Archive for the ‘Your God Journey’ Category

Caveats and Provisos

I have several friends who often reach out to me as a kind of “Bible Answer Man.” I enjoy answering their questions whenever possible. Something that happens rather frequently however, is that I’m not always so sure my friends realize that they are not necessarily asking simple questions, and therefore texting or messaging an answer isn’t really practical. This happened earlier today, when one such friend messaged me that he had finished reading a significant portion of the Old Testament and was struck by how violent and ungodly the history of the Jews was at times. The following is my reply—a highly condensed summary of Old Testament history and at least one lesson we can take away. I hope you enjoy it.

 

What Not to Do

One of the keys to understanding the Old Testament in general, and the Old Covenant in particular, is that it is often more an example of “What Not to Do,” rather than “What to Do.”

From the beginning (Garden of Eden), God instructed humanity that they were free to do what they wanted (free to eat of any tree in the garden; Gen. 2:16), as long they understood that He alone determines what is good and what is evil (prohibited to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Gen. 2:17), and that the consequences of humanity setting its own standard for good and evil would result in calamity (surely die; Gen. 2:17).

Large portions of the Old Testament are stories that are examples of this paradigm working itself out in the material realm—humanity trying to direct and control their lives independent from God—and the result is exactly what is to be expected—confusion, frustration, and all manner of problems.

The Hebrews, despite being God’s “chosen people” were no exception.

God sent them a deliverer to free them from slavery in Egypt, and yet once free they complained to go back (Numbers 11). This lack of faith in God’s way of doing things caused them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Once the 40 years were over and a new generation came of age that had the faith to face the challenges of the Promised Land, the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River to enter the Land.

Under Joshua’s leadership the nation generally prospered, but also saw its fair share of problems (for doing things their own way), like the defeat at Ai (Joshua 7).

Next, the Hebrews entered the period of the Judges. A particular phrase that is found twice in the book of Judges characterizes this period—“Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Independence from God–not a good idea.

The end of the Judges came because the Hebrews demanded a king (1 Sam. 8). A king was not God’s intention at this time, and the prophet Samuel, speaking to the people on God’s behalf, warned them what would happen if they had a king (1 Sam. 8:10–22).

The first king, Saul, was a mixed bag. He wasn’t necessarily a good king, but he was good at “being king.” He was a strong leader, and the nation of Israel generally prospered under his leadership. But in keeping with our theme, he sought to do things his own way, relied on his own abilities, and eventually paid the ultimate price for it.

The second king was David, who is the Hebrew king by which all others are judged. He was a valiant warrior, a strong leader, and quite the musician. And yet despite his glowing reputation, he was acutely human and committed grievous sins including adultery and murder. The key distinction about David, and the precise reason why he was a great king, was because his heart always (re)turned to God.

The third king was David’s son Solomon. Solomon was a strong leader, but again had equally strong human weaknesses. He had 700 wives and concubines (the Old Testament equivalent of a porn addiction), many of whom were foreign. His foreign wives brought along their foreign gods, which would prove to be Solomon’s demise. Despite building the renowned Jewish Temple and having extraordinary wisdom, Solomon was undone by his human weaknesses.

Under all three kings, the Hebrew nation was united. This unity was not artificial, it was genuine, but it also relied heavily upon the strength and leadership of the Hebrew kings, and Saul, David, and Solomon were all strong, capable, if not always exemplary, leaders.

By the end of Solomon’s reign, the Hebrew nation had defeated their enemies, built the Temple, developed a flourishing economy, become the center of the civilized world, and achieved peace and unity. Israel had reached the pinnacle of its strength and influence. The problem with reaching the top however is that the only way to go is down.

When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam assumed the throne. He was young, inexperienced, arrogant, and worst of all, prone to following bad advice.

Rehoboam’s nemesis was a young leader named Jeroboam ben Nebat. According to the Talmud, he was “an extraordinarily gifted, superior person with an abundance of charisma, as well as a great organizer and, above all, a magnificent scholar.”[1]

Had Rehoboam genuinely sought the best interests of the people, the people, and even Jeroboam himself, would have likely united behind him. But in one of the most colossal blunders of all time, Rehoboam ignored the sound advice of older wiser men, and listened only to the advice of younger less experienced men who told him to deal harshly with the people. Realizing that Rehoboam was not listening to them or even his own father’s advisors, ten of twelve tribes declared their independence and made Jeroboam their king. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the House of David. Jeroboam ruled over the ten tribes of the “Northern Kingdom” called Israel, while Rehoboam ruled over the two tribes of the “Southern Kingdom” called Judah. Both men claimed to be God’s chosen king.

