Friday, May 24, 2013

What Does the Prodigal Son Mean?

Jesus didn’t tell the story of the prodigal son to represent everyone. Some people have always been a part of church, and have always been faithful to God. But Jesus told this story about people who rejected God, rejected the church, and began to live a life that was totally opposed to God, and would even be considered insulting to God by His people.

In Hebrew, there are three kinds of sin. One is unintentional sin, that which you did against God, but didn’t really know it. Another is sin that is done on purpose, but the person is so weak-willed that he couldn’t help but do it. But the third category is sin done on purpose, to spite God and his people. This is the kind of sin that Jesus is talking about. People who have totally rebelled against God and against his people, but then they realized their loss and want to come back.

Jesus main message here is the acceptance of these sinners. The father is God. This is a father who was constantly watching for his son to return, even though he gave him up for dead. And even though the son recognized— rightly— that he didn’t deserve to be his son, the father was ready to accept him back fully, without any hesitation. The father didn’t just take him back grudgingly or with conditions— he fully accepted him right then and there. And then he had a great party to celebrate his return (and this wasn’t a man who usually had parties). God is this man, who has a party every time one of his rebellious, lost children return to him.  

Who are sinners? 
Of course, we know what sin is, but who are sinners? A sinner is not just a person who sins, but a person who has rejected God’s ways and has decided to live for him or herself or for the world. They have purposely chosen a life that is in opposition to God’s life, and they know that they can’t be right with God as long as they pursue this life. These are people who can’t go to church because they “know” the church won’t receive them. They are the people excluded from God, by their own actions, their own choice.  

How are sinners brought back? 
These people who, by their own choice, have separated themselves from God, is it even possible for them to come back to God? Many people believe that they can’t. They would say that they were too hardened, too far gone. But Jesus rejects this, saying that every sinner has the possibility of return.

We can see the pattern of return here in this story. First, the sinner realizes how much he or she has lost by separating themselves from God. They realize that their way of life has given them nothing but sorrow and so they determine to seek help. So they come to God for help— perhaps through a prayer, perhaps through seeking assistance at a church or through pastoral counseling. Then, once they seek something— anything— from God, then God shows them his full grace and full acceptance. The smallest amount of repentance, and God springs forgiveness on them like a lion.  

How should the repentant sinners be received? 
So how should the sinner be received by the church? Even as God does, with a lot of grace and understanding, with forgiveness and acceptance. However, this isn’t how the sinner is usually received. Usually there is some measure of distrust, or some hoops they need to go through before they can be fully accepted. And, on occasion, there is basic rejection of the sinner, out of a church’s sense of propriety and fear. But, as much as this is often the church’s way, this is not God’s way.  

How did Jesus receive sinners? 
First of all, Jesus sought sinners out, letting them know that he sought their company, not just grudgingly accepted them. He taught them God’s truth, but not in a churchy way— rather he made the word alive to the outsider, the one who hasn’t been in the church or a part of it for a long time. And, most importantly, Jesus had parties of acceptance. When Matthew and Zaccheus were saved, Jesus organized parties in their own houses, arranging to have their friends— sinners and tax collectors all— welcome to the party. Jesus had the heart of an evangelist, and make sure that it was the outsiders who were welcome into the ultimate party— God’s kingdom. (Mark 2: 14-17; Luke 19: 1-10; Luke 15: 1-10)  

As Jesus did, so should the church. The church seems to not be an open community for sinners. Rather, each church is a cultural box, and each doorway is itself a box and if one does not fit into the box, then that one is just never welcome. Does this mean that the church should be a cultural amoeba, without cultural form or shape, able to accept anyone? No, because that is not possible, nor does it make anyone else comfortable. But the church needs to be ready to accept some kind of outsider, the ones that most churches don’t accept. Perhaps one church focuses on ministry to homosexuals, another to the homeless, another to addicts and another to sex offenders. But EVERY church needs to be accepting sinners, prodigals and ex-God-haters. This is a basic part of Jesus’ mission, thus it should be the church’s as well.  

The ministry of Jesus is to receive and restore sinners.

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 500-504).  . Kindle Edition. 

