by Deborah Beach Giordano
A few weeks ago I attended a dinner party where — in spite of the warnings of etiquette mavens — the topic of religion was broached. As the conversation continued, one of my table mates said that she was an agnostic: in the absence of convincing evidence on either side, she was neutral; neither a believer nor an atheist.
And immediately — almost before Agnes had finished speaking — Chet pronounced her doom. “You’re going to hell!” he proclaimed, his voice ringing with authority and conviction.
The table went silent and each of us looked at one another uncomfortably. (That sort of statement does rather tend to put a damper on things.) After a moment I spoke up, “Actually, from what I understand, that decision isn’t up to us.” I turned to Chet and said, “You know that business about ‘judge not,’ right?”
Rescue or Salvation?
But Chet didn’t answer me. Instead, he began telling Agnes about two or three near-misses in his life — when “God saved him” from death or serious injury.
Sometimes I’m not at all sure I understand people. Based on what he said, does that mean that if Chet had been struck by that car (and survived) he would not believe in God? Did God have to work a “miracle” for Chet in order to earn his faith?
Does God try to scare us into believing — by setting up these dangerous scenarios and then rescuing us at the last minute?
What about the nonbelievers who are killed in auto accidents — why doesn’t God give them a chance to reconsider? Why don’t they get a warning like Chet did?
Besides; we will all die at some point. Every creature that lives upon the earth passes away. Does that mean that when we die God has failed to save us?
Or is holy salvation something of an entirely different aspect? Perhaps God’s grace and mercy are more wonderful and more powerful than anything we can imagine.
While God is concerned with our lives “here below,” that isn’t the Most Important Thing. The utterly divine, genuine, eternal miracle is that God loves us in spite of ourselves; that God’s mercy is greater than anything we have ever done, stronger than all the things we have ever left undone.
What About Unbelievers?
About now you may be saying to yourself: That’s a lovely affirmation of the Gospel for those who follow Jesus Christ. But what about Chet’s contention that Agnes is headed for hell?
Are those who do not “profess the Name of the Lord” nothing more than walking firewood? Will our loving, merciful Creator — the Heavenly Father of us all — really condemn to eternal perdition those children who could not find Him?
What of God’s children who have been driven away by abuse and condemnation? Will they remain outsiders forever? What of those who avoid a Being whose representatives proclaim harsh judgments and issue hateful edicts? Are agnostics and atheists doomed for doubting — when they’ve never seen any evidence of this “loving, merciful God” in their world?
We do not know for certain who will live eternally with the Beloved; that decision is God’s alone. But Jesus gave us a strong hint about the outcome in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Parable, Cliffs Notes Version
As the Lord Christ tells the story, a young man takes his inheritance and leaves home — off to the big city and the high life. But this is no hero’s journey. Soon he has spent it all; wasted every cent on worthless stuff (what we might categorize as “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”). Impoverished, friendless, and starving, the fellow takes the worst, dirtiest menial job; he becomes a swineherd.
One day — probably in the middle of mucking out the stalls — the son realizes that the lowest servant in his dad’s place has a better life than his. He decides to head home, admit that his life is a mess, and ask only to be treated like a servant. No frills, no expectations; all he wants is to live in his father’s house. And so he sets off for home.
Where the Story Gets Really Interesting
Jesus tells us that the father saw the young man “while he was still a long ways off.” How could this be, unless the father had been waiting and watching for his son? Every waking hour of every day, the father had been scanning the horizon, seeking a sign of his child, longing for his return.
And as soon as he saw his son, “the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him.” In an age when decorum and order were tremendously important — when appropriate conduct was that a child should come before his father and bow respectfully and formally — the old gentleman sets off at a run and grabs his son in a bear hug and covers his face with kisses.
The father ignores the “rules”: overcome with great love and compassion he embraces his returning child. He is not put off by the fact that his son is covered with filth and smells like a pig — despite the stringent religious proscriptions against both. “Dirt” and a “nasty history” are inconsequential: what matters to the father is that the family is together again.
All of this happened before the son has made his confession. Before he admitted his mistakes, before he asked for forgiveness — his father had swept him up into his welcoming arms. There was no reproach, no scolding, no demand for repentance. The joyful reunion began the instant the father caught sight of his child.
And then God ... oops, then the father threw a big party. It was cause for a major celebration: “one who was dead is now alive; one who was lost has now been found.”
About that Father
The parable of the prodigal son is the only one of Jesus’ stories that directly addresses the parent/child relationship. It describes a father who yearns for his absent son so deeply that he continually watches for his return; a parent who forgets all earthly rules and regulations in order to welcome his child home. It is about love, mercy, and forgiveness given freely — abundantly, unstintingly, unconditionally.
And Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven.” Somehow I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
The Other Child
There is one other major character who appears in the parable: the other son; the one who has been with the father all along, loyal and loving. (Or loyal, at least.) When he hears the music and learns that it is a celebration for the prodigal, he refuses to join in. He feels cheated, shortchanged, “disrespected” — it seems to him that his faithfulness has been overlooked.
It is a disappointing, but a very human and very understandable reaction. To the hardworking son it seems unfair: he has done his part, followed the rules, done what he was told — and now a lazy bum is going to receive the same inheritance.
When the father comes out of the house he begs the son to join in the festivities. “Don’t you see?” he asks his stubborn child, “You’ve been with me all this time, and all I have is yours. Can’t you understand how wonderful it is that the one who was dead is alive?”
Sadly, the elder son shows no compassion for his dad. He doesn’t seem to realize that his father had suffered from the loss of a child whom he loved and missed terribly. He doesn’t care that his brother was poor and hungry. He doesn’t see any reason to celebrate that the whole family is together again. What he wants is to stay away from that other, bad child.
And that is the saddest part of this story. In choosing to keep himself apart from his brother, the elder son excludes himself from the festivities. In his stubborn insistence that he is right and the other is wrong, the son finds himself shut out of the joyful celebration.
We cannot know who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to our salvation; that decision is the Beloved’s. But perhaps our gracious Lord placed a clue — and a warning — within the parable of the prodigal son.
It may be that those who demand that others “go to hell,” may find themselves standing outside of heaven — not because God would prevent their entry, but because they will refuse to go in.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Deborah Beach Giordano