Judah’s capital remained Jerusalem, while Israel established their capital at Samaria. This fact is critical because the Torah commands all able-bodied males to engage in three pilgrimage festivals each year. Jeroboam knew and therefore feared allowing citizens of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) to travel to Jerusalem for the feasts. He knew that if he allowed it, the hearts of the people would “turn back” to Rehoboam. Consequently, he made the fateful decision to forbid his citizens from travelling to Jerusalem, and as an alternative established idolatrous worship practices in the Northern Kingdom. All subsequent monarchs of the Northern Kingdom of Israel followed Jeroboam’s lead.

In the Southern Kingdom, however, good and bad kings were cyclical. Every other generation or so a good king would step forward and strengthen the faith of the people. This never happened among the kings of the Northern Kingdom. They followed the mold of Jeroboam for the next 200 years.

In 721 B.C., the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom (Israel), razed Samaria, and deported their leading citizens.

In 605 B.C., the Babylonians invaded the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and after three separate sieges, eventually destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and carried the bulk of the population into captivity.

Both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities were the result of the Hebrews turning way from God and doing things “their way.”

God’s intention, as expressed in the Everlasting Covenant cut by the members of the Godhead before the foundation of the world, has always been to be a loving Father to His children—approachable, kind, compassionate, and most of all—intimate—directly and easily accessible to each individual child of God. It is humanity that has made things difficult by defaulting to the (wrong) idea that God is distant, separate, unapproachable, and judgmental. Humanity exacerbated this problem by always inserting “something” between themselves and God, whether a person (priest/mediator) or a system (code/religion), or both—when God’s intention has always been relationship—unmediated, dynamic, and organic.

The violence, unrest, idolatry, and all manner of chaos that is rife throughout the Old Testament can be traced to a single source—humanity attempting to go its own way independent from God. The result has been that we have always attempted to create God in our image—always wanting him to do things the way we want them done. Classic “What Not to Do.”

Jesus Christ came to set that right.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.

“C’mon in, take your shoes off, make yourself at home!”

Don’t you love to hear those words? I think it’s rare to hear those words from someone who doesn’t really mean it–it is almost always a sign of at least genuine hospitality, frequently friendship, and do I dare say it? Love.

This is in contrast to those friends who ask you to take your shoes off because they don’t want you tracking anything in on your shoes. No disrespect intended–I have many true friends who ask this of me. But the contrast in inflection remains nonetheless.

Why is it then, when we envision Moses and the episode at the burning bush, that we always imagine God’s booming voice demanding that Moses take his shoes off?

Frequently in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a “holy,” terrifying presence. When God descended on Mount Sinai, the people responded by telling Moses, “you go talk to that, come back and tell us what He said, and then we’ll do it–but we’re not going anywhere near that mountain.”

But I have come to realize that this is primarily perception. Without our shame being dealt with by the accomplished work of Christ on the cross–we perceive God’s presence as terrifying.

But then that’s exactly the point isn’t it?

Religion requires a buffer between God and man–a system that keeps us comfortably insulated from direct contact.

But if our shame has indeed been dealt with once and for all by the cross, then God is an inviting, comforting, intimate presence. And His holiness, instead of inspiring “reverence,” (read: fear) invites us home?

What if our perception of the burning bush was off? And what God meant was…

“C’mon in, take your shoes off, make yourself at home!”

“I gave up two addictions—religion and cocaine—one destroyed my marriage, cost me every penny I had, and ruined my life—the other is a white powdery substance.”

Yes, this is a joke–I was never addicted to cocaine. (A good friend responded to a similar post once in shock and horror because he thought I was serious.) But good humor is rooted in truth. Religion is often an addiction that can be just as costly as others.

And no, this joke is not my own, I did not write it, the credit lies elsewhere. (I have forgotten where I heard it.)

On the road from religion to relationship there was one specific discovery that caught me particularly unaware. And when I make this statement, I have chosen the word unaware quite deliberately. I considered using the words off guard, or surprised, or unexpected, but I think the word unaware works best. This is because I wasn’t surprised or caught off guard by the content of this realization, but by the depth and tragedy of its effect. I was aware of the fact of the matter, but I was unaware of just how deeply we are affected by it. I was unaware of just how deeply affected the human race was, and is, by the Fall.

Without going into unnecessary detail concerning the machinations of the Fall, the realization I arrived at is that humanity was rendered dysfunctional by the Fall, and by this I mean deeply, deeply dysfunctional, not the run-of-the-mill dysfunction I was taught in Sunday School.

Furthermore, and what I mean by “run-of-the-mill” dysfunction, is that I believe much of mainstream Christianity is either unaware of this fact, and/or utterly unwilling to admit it. (After all it is very uncomfortable to admit that we aren’t guilty of minor deviations from normal behavior, but are in fact wholly wrong-headed). As a matter of fact, I believe this is one of the root causes behind religion, and therefore the necessity of the journey from religion to relationship. Much, if not most, of mainstream Christianity is Christianity practiced as religion (not what it’s supposed to be), and not as the relationship with God it is intended to be, because we do not really address our deeply dysfunctional nature. Once “saved,” we proclaim that we are new creations in Christ (which is true), but then we blithely continue on our way, living entrenched within our religious paradigms, swapping out New Testament terminology in place of secular psycho-babble, and declaring we are “living the abundant life,” when not much has really changed.

