Longing for the Divine

Embracing Prodigals

I have encountered many authoritative Christians who seek to control people and situations by strictly adhering to rules, demanding the “right” answers, and correcting those who depart from their traditional views about God and social order. After all, they believe that God saves only those who follow the rules; everyone else is punished or sent to hell. Such authoritative religion often distorts Christian values into an exercise of subjugation to maintain power and authority. At the opposite extreme, I have seen churches and religious leaders be soft on sin, tolerating abuse and excusing even the most heinous behaviors. Unfortunately, both these approaches prompt crises of bad faith, leaving many individuals not only frustrated and hurt but shipwrecked on the rocks of spiritual abuse. In the parable of the prodigal son, however, Jesus reveals a new vision of the kingdom that moves beyond these approaches to prioritize a set of nurturing values that can improve not only our personal lives but also our churches and politics.

I just started reading John Sanders’s short book Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace, in which he attempts to explain why today’s society is so polarized. Two cognitive models, nurturant and authoritative, are used to explain this divide. The models are shorthand for the sets of values people live by. Empathy and cooperation are prized by the nurturant, while obedience to law and order are cherished by the authoritative. The book examines the nurturant and authoritative approaches to Christian belief and practice that have influenced American society.

Jesus’s story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 sets the stage for Sanders’s book, but the narrative is altered to reflect different approaches. The first half of the story is as Jesus told it, but the second half is the alternative story. The following example summarizes the authoritative version:

“‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger said, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between his sons. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’

So he set off for home. While he was a still far off, his father saw him and was filled with disgust and anger at the son. The father waited in the house. When the son arrived, he said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ The father replied, ‘You got that right. You are a disrespectful child whose way of life failed to honor me as the Ten Commandments requires.’ The son said, ‘Father, forgive me.’ The father replied: ‘If I forgave you and welcomed you back home, I would be treating your sins lightly. Just as we cannot be soft on crime, I cannot pass over your sin. You subverted the social order God established. If I let you off free of charge that would undermine society. Divine justice requires that you get what you deserve. You must be punished and pay the price in order to satisfy my indignation and balance the moral books.’ Then the son said to the father, ‘Please let me be one of your hired hands to pay for my sin.’ The father agreed, saying, ‘Exodus 21 allows for you to be a slave for the next six years. If you work hard in the fields, you can pay off the tremendous debt you owe to my honor. Do this well and you will earn my acceptance.’

When the older brother came in from working in the fields, the father said to him, ‘You are an upright son who honors me by obeying my authority. Your deviant brother returned today, and I agreed to let him pay off his sin by working for us. Keep a good eye on him for me until his account is paid in full.’”

Sanders also conveys another version of the story that differs from the one Jesus told:

“The first part is the same: the son receives his share of the inheritance, leaves home, and ends up in a desperate situation. He realizes that there is plenty of food at home so he makes the long trek back. When still a long way off the father saw him, ran to meet him, and gave him a high five. The son said to his father, “After I departed, my situation deteriorated, so I decided to return home again.” The father says, “It does not matter what you did, you are always okay with me. I always affirm what my children do and never make judgments about them. You know that I do not have expectations for how you live your life. I just accept you as you are.” The father threw a party that night and when the older son came in from the fields he went into the house. When he saw his brother, he said, “Everything is cool between us, welcome back.” The party went well and they all had a wonderful time.” (John Sanders, Embracing Prodigals, 2020, p. ix-x).

These alternative versions are two stories you might expect from an authoritative father or a permissive parent, but they’re quite different from the one Jesus told. Jesus was at odds with both versions. In Jesus’s tale, when the wayward son returns home, the father runs to meet him and embraces him. The father does not make the son earn back his favor. Instead, he shows grace and forgiveness. According to Sanders, many people believe this is the wrong way to treat children who misbehave and the wrong way to run a society.

Perhaps you struggle between being the “always obedient” son who denounces sin and demands punishment—someone unafraid to tell it like it is and call sin by its rightful name—and the lost and wayward son who fears condemnation and desires empathy. Today, Christians may struggle with understanding difficult social situations that conflict with their law-abiding beliefs. In Jesus’s parable, it is not the father but the older son who embodies the authoritative way. However, unlike the father in the permissive version of the story, Jesus does not claim that life is a party without any moral evaluations or life-changing transformations.

