The Teller and Star of the Best Story Ever

DSC_0743The “Prodigal Son” is one of the best-known stories in the world: a rebellious child runs away from a loving father; the father mourns; the child returns; the father welcomes; the sibling struggles with the restoration. (Luke 15:11-32)

Now I know the story speaks of “sons,” but because I am a woman and because many who read this blog are women, I want to remind us that we can fully identify with these two sons. We know we can do this because of how Jesus treated women and because of Paul’s words later in the New Testament. So even though I’m going to refer to the two characters as “sons” simply because I think it might be confusing if I didn’t, we can substitute “daughters” if it helps us to identify more easily.

The first “character” in this story is this wonderful Father figure. He loves His children. He longs for them to have fullness of life with Him. There’s no hidden story or sin. He is what we see: the beautiful, perfect Dad.

This Father has two children. (There’s actually a third one, but we’ll get to Him later.)

One of his kids is called the prodigal.

It’s an accurate title. This kid thumbs his nose at all his dad stands for. He is rude and disrespectful to him. We Westerners can’t quite get the full cultural ramifications of what he does in this story, but he is basically saying, “You’re standing in my way, old man. I don’t want to wait until you’re dead to do what I want to do. So fork over now what’s going to be mine when you kick the bucket, and I’m outa’ here. I don’t care about your way. I think all this love and peace stuff is boring and stupid. I want some excitement, and I want it MY way.”

He’s an obvious prodigal. Obvious. Some of us identify with this prodigal. We think, “Yes, that’s me!”

But some of us identify more with the other son. He’s the one working out in his dad’s business. He’s the one who looks like he’s his dad’s right-hand man. This guy appears pretty good, squeaky clean in fact. He’s very focused on pleasing his Dad, and he wants the other brother and everyone else to see that he’s the “good child.”

Somehow we see that as “better” than the prodigal’s attitude.

It’s really not, though.

Because deep down, this son is just as self-serving as the prodigal.

He doesn’t really “get” the Father’s way of living either. He doesn’t think it’s measurable enough, so he adds rules of his own. He wants the Father to look at him and say, “Good job! You’ve come up with such a great system. Why didn’t I think of that? This, yes, this, is how I should measure people’s rightness.”

This child is a legalist.

Not long ago I read a fantastic quote by Max Lucado. “Legalism,” Lucado wrote, “is the search for innocence—not forgiveness.”

The legalist child doesn’t want God to be bigger than he is. He wants to think that his level of “goodness” is better than God’s, so that God has to declare him INNOCENT.

He’s not seeking forgiveness. That would mean he was WRONG!

But he is.

He’s missing the mark just like the prodigal is! Neither of their ways—the lawlessNESS or the nit-picky rule-keeping—is anything like the beautiful GOODNESS of the Father.

The prodigal is at least honest about his waywardness. He leaves.

But the hypocrisy of the “good son” becomes very evident when the prodigal returns and the father’s will and desire are drastically different from the “good son’s.”

The father wants to forgive and restore and love and celebrate and move forward.

Not the “good child.” He wants to hold grudges and remember wrongdoing and use the “rules” to condemn the prodigal and exalt himself. His “goodness” is revealed to be self-serving, bitter, and proud.

They are BOTH prodigals.

WE are prodigals. All of us. Like one or the other of the two kids in this story—or somewhere in between them.

The Father is holding out His arms to all the prodigals. “Come to me!” He calls. “I’m looking for you. I want to hold you in my arms and heal your heart wounds and draw you into right, real relationship with ME! Come into the house and celebrate with me.”

Somewhere inside us we want this—but we also don’t want it. We’re not capable of choosing it for ourselves because we’re not good—and true, unselfish goodness is alien to our core nature.

If we stopped right here—with the Father’s open arms and our inability to be in His embrace—this story would be a tragedy.

And if some regular human were telling the story, it would be nothing more than a fairytale, a story told to entertain for a few minutes before we have to return to “real life.”

But the storyteller, Jesus, is not a regular human being. And he didn’t tell the story as mere entertainment. He told it because He has the power to make it come true—for each of us—and He wants it to become true.

Though He is the narrator of the story, He is also IN it. He’s the Son of the Father’s heart, the perfect representation and exact image of Him. He reveals to us in the flesh the beauty of the Father and the Father’s way. When we look at Him, we see our need for something bigger and better than ourselves.

In the story, the prodigal did both of these in the far country. In the pigpen he realized how lost he was. Then he thought about his Father and saw clearly the Father’s goodness. He went home because he knew the Father would extend mercy. (Little did he know how MUCH mercy the Father would extend.)