I also came to realize that one of the areas where this hits the hardest is that fallen/dysfunctional humanity is incapable of formulating a correct mindset concerning the true nature and character of God. And furthermore, we unknowingly carry our erroneous viewpoints about God into our new faith when we get saved. This is particularly tragic because there are hundreds of verses in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that can be used to proof text and therefore “validate” our dysfunctional point of view, thereby camouflaging wrong ideas about God in biblical language.

One way that we incorrectly view God is that because he is transcendent (which he is by the way—don’t get me wrong), we “translate” that into distant, detached, and even unsympathetic. He is “out there” somewhere, watching, and ticking off merits and demerits on his divine scorecard. This comes from viewing God as a divine judge overseeing a judicial paradigm, dispensing divine justice. This is an Old Covenant/religious view of God, not a relational one. The relational viewpoint is of God as father. And while we all are more than aware of this label (father), do we really look at God as a father, our father? Or do we look at him as divine judge, but we just call him father? Likewise, we tend to overemphasize God’s omnipresence and are only casually aware of his indwelling presence. While both are true, the New Covenant/relational paradigm is father, and indwelling. Think about it—God can be omnipresent and a divine judge without the slightest hint of real relationship.

This is the crux, pun intended, of the revolutionary paradigm shift that happened at the incarnation.

Now, do you see what I did there? I used the word crux to get you to think that the focal point of the paradigm shift between the Old and New Covenants is the cross. And while the temporal cross in Judea is the source of the blood of the New Covenant, it is the blood shed on the eternal cross before the foundation of the world that provides the blood of the Everlasting Covenant. Additionally, we (again) tend to see the blood of the temporal cross as satisfying a judicial paradigm—that Jesus was the sacrifice required by God to forgive the sins of the world (a paradigm that is demonstrably incorrect, but that is a different topic for different day). But, it is the blood of the Everlasting Covenant that is relational in nature because the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world set forth God’s deliberate intention to exit eternity, enter time and space, and dwell with his creation. In a word, the incarnation is the focal point of divine-human relationship.

Unfortunately the relational nature of the incarnation has been eclipsed by our judicial/religious mindset, reducing Jesus to little more than a distant on-looker as opposed to God with us. In our judicial paradigm the cross has replaced Jesus himself as the point of eternal significance.

Jesus is the place where the divine and human are united. Jesus is the place where God and humanity come together, connect, and relate (there’s that word again). The eternal purpose and ultimate intention of the Godhead is that the eternal son would become human so that he could mediate the divine life to us, with us, in us.

Another tragedy of the judicial paradigm is that justification has been over-emphasized almost to the exclusion of adoption—again, a systematic paradigm instead of a relational one. Our notion of “the Gospel” is all about humanity’s need for forgiveness. This is of course critically important because we all need forgiveness, but it falls short of the point—forgiveness paves the way for adoption. Forgiveness as a legal paradigm fulfills Jesus’ obligation and then conveniently sends him on his way—ascended to the right hand of the father, and no longer needed. Adoption however, is relational and speaks to our true identity as sons and daughters of God—continually connected to divine life.

Finally, and probably most alarming to many of us (if we are caught unaware) is our perception of God’s holiness. If we were to ask 100 Christians to name one characteristic about God’s nature, it is indubitable that the vast majority, if not all, would say, “God is ‘holy’.” But again, this reveals an alarming discrepancy in our understanding about God. This is yet another example of viewing God through a judicial paradigm common to religious thought. In our minds, holy means moral perfection (read: legal perfection). Because we have not been taught a relational paradigm about God to begin with, and we default to our fallen (old man) religious nature and espouse a religious/judicial mindset, we are completely unaware (there’s that word again), that the single most fundamental truth about God is not that he is holy, it is that he is relational. The true definition of holiness is the expression of beauty, joy, passion, and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their relationship, harmony, and intimacy together.

God’s eternal purpose and ultimate intention, as expressed in the Everlasting Covenant, cut by the members of the Godhead before creation, is that God desires to share himself with his creation. Nothing fulfills the purpose of God more than to receive a revelation of his love and then have that love transform us, and lead us through the rest of our lives as a visible expression and ezer kenegdo of the invisible God in the earth.

Have you ever heard a minister say…?

“Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

If you have, did the minister who said this ever take the time to explain what this statement means in a substantive way? Did he or she “unpack” this statement so that it can be easily understood and then readily disseminated to others? Or, frankly, did the minister making this statement presume that the meaning is self-evident, and that the statement accurately represents the status quo—(that most Christians are presently experiencing relationship with Christ as opposed to religion)?