How might these values manifest in politics? It seems that Christianity has adapted to authoritative political values; religious fundamentalism has merged with the religious right, and evangelical subculture has become increasing authoritative. Authoritarian rule, aggressive social policies, and fear of others seem to be the hallmark manifestations of authoritative Christian values. Today, people are becoming more polarized over controversial issues, and some Christians set aside moral judgments in the name of tolerance, embracing a more permissive approach. Some are shocked when churches and believers feel the need to join or celebrate political movements that rally to protest racial, gender, or economic injustices without condemning their objectionable aspects. Might core values be at the heart of such disagreements?

Sanders makes the case for nurturance by applying biblical texts in a narrative style. I find his approach appealing, yet I also see God applying a nurturing approach to practices such as diet and observing the Sabbath. Though authoritative attempts have been made to preserve and anchor these practices in law, I see nurturant hope celebrated in them. Sabbath observance, for example, extends mercy to outsiders, to the poor, to strangers, to foreigners, and even to eunuchs (Isaiah 56). I think it’s a mistake to see God’s gifts as mandated boundaries that encourage exclusion. I believe that they should be seen not as mere laws and commandments that manifest authoritarian values but as ongoing commentaries and conversations that can further nurture and bring cultural renewal to issues such as racial, gender, economic, and ecological justice. As a vegetarian, I see my diet as advancing the dietary laws by promoting not only the good order of God’s creation but also health and mercy for animals. Over time, believers have discovered that Scripture actually undermines many practices they find difficult to accept, such as slavery, without requiring that they abandon Biblical authority. Rather than simply mimicking their precise words and over-exalting them as authoritative badges, we can best understand Scripture in the context of divine revelation and care, viewing it through the authentic nurturing lens of God’s love as provided by the life and death of Jesus.

Christians care about many issues today besides defending law and order and protecting the country and the unborn. Overcoming hunger, homelessness, and racial conflicts; addressing the use of animals for food; rehabilitating offenders without harsh punishment; and treating others in our communities better should all make the list. So how should we address these values in the context of the second coming of Jesus? Perhaps it would help to use Jesus as the visionary ethic to guide our dialogue and help us follow God during these confusing times.

In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus demonstrates what it means for sinners to be accepted by an extraordinarily loving Heavenly Father (Luke 15:2). When I meet the gracious love of the Father, does He just give me a hall pass to do whatever I want? “Absolutely not!” say’s Paul (Romans 6:1-2, CSB). Likewise, it is not okay for the prodigal son to do whatever he wants. His situation, however, becomes dire—something no caring father wants for a dear son. That the father is hurt when his son is lost and suffering dire conditions does not imply that God is lax toward sin and sinners. The son is wrong to reject his “sonship,” thus giving up his role as a beloved family member. The parable is about being restored through transforming grace. Embraced by the nurturing grace of his father, the son responds as much as he can, knowing that his father is aware of his wrongdoing. Though the son is undeserving, the father pulls him into his arms and kisses him. He then carries him all the way home while reassuring him that he is accepted. It’s this transforming grace that the prodigal son responds to. He chooses not to pull away as love takes hold of his entire being, empowering him to transform into the son he was intended and called to be.

While Jesus rejects the authoritative approach, he does not accept a permissive one. The parable shows that Jesus embraces a nurturant approach that cares about both sons. May we too long for the spirit of reconciliation, embracing and working on behalf of “the least of these.” Jesus say’s those who feed the hungry, look after the sick, show hospitality to strangers, clothe the naked, and care for prisoners are the ones who do what God wants (Matthew 25:31–46). Perhaps a nurturant approach will encourage us to listen and produce a more honest theology. I certainly hope that it will produce a more honest culture by transforming important parts of today’s society. 

When the prodigal son comes home, grace runs to embrace him. The only thing that can heal our divide is Jesus’s nurturing grace. The challenge is to love extravagantly as God does, knowing that such grace requires participation from both sons. Even in our time, this is good news for all of us, one that offers fresh perspective and hope for improving people’s lives.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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