stagger in late.
To me, that parable would be a compelling vision of grace. We all get to come to the party; God offers us all an invitation. Those of us who come early have more time to enjoy God’s party than those who come late.
The invitation remains open to all, no matter how late the hour, no matter how many times we’ve said, “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t want to come to your party.” Unlike humans, God will never give up hoping that we’ll say yes.