In my experience, the phrase “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” has pretty much always been used as kind of punch line and was never followed with the kind of substantive explanation I would have expected, or at least hoped for—for example, “If Christianity truly is a relationship, and not a religion, maybe we should camp out here for a while and really explore what this means and what it looks like.” Instead, when asked to explain in more depth, the responses I received, while essentially accurate, tended to be superficial, such as, “Religion is the form—but not the power,” or “Religion is a set of rules—but relationship is intimacy with God.” Again, in my experience, no minister I have heard make this statement ever really made a significant attempt to explain it in a meaningful way, but instead appeared to be operating under the assumption previously mentioned—that the meaning of the statement is self-evident, and that current state of affairs reflects this obvious if under elucidated paradigm. In addition, every time I tried to press for a deeper explanation, I was met with even more “non-answers.” And when I pressed a little harder still, it was made quite clear to me that my questions were making people uncomfortable and were therefore becoming unwelcome.

Now I am not the kind of person who is deterred by a lack of answers—in fact I am essentially the opposite. If I don’t get an answer to a question, I don’t get discouraged, I get determined. So despite the lack of answers and cooperation, I set off to find the answers “myself”—so to speak.

Because this statement…

“Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

… deserves to be explained.

This series of essays, in large part, is the record of my journey from religion to relationship.

So, if Christianity truly isn’t a religion, and truly is a relationship, what does this mean exactly?

The statement seems to imply that “relationship” is better than “religion”—so if this is true, why is it true? What are the distinctions between the two (Christianity as religion versus Christianity as relationship) and why does it matter?

And finally, and maybe most importantly—even at face value, this statement appears to imply that living in a relationship with Jesus Christ is not only possible but preferable to this thing called religion—and that the word religion, as used in this context, is pejorative (expressing contempt or disapproval). So if this is true—how do we “do” this? How do we live in relationship with Jesus Christ—and not in religion?

You see—life in Christ is not just about new or different ways to “do church,” or learning new “abundant life principles,” or learning to “exercise our spiritual authority.” Frankly, Christianity is not about us inviting Jesus into our lives as much as it is about the fact that Jesus has invited us into his life—the life he has shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity. Jesus has invited us to share his relationship with the Father—in fact to live in his relationship with the Father.

This relationship (there’s that word), the eternal relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the origin and exemplar of all relationships. This is what sets Christianity apart from all “religions” and from Christianity practiced as a religion—God, the Godhead—is relational by definition, and the expression of this relationship—God’s original thought, eternal purpose, and ultimate intention—is the reason for creation itself.

Finally, nothing fulfills the eternal purpose, ultimate intention, and original thought of God more than to receive a revelation of His love, then to have His love overwhelm you, then transform you, and then lead you through the rest of your life as a visible expression and perfect counterpart (ezer kenegdo) of the invisible God in the earth.

Once upon a time, a well-intentioned ministerial friend, speaking within the context of Christian leaders who make mistakes and emotionally or psychologically hurt their congregants said: “You don’t have a right to be hurt–you have a right to be healed.” Such is the psycho-babble of religion. At the time I did not know how to respond, but I do now… horse-hockey (I’ll be moderately polite). What a load of cheese-whiz. This is nothing but arrogance camouflaged as wisdom. Of course everybody wants to be healed, which causes us to conveniently ignore the outrageous insult handed down in the first clause. Does someone with a broken leg not have the “right” to be injured? Does someone with cancer not have the “right” to be in pain? Would we ever say something so ridiculous to someone with a physical malady? The implication is, “You’re not ‘really’ in pain.” But emotional injuries are no less real–especially ones at the hands of those in positions of influence or authority in our lives–parents, employers, teachers, ministers, etc–that often take years to recover from. To unilaterally dismiss someone’s genuine emotional injury and the accompanying pain re-opens the wound, rubs salt in it, and then blames the one injured for not being compassionate enough to “forgive” their attacker of any responsibility or consequence for their actions–the implication is cover for the abuser because of the position. When Jesus encountered sin due to genuine human frailty he always demonstrated enormous compassion. But there was a certain group that garnered little to no compassion from Jesus, but stern warnings. Woe unto you religious leaders for you shall receive the greater condemnation. This does not mean that so-called Christian leaders are unforgiveable–God forbid. But statements such as the one quoted above are asking us to excuse the inexcusable–and there’s a huge difference.

I love the Bible–I really do. I enjoy hermeneutics as well–the science and art of interpreting the scriptures. This entry however is about “unscientific hermeneutics”–in other words, this is not about a rigid set of principles, it’s about an observation I have made between those who seem to interpret scripture from a religious mindset and those who interpret scripture from a relational mindset.

I recently saw a Facebook meme by a high profile minister. It read:

“Those who repent will be given the grace to change.”

Now this may be true if we are speaking of an unbeliever confessing Christ for the first time. I say “may” because one could argue that God gave them the grace to repent in the first place. And therein lies the rub.