Prodigal Revisited

Jesus told them this story: “There was a father with two sons.

"The younger son said to his father, ‘Dad, I can’t wait for you to die to get my inheritance, so give it to me now.’ So the father divided all of his wealth and gave the two sons their own share.

"A few days later, the younger son collected his belongings and traveled to a godless nation and wasted the money, living by his impulses. After all his money was gone, an economic depression came upon the nation and he was in desperate need. After begging for a job, someone hired him to clean up rooms in a brothel, picking up needles and cleaning soiled sheets. No one actually ever paid him, so he began to starve, finding the crumbs left in the rooms to be appetizing.  

"Finally, he came to his senses and said to himself, ‘Even the laziest of my father’s farmhands eat to their fill, and here I am starving to death? I know what I’ll do, I’ll go back to my father and tell him how evil I have been and then ask him to hire me. After all, I’m not worthy to be his son.’  

“So he left that place, traveled back home and came to his father. His father saw him from a distance and felt his heart leap within him and he ran to his son, grabbing him and hugging him desperately. Once he could catch his breath, he said to his father, ‘Father, I have done evil before God and yourself. Don’t take me as a son— I don’t deserve it.’

"His father, though, called his workers and said, ‘You— go into my room and get out my best clothes and shoes and give them to my son. You— get the necklace with the family crest on it and bring it here, and put it on him. You— get into the kitchen and prepare a feast with steak for everyone. Because this is my son the one who died. Now his come back to us from the dead— he was lost, but now he is returned.’”

Paraphrase of Luke 15: 11-24

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Riff Raff in the Church

Okay, so we know that Jesus hung out with tax collectors, but do we have to go so far as to say he hung out with drugies and child pornographers?

Oh, yes, these are exactly the kind of folks Jesus hung out with.

He welcomed those whom the Standard Religious Society (SRS, or, if you please,the church) didn’t want to have anything to do with.

There were the ones that the SRS called “sinners”, but many of them really weren’t, or at least no more than anyone else. The tax collectors were folks who worked for the Romans to collect tolls for their roads. While some tax collectors DID cheat the Romans and others (like Zaccheus in Luke 19), but these toll collectors did no such thing. They didn’t make much, but they didn’t collect enough to cheat the Romans. So they had a job, just a job. But because they worked for the Romans they were automatically rejected by the SRS (i.e. the church).

So Jesus, were he here today, he would hang out with those who were “unacceptable” in the church’s eyes today. He would hang out with the homeless who are often excluded from the church simply because they don’t have good enough hygiene. He would hang out with those who belonged to cult groups like Samaritans (or like Jehovah’s Witnesses today) and explain to them the heart of God’s truth.

Jesus also hung out with those who really, seriously sinned.  People like Zaccheus, but also prostitutes and betrayers.  If Jesus were here today, He would hang out with the homosexuals and drunks who are unsure of their reception, even if they repent. He would hang out with the druggies and tell them about the gospel, welcoming them, eating with them, hoping to bring them— or to keep them— in God.      

Who are the Riff-Raff? 
Jesus targeted three groups that were set outside of the church. He welcomed the ones who were just not good enough to be in a “proper” church— Samaritans, the lame, the blind, women, the Gentiles. All of these groups were people who could be in right standing with God, but they were set out of the Temple for one reason or another. The church, like the Temple of old, has a pretty strict idea of who belongs to it. No, they don’t set up rules for it, but they set boundaries through their subtle but negative reactions to those who are poor, of different beliefs, or of a different culture.

The church today is as cultural as it is spiritual— sometimes it is more culture than Spirit. And those who do not belong to the culture are outcast.

Another group that Jesus targeted is the sinner. Some of these are professional sinners, such as prostitutes and tax collectors— those whose very profession excluded them from good graces in God’s community. Some are sinners by what they did— adultery, theft, rebellion— and they are painted as such for the rest of their life for one sin. These are like those who are in jail or prison for crimes done. While some churches might accept them, they certainly don’t allow them near their children. Again, the welcome is only partial

The other group Jesus specifically targeted is the judged. These are people who were judged by God or by people and they have the mark of judgment against them. In Jesus’ day they are the demon possessed or the lepers. Today, they may be sufferers of AIDS or those going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol or some other addiction. They may be people who have chronic mental illnesses. At first they might be welcome into today’s church, but then they would be rejected because they are “too difficult” or “cause too many disruptions.”  

