There are good people and there are bad people; we are the good people and if you aren’t like us, you are bad people.
This idea has been around for millennia.
I get the impression that this is considered a typically Christians attitude. In my experience, not very many, but some certainly think this way.
They divide humanity up into categories of good and bad, and then stick themselves in the good category. This sort of thing is easy if you make the categories.
The bad people are people who get divorced, have affairs, abortions and/or are homosexual. They certainly drink (more than the occasional wine with dinner) and often smoke–perhaps even drugs. And the clincher is, they don’t do any of the things good people do.
The good people go to church weekly and listen to Christian radio. They are considered “wise” if they avoid thinking. They pray, sing and read the Bible. They go nuts about “family values.” They vote Conservative in Canada and Republican in the States.
Although often attributed to Christians, these categories wouldn’t work for Christ. But if you’ve got these categories in your head, you might actually misunderstand what Jesus taught it in one of his best known stories.
Everyone is familiar with the parable of the “Prodigal Son” or the “Lost Son” — this is what it was called when I was in Sunday School.
These are actually completely inaccurate titles for this story; they reflect a complete misreading. This version presents two sons, one “good” and one “bad.” The bad son squanders his inheritance on parties, loose women and going to R-rated movies. The good son stays at home, works hard and goes to church, etc. The bad son finally sees the light when his money runs out and repents of his evil deeds and is welcomed back into the family. The moral of the story is that God will forgive us if we repent of being bad and become good.
Although this it is true that God will forgive, this is not at all what the parable is about.
In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller, says this story would better be titled “The Parable of the Lost Sons” because both sons are lost. Neither son loves the father for who he is; both are just after his stuff. They represent two different strategies for getting ahold of it. By the end of the story, one son is saved. Interestingly, it’s the “bad” son who is saved. The “good” son is remains lost.
The older brother has two problems. His first problem stems from his motive for being good. He leverages his good behavior against his father–his attitude: “I’m ‘good’ so you owe me!” His second problem is that he’s measuring his goodness against the standard set by his younger brother. In this comparison he comes out pretty good, which is why he does it. This guy is exactly the sort of guy that many accuse Christians of being.
So there’s good news and there’s bad news and, then, there’s good news.
The good news: Jesus audience was exactly the sort of “holier than thou” hypocrites that drive us crazy, and even keep us out of church. This self-righteous bunch of Bible thumpers were the target of his story and he nailed them, big time!
Here they are, creating some random criteria and then measuring themselves against how poorly others live up to their arbitrary standard.
The bad news: Yes, the older-brother-types receive some major chastisement from Jesus in this parable. But if you identified with the younger brother, you aren’t off the hook. Both sons were lost because they both wanted the blessings of the father, but not the father himself. Unlike the older brother, he realize how wrong he had been, and he came back home. You can’t come home unless you turn around and walk in the other direction.
The good news: There’s lots of good news in this parable. The father loved both his sons, even though they weren’t very nice to him. And when one son appeared in the distance, the father ran out to meet him. This is not the sort of thing a respectable middle eastern patriarch does–and Jesus’ audience knew it. Further, he gives him the robe and a ring and kills the fatted calf in celebration of his return. He had already given this son half of what he had, and now he gives him even more.
The prodigal in this story is the father — Keller defines this term as “recklessly spendthrift.” This is God the Father as Jesus presents him. This is the accurate representation.
Those in the faith have the obligation to present our heavenly father as he is. The last thing we want is for people to think our heavenly father is like the older brother in the parable.
Those who are inclined to walk away from God, need to reject him as he truly is. Not as a false representation.