If we are speaking about a person who is already in Christ, then this quote is inaccurate and reflects a religious mindset. Once a person is saved, then the default paradigm of being in Christ is…

The accomplished work of the cross supplies the grace we need that enables us to repent and change.

If we have already been saved and yet still have to repent in order to receive grace, the cross was in vain.

Religion teaches us that there is something we must do and then God can respond. Relationship teaches us that God has already done everything that needs to be done in Christ and therefore supplies us with the resources necessary to fulfill what He has called us to do. In other words, religion essentially gets it backwards.

As I have said in previous entries, that if there could be such a thing, the Old Covenant would be the perfect religion–it was written by God, but is kept by human effort. And furthermore, that much of Christianity is merely Old Covenant paradigms veiled in New Covenant terminology. Jesus did not come to start a new religion, or perfect an existing one–He came to put an end to religion in favor of relationship.

So here are a couple more doctrines that got flipped at the cross.

Old Covenant: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all they soul, and all thy strength.
New Covenant: Behold, I give you a new commandment–to love others as I have loved you.

Old Covenant: Give and it will be given to you, pressed down, shaken together and running over.
New Covenant: Freely you have received freely give.

So here is my unscientific hermeneutical principle: If you suspect that something you hear smacks of religion, try flipping it over and see what you get.

Full Title: The Least, The Lost, The Last, The Losers, and the Little Ones: Revisiting the Parables of Jesus In Light of Religion Versus Relationship

The Lost: The Parable of the So-Called Prodigal Son (Or as I prefer to call it: My So-Called Life) Luke 15:11–32

Read: The Parable of the (So-Called) Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32

It has long been recognized that the commonly used title for this parable (The Prodigal Son) is less than the best. It does not accurately summarize the story as a whole or even the primary point(s) we are to take away. Even worse, it prejudices our opinion with regard to interpretation before we even read the story. This is a parable about a father and two sons—understanding all three of which is critical to understanding the parable as a whole.

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons: (12) And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. [Luke 15:11–12 KJV]

As is often the case with such stories, there are details that are part of the initial premise that should arrest our attention. The first and most obvious of these details, the fact that the younger son requests his inheritance prematurely, should move us to ask: “When does one usually receive their inheritance?” The equally obvious answer is only after our parents have died.

From reading the parable even once through we are already aware of the fact that the younger son is likely foolish and arrogant, but this pretty much seals the deal. By asking for his inheritance prematurely, the younger son is indicating the depth of his contempt for his father—essentially declaring either “Would you just up and die already?” or, “You’re dead to me already.” Either way, he is rather clearly crossing a significant threshold with regard to his relationship (or more accurately his lack of relationship) with his father. This combined with what we will read in verse 13, most likely indicates crossing a point of no return.

What should really slap us in the face however is the fact that his father grants his request! For most of us, regardless of whether we are on the parent or progeny side of the equation, we generally understand the typical scenario to look something like this: Which ever parent dies first, the estate goes fully to the surviving spouse first. Then once the surviving spouse dies, the children will get their share. Although there certainly may be some variations on this theme, it is reasonably certain that this is how it goes down most of the time. And even if we take cultural considerations into account, primarily the right of primogeniture—the practice of the eldest son receiving a double portion in order to care for his mother if his father dies first—the younger son’s request is severely out of order. One does not inherit until your parents, or at least your father, is dead.

But not this father, and not this time. This father grants his younger son’s request and presumably sells off enough of his estate to pay him off in cash. The rest of the estate, from the context presumably a farm or other agricultural interest, goes to the older brother—a point that becomes critical later on.

I prefer the King James Version of the Bible for this text because of the translation of one particular Greek word. In the second half of verse 12, we read: “And he divided unto them his living.” The word his is in italics here due to the practice of the King James translators to call our attention to any words not found in the critical Greek text. But the word I want to focus on is the word living. Most other translations use words like wealth, assets, substance, or possessions—the WEB uses the word livelihood—but the word living is actually the most accurate, because in Greek it is ton bion—one of the Greek words for life. In addition, although no English version I am aware of tips us off, the Greek word for goods (v. 12—“give me the portion of goods that falleth to me”), is the word ten oisian, which can be translated either substance or being. The net result of these Greeks words yields the understanding that by giving them their inheritance early, the father is in effect “dying.” In other words the father is willingly laying down his life (being) for his sons. So in a manner of speaking, when his younger son said, “Hey Dad, drop dead”—he did. As previously indicated, and as is usually the case, this sets the stage for all that follows.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. [Luke 15:13 KJV]

As hinted at earlier, when we combine the fact that the younger son considered his father to be “dead already” with the now revealed fact that he wasted no time getting out of Dodge, and to a far country no less, it is fair to assume that he had some pretty significant “Daddy issues” and didn’t plan on returning. And now that his father is “dead” so to speak, there seems to be little doubt that we will never see him again.