Should the church welcome the Riff Raff?
Absolutely. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for the church. If God sees sinners repenting as more important than a bunch of people who go to church regularly, then maybe we need to stop growing our churches and getting out on the street.

Jesus didn’t just sit in the temple, looking for the riff raff to come to him. He didn’t just have a seeker’s service. Rather, he went out and established a party in every village he went to, and shared the gospel at the party. He attracted the riff raff with the kind of gathering they liked, in their area, and then spoke a message that wasn’t easy for them to hear, but it was the truth. Not everyone believed, but it was important.

So the church doesn’t just need to welcome the riff raff, they need to go out where they live and give them a party.

Why should we do this? Because these riff raff— even if they’ve been following Jesus for years, they feel that they are second class Christians, or that they have no chance of being right with God at all. They think that their lives are apart from God and there is no acceptance for them. How is this? Because the church has separated themselves from the riff raff. As long as the church will have nothing to do with the riff raff, the riff raff figure that they don’t need God, either. Yet Jesus focused his ministry on the riff raff. Jesus loves the riff raff. And Jesus’ first church was full of the riff raff— more than the “normal” folks.  

How are the Riff Raff saved?
This is the easiest question to ask, but the hardest one to live out. We know that everyone is saved by faith in Jesus, by their devotion to God, their repentance from sin and their reliance on the Holy Spirit. That’s how everyone is saved, without exception, forever and ever, amen.

But the church doesn’t act that way.

Rather they act like the homeless are saved by pushing through paperwork to gain homes. They act like the addict is saved by going to some anonymous group and never relapsing. They act like the homosexual is saved by getting married to someone of the opposite sex. They act like the mentally ill person is saved by taking medication.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things by themselves. But they aren’t the answers for people with these problems. The only way anyone is saved is through Jesus and reliance on the Holy Spirit. And Jesus and the Spirit will lead the outcast person to the things they need for their lives.

Sometimes the answer will be homes, marriage, medication and dishwashers and everything that makes up a middle class life. But for many people, it won’t.

Jesus, in calling the riff raff, chose to be homeless himself. He chose to be rejected. He chose to be without a family. And many of his followers went the same way. Jesus became homeless to welcome the homeless. He became family-less to welcome the family-less. He became penniless to welcome the penniless. He became rejected to welcome the rejected. And so we cannot insist that the outcast— or even the middle class— to be a part of the church must have homes, families, money and acceptance.  

If the Riff Raff aren’t in the church, the church isn’t of Jesus

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 422-432).  . Kindle Edition. 

Jesus and the Riff Raff

All the homosexuals and the homeless and the drug dealers and sex workers and meth addicts and convicted child pornographers came to Jesus to listen to him. And the conservative evangelicals and the Bible scholars denounced him, “He is opening the door of the church to the wicked.”  

But Jesus told them this story, “Look, if you had a hundred cars and one of them was stolen, wouldn’t you forget about all the other ninety nine and just focus on the one until it was found? You’d call the police, call your neighbors and be generally freaked out— not about the ninety nine, but for the one that was lost. Then, when it is found, you would drive it home proudly and happily. And you’d call your neighbors and the police and say, ‘Praise God! My stolen car was found!'

"It is this very joy that God has when a single sinner repents and comes back to God, away from his sins. He loves that one more than ninety nine church-goers who only ever say the right things.  

"Suppose there was a woman with ten coins, worth a thousand dollars each and one of them came up missing. Wouldn’t she take out her flashlight and turn all the furniture upside down until it was found? Then, once it’s found then she calls up her neighbors and say, ‘Yeah, I had lost this expensive coin, but praise God, now I’ve found it.’

"Even so does God rejoice over one sinner who turns back to God away from his sin.”

Paraphrase of Luke 15: 1-10

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 367-379).  . Kindle Edition.