At this point, we still have a problem. Jesus awakens in us the realization of the Father’s perfection. In Him we clearly recognize that WE are not perfect. But if He simply told the story, and then didn’t DO anything more, we would still be in the far country like the prodigal or laboring in the fields with bitter hearts like the legalist.

We are simply not capable of true, eternal heart change.

But the Storyteller did more.

He died.

And through his death, He became the Way to the Father’s embrace.

He made the story Truth rather than fiction.

He delivered real Life that does not disappoint—unlike any fairytale we can imagine.

He accomplished LIFE through horrific death. That vertical line of His cross created a way for relationship between God and humanity. Clothed in the perfection of Christ, the Father can pull us close to His perfect heart. You and I both know that we couldn’t be there on our own.

Now here’s another wonderful thing about the cross of Christ. Its horizontal line created relationship between humans. When we’re gathered together at the foot of the cross, awed by the Christ and the Father’s perfection and goodness, all our own personal differences fade into nothing. The prodigal and the legalist can have relationship with each other because coming to the Father requires a stripping away of the outer to find we are all the same underneath. Put us in the light of eternity and in the presence of the holy, wholly good God, and those outward differences are GONE! Then we can relate—in reality, in truth and honesty, without pretense and masks, without competition.

Jesus is the Teller of the Best Story, in which He stars as our Way, our Truth, our Life.

NOTE: This is the script of a Gospel presentation I recently prepared, so it may sound more like a “talk” than a blog post in some spots.

This Way, His Way

The four beautiful Del Vecchio women: from left, niece Anna, sister-in-law Cindy, niece Sarah, and niece Grace. Not pictured from their family are my brother Mike and nephew Luke. We visited them this past week for spring break and had a great time. Thank you, Del Vecchios, for hosting our crazy family.

I give the “five minutes till we need to be out the door” call, but four of us are still together in the bathroom. I stretch over Maddie, brushing her teeth at one corner of the sink, so I can lean against the mirror and dab mascara on my lashes. Beside Maddie, PJ shoves for space to spit. Behind us Em scrabbles in the “hair stuff” drawer to find a rubber band for her braid. Then Jake wanders in. I glance at his feet.

“Where are your shoes?”

His eyes go wide.

Shoes? His look says to me. Did you mention shoes?

“Jake, I’ve already asked you three times to put on your shoes!”

“Oh, okay.” He turns to go.

“But don’t you need to brush your teeth?”

He turns back. “Yeah, but you just said to get my shoes.”

“Well you might as well brush your teeth while you’re in here. Patrick, stop wiping your mouth on your sleeve. That’s gross.”

Maddie interrupts. “Mom, what’s today?”

“What?”

“What day is today?”

“Why does THAT matter right now?”

“I want to read the verse for today, and I don’t know if you’ve already flipped it.”

I hadn’t.

I’d been too rushed.

I look at my watch and tell her the date. She reads the verse aloud, “Psalm 25:4. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.”

And in the fussing of Jake getting to the sink and Patrick and Maddie away from it, of Emily reaching between to wet a hairbrush, I hear the Holy Spirit’s clear whisper: “This is not My Way.”

This: the hustle-bustle that I in large part created with my impatient spirit.

This: the grasping of minutes only as vehicles to “being on time for the ‘bigger’ thing” rather than as gifts in themselves.

This: moments lived without remembrance of the Giver, without heeding what He wants me to see and learn

Suddenly they are gone and I am alone in the bathroom. I lean over the sink, finally still.

Why do I have to learn this lesson over and over? I wonder, but I look again at the verse: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

I’d read Psalm 25 recently. I know what it teaches about “His Way.”

“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust… Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long.”

Not rushing.

Waiting.

Even in busy moments, waiting—to see God’s gifts, to see HIM. I often think of waiting as inactive, but couldn’t “waiting” be “expectation”? Couldn’t I live each moment expecting that I will see Him in it? That I will learn more about Him in it?

The psalmist did. He wrote, “For You I wait all the day long.”

All the day long!

Every minute lived in expectation that God will be in it!

THAT kind of expecting would affect far more than my rushed moments. It would cause me to “lift up my soul”—my whole being— to God. It would cause me to trust in Him as my complete salvation, my full purpose. It would lead, eventually, to what the psalmist calls friendship (also translated as “secret counsel”) with God (verse 14) and a deep understanding of God’s way—so, so different from ours.

Am I going to live this way—in the hurry-scurry of my middle-class suburbia, this way that leads so easily to a life that’s self-focused and blinded to others’ needs?