But even before verse 13 ends we get a hint that this may not be so. We soon learn that the “get-rich-quick” younger son just as quickly squanders his existence on what the King James Version calls “riotous” living. We are not told specifically what his particular vices are, but again it is fair to assume that it is a least “wine, women, and song,” if not worse.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. [Luke 15:14 KJV]

I am particularly fond of this verse. Not because I wish any greater harm to fall on this insolent little twerp, but because this scenario, although fictitious, rings so true. I have little doubt that the younger son didn’t plan on running out of money. As a matter of fact, he may have held a small portion in reserve for when the major partying would eventually come to an end. But now the unexpected happens, a famine “just happens” to come along—and no ordinary famine—a mighty famine. If the younger son wasn’t “dead” (hint, hint) broke already—he is now.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. (16) And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. [Luke 15:15–16 KJV]

Although we are never told with any certainty the ethnicity of the family in this story, we are certain of who Jesus’ audience is—and it is fair to assume that Jesus utilized this portion of the story to deliberately provoke Jewish religious sensibilities. The younger son was clearly young and foolish, and most likely cocky or even flat out arrogant—but we can all relate to unforeseen tragedy, and famine in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. Was the impudent whelp, young? Who hasn’t been young at least once in their life? Was he foolish? He certainly isn’t alone on that count. But a mighty famine isn’t his fault—is it? Did the young man deserve to perish simply for being young and foolish? And this can’t be an example of reaping what he has sown because it is affecting everyone. So for a Jew, or at least a Jewish audience, this is about as low as you can go. Working for a pig farmer is bad enough, but he is now hungry enough that pig food sounds appealing, and still no one would help him.

(17) And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! (18) I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (19) And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. [Luke 15:17–19 KJV]

Shazam! Thank God he finally “comes to himself.” The younger son wakes up one morning and realizes that his life as he once knew it is now over—in other words, he wakes up dead. As a matter of fact, I have waited until now to take note of the fact that the substance he wastes in verse 13, is the same Greek word as verse 12 (ten oisian) meaning his being—his life. (He has wasted life.)

Furthermore, he realizes his folly and begins composing his confession to his father. And while I have little doubt that he is genuinely remorseful and this is truly a critical turning point in the story, we must remember to keep it within the context of the whole story. Take note of the content of his “confession” as it stands at this point.

• I have sinned against heaven, and before thee
• I am no more worthy to be called thy son
• Make me as one of thy hired servants

“Make me as one of your hired servants.” This isn’t confession—it’s negotiation. So apparently he’s not quite dead yet—but he’s close—he’ll be stone dead in a minute. But for now, with his last gasping breath, he is trying to make a trade—one life (albeit a wasted one) for another—because it may be as a servant, but it’s better than my wasted life—all without actually having to “die.”

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 KJV]

This is clearly one of the most important take-away points of the entire story—you simply do not see someone “yet a great way off” if you’re not looking for them. Despite the enormous price he paid, despite the fact that his son rather clearly considered him dead, despite the fact that for all he knew his son was dead, or never returning—the father has never stopped hoping his son would come home. And when he does (come home), the father does not “make sure he learned his lesson” first, doesn’t make him wallow in remorse, or even let him blurt out his confession first—he runs to meet him and smothers him with affection.

I have heard it said that culturally, elder men such as this father simply did not run in public—to hike up one’s robes and sprint through the pasture was undignified—even shameful. If this is so, it makes this parable all the more poignant, because it demonstrates that the father was willing to pay any price for his son—even taking the shame upon himself. Whatever shame and mockery the son felt in returning with his tail between his legs was trumped by the father dashing through the dust and dung to meet him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. [Luke 15:21 KJV]

Take note of the distinction between his actual confession and his planned confession. The “make me as one of your hired servants” clause is conspicuously absent—no more negotiating, no more trading—finally—stone dead.

(22) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: (23) And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. [Luke 15:22–24 KJV]

Did I say “Shazam” already? I guess I should have saved it for now—Shazam! Although there are many take away points from this parable, this is clearly the crux (pun intended) of the matter—death and resurrection. The dead are made alive, the lost are found. And right in the middle of it all—a veal roast.

The fatted-calf is a rather unusual “sacrifice”—because we usually don’t look at this as a sacrifice—just a good meal. But think about it. The fatted-calf has but one purpose in “life”—death. It stands around in a stall all day, getting well-marbled and waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice so people can have a cookout. In my opinion this makes the fatted-calf the most conspicuous Christ figure in the whole story.

(25) Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. (26) And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. (27) And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. (28a) And he was angry, and would not go in. [Luke 15:25–28a KJV]

Angry? Why is he angry? Your long lost brother is home, your bereaved father who has never given up hope is beside himself with joy, there’s beef on the barbeque, and you’re angry? That’s carrying one huge grudge for an awful long time. Forgive me for being blunt, but here goes. This is where I believe the traditional title “The Prodigal Son” prejudices our interpretation from the start and we totally miss the point we are supposed to take away about the elder son—that the elder son had no better relationship with his father than the younger son.

