Struggling with Unconditional Love, Part 1

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March 24, 2019

In this message, Dr. Jordan explores how Jesus describes “what God is like.” From Luke 15, Jesus is confronted by some religious folks who are very concerned about who he is spending time with. His focus on and his acceptance of (“he even eats with them!”) this strange rabble of folks prompts “mumbling and grumbling” from these pious onlookers. Join us as we explore together his controversial, revolutionary response that is as relevant today as it ever was!

Going Deeper

What is God like? In the fifteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus answers this question better than anywhere else in the Bible. Responding to complaints from highly religious people, he tells a series of three parables: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and The Lost Son(s).

We noted on Sunday that the first two parables emphasized searching, finding and rejoicing. A Shepherd drops everything and rushes to find this one, seemingly insignificant sheep; and once finding it rejoices in full celebration with the whole neighborhood.

The same happens with a woman, despairing at the loss of one tenth of all she has for her future, searches fervently, finds it, and rejoices with the whole community. The repeated theme continues in both stories with the final refrain, “Just so, I tell you, there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7 and 10).

The tentative answer Jesus offers to these religious leaders appears clear. It does not matter how generalized your category of “sinners” happens to be. It also, according to Jesus, does not matter how wrong, strange or insignificant you might believe these people are; God overflows with gracious, joyful love for every single one of them. God cares, searches, seeks, finds and rejoices with overflowing, gracious love.

Jesus’ portrayal of God’s unconditional love so far in this passage probably ruffled a number of spiritual feathers. However, this is nothing compared to what is coming. it is the third parable and the way Jesus structures it, that really blows the mind. This is especially true for religious folks (like the ones grumbling about Jesus) who think a lot of themselves and not so much of others.

Repentance in the first two parables

Repentance among these so-called sinners was a clear theme in the first two parables. But in the third, Jesus makes clear in several ways this no good son who cared more for his father’s property than he did for his father remains unequivocally bad, even once he returns. Not only does Jesus offer abundant evidence that this younger son doesn’t repent, Jesus has him quoting from Pharaoh in the Exodus story (“I have sinned against heaven and before you” [Exodus 10:16]).

He also wanted his father to make him a “hired hand” meaning he can have a salary, have his own food and live away from the family. His return has nothing to do with a changed heart, only an empty stomach.

He left home with abundant character flaws and bad faith; he returns a failure, writing a meaningless speech to buy time, play acting for food, shelter and salary. He is still the same sad, manipulative, no good kid he was when he left.

What do we do with this? What is Jesus saying? The key to all three stories and the flow Jesus creates remains who the audience is. Jesus is addressing very religious people’s intent on keeping the boundaries of their religious community clear. They want to be sure who is in and who is out. Generalized categories of righteous and unrighteous, good and bad, and any other spiritual or social delineations we create seems to be addressed in Jesus’ creative, subversive series of stories in Luke 15.

But what happens? What do we do with what we now know?  

The Father’s Response

The father’s response to the son’s return is also key. Knowing his son, recognizing the manipulation, understanding the context of his prepared speech, realizing the likely setup, the father still “has compassion,” “runs(!),” wraps his arms around his son, kisses him and calls out for full family restoration. In other words, according to Jesus, the father knows all that we now know but doesn’t care. He only loves his son, thoroughly, devotedly, unconditionally.

And he throws a major party to celebrate the return.

But what about this no good kid? Did he repent? How does it end?

Come this Sunday and find out. And learn also about the older son. For his attitude and role in the story is also crucial to our understanding … and to our own transformation.