(28b) Therefore came his father out, and intreated him. (29) And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. (30) But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. [Luke 15:28b–30 KJV]

Because the elder son wouldn’t go in the father comes out and entreats him. I imagine he said something to the affect of, “I know you’re upset with your brother—but please do this for me”—but the elder brother would have none of it. Furthermore, he feels compelled to explain to his father why he won’t go in, and in doing so describes his “life” and how he feels about it—and in so doing also describes his “relationship” with his father (again, or lack thereof). “Lo, these many years do I serve thee…” The Greek word for serve here is the word douleo, which is better translated slave—“Lo, these many years have I slaved for you.” Some relationship—huh? And furthermore, he goes on to whine, “I did everything right, and he did everything wrong, and yet you love him more!” Plus, “You gave him the most costly sacrifice of all and never even gave me a stupid goat!” In other words, “You never gave me anything!” And this is where he is dead wrong—not dead (and that’s the problem)—but definitely dead wrong.

Also take note of the fact that the elder son accuses the younger son of wasting his father’s living (“devoured thy living” v.30). But the father has been “dead” since the beginning of the parable. Therefore, the younger son could not have wasted his father’s living—he wasted his own living. But possibly even more important is the fact that the elder son implies “But I didn’t waste your living like my brother did.” But this is equally fallacious. The elder brother didn’t “not waste” his father’s living—he didn’t “not waste” what already belonged to him (since his father has been dead the whole time)—his own life. But there are two points we should take away from this. The first is that the elder brother can’t accuse the younger brother of wasting his father’s money and pat himself on the pack for not wasting his father’s money in the same breath—since in both cases, it wasn’t his father’s money. The second is, when we once again realize that they are talking about wasting their “lives,” the elder brother is under the mistaken impression that while the younger brother clearly wasted his “life,” that he (the elder brother) didn’t waste his! But the quality of his so-called life, “Lo, these many years have I slaved for you,” speaks for itself and betrays him.

(31) And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. (32) It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. [Luke 15:31–32 KJV]

Remember how I said at the outset that the father’s actions set the tone for the whole story? The father preemptively laid down his life for both his sons. From the moment he “died” the elder son (since his younger brother soon beats feet out of town) owned everything. In other words, the “father’s life” has always been available to him this entire time, but instead of living by the father’s life, he lived as a slave, overburdened by rule keeping and obligation.

Parties (celebration, weddings, festivals, etc) in Scripture are indicative of relationship. And there is no greater cause for celebration than resurrection. If the elder son cannot recognize this, it is genuinely too bad—especially because he doesn’t seem to realize that his life isn’t really much of a life, and that he too should probably just admit that he is already dead and thereby get a new one.

Isn’t it funny, when we encounter a season of significant adversity, and everything seems to be going south that we sometimes say, “I want my life back”! Although I can relate to the frustration because I have done this myself, the reality is that the Father would rather that we just admit that we’re dead already so he can give us a new one.

In conclusion, the younger son rejected a relationship with his father by rebelling—the elder son rejected a relationship with his father by “living” (if you can call it that) a life of rule keeping and obligation—in a word—religion. And what’s worse, the elder son absolutely refuses to give up his crappy so-called life for a new one!

The tragic irony is that when the father entreats the elder son, he is asking him to join the party—in effect saying, “If you’ll just die to your twisted idea of what life is supposed to be, you can have a new one!” Or to put a different way—just admit the fact that you’re already dead!

But the ultimate tragedy is the cliffhanger ending—we never know if the elder son goes into the party—it doesn’t appear as though he does. The parable has been a plethora of death—dead father—dead younger son—dead calf—dead everything except a dead older brother.

What does the father have with his younger son at the end of the parable that he doesn’t have at the beginning? An affectionate relationship. What does the father have with his elder son that he didn’t have at the beginning? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

God does not want the indentured servitude of slaves—he wants the extravagant affection of a relationship with sons and daughters.

The kingdom of heaven in not advanced by human achievement and worldly methodologies, regardless of how cleverly disguised they are as “Christian principles.” If human effort gained anything then the Gospel of Jesus Christ is pointless (Galatians 3:21). God simply does not define success the way the world defines success. The kingdom of heaven is advanced by paradox. The last shall be first. Losers win. The least are greatest. The lost are found. And the dead… are resurrected.

A good friend of mine once shared the following illustration of forgiveness…

It’s like a debt. If someone sins against you, it’s basically like you holding an I.O.U.—they owe you for the hurt or damage done—but you don’t cash in the I.O.U. (demand payment), you hand it over to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that the person who hurt you does not owe you—they do, they created a debt—but you’re just not demanding payment.

The Old Testament standard for sin induced debt is quite clear, and equitable to a fault…

(19) …if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; (20) Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. [Leviticus 24:19–20 KJV]

Keep this in mind for second while I share a different illustration, closely related to the first, shared by a different friend.

So you’re sitting at home one afternoon, minding your own business when a knock comes at your door. You open the door to find your neighbor Joe. Before you can barely get, “Hey Joe, how are you?” out of your mouth, Joe hauls back and punches you square in the nose, and then runs off.

More mentally stunned than physically hurt, you step back inside to get a washcloth and some ice for your bloody nose, and begin to try to process what just happened. Once again, before you’ve barely had a chance to figure it out, the phone rings—its Joe.

“Hey________” (insert your name here), he says, “I’m really sorry.” “I don’t know what I was thinking, I was confused and angry,” he continues. “You didn’t deserve that, would you please forgive me?”

“Sure Joe,” you respond, “of course I forgive you.” You hang up the phone and presume that life is pretty much back to normal.

To make a long story short, the exact same thing happens the next day—knock on the door, punch in the nose, phone call, “please forgive me,” “of course,” etc.

And the next day…

And the next…

This continues daily. Each day Joe punches you, calls you, asks for forgiveness, and you “forgive” him.

But there is also absolutely sign that this pattern is going to stop any time soon.

So now we have come to the place where we must combine what we have learned from each illustration…

In the daily punch-in-the-nose story, each day you “forgive” Joe. Technically, he “owes” you a punch in the nose for each day, but you have forgiven him in that you do not “demand payment.”

So here’s the big question. Even though you have “forgiven” Joe, because there is no sign of his behavior changing, when do you stop answering the door?

I have heard some Christians suggest that to truly forgive means you must continue to allow “Joe” to “punch you in the nose.”

But now, let me alter the illustration slightly and see if the same principle applies.

What if you were a third party and were watching this happen to a friend or loved one? What if the person getting “punched” was a good friend, a spouse, or a child? Would you counsel them to “forgive” and continue “opening the door”? Are you “loving” your friend, spouse, or child by telling them they must continue to “forgive” and allow themselves to be hurt?

Do you think this is what Jesus meant when he told Peter “Until seventy times seven?”

What do you think?

The name of this blog is The End of Religion: Unpacking the Difference Between Religion and Relationship. If you read the post entitled Read This First, you’ll get the gist of what this is all about, so I don’t have to repeat myself extensively here—but the essence of this blog is to unpack the statement “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship.”

Although unpacking this statement and related issues will be the focus of this blog, and therefore the bulk of the posts will likely be directly or indirectly related to this subject, there are of course many other areas of biblical interest that I am passionate about that will eventually be made known.

So far, we have begun to explore and define what we mean when we use the word religion in this statement—for example, in the posts Defining Religion, and What Is Religion. So now we should probably begin to define what we mean when we use the word relationship is this statement as well.

The New Oxford American dictionary defines relationship as:

  • The way two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.
  • The state of being connected by blood or marriage.
  • The way in which two or more people or organizations regard and behave toward each other.
  • An emotional and sexual association between two people.

Although all of these definitions have bearing on this subject, the ones that concern us the most directly are primarily definitions number one and number three above—we are very interested in the way two people (or more) people are connected, and especially the way two or more people regard and behave toward each other—these definitions and the interconnected issues are of critical importance.

For example, in addition to the maxim “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” there is another maxim that is extremely similar…

“The Church is not an organization—it’s an organism.”

Although this statement requires unpacking as well, it is not quite so enigmatic as the first. The key to this maxim lies in the distinction between the words organization and organism. As a matter of fact, it is the deliberate juxtaposition of these two words (and for that matter the words religion and relationship in the first maxim) that should arrest our attention.

The key distinction between an organism and an organization is that an organism is a life form (is alive), while an organization is not. Or we could say that an organism is organic, while an organization is inorganic (despite all having the same root word). An organism is alive and is derived from or related to living matter, while an organization is a structure or arrangement of concepts, objects, or people, that does not derive from living matter. The same can be said of how the words religion and relationship are used in the first maxim.

In the statement “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship,” we mean that religion is a structure or arrangement that is not organic. It does not derive from living matter, it is not a life form (alive), nor does it impart life—whereas a relationship (in this context) is organic—that is, it derives from living matter, is alive, and imparts life.

We will continue to explore, develop, and refine these definitions during our journey from religion to relationship.

A couple of additional ideas to leave with you before I end this post…

Religion is a counterfeit of genuine relationship. As such it wants to be perceived as organic—that it derives from living matter, is alive, and imparts life—and therefore camouflages and disguises itself to make this seem so. But this is in fact a critical component of the journey from religion to relationship—religion, despite its appearances, is not organic, is not alive, and most certainly does not impart life (much more on this later).

The fountainhead and exemplar of all relationship is the Godhead—three persons in continual vital union and relationship. Furthermore, the purpose of the Godhead in creating humanity was to expand and share relationship with others created in God’s image. (Again, much more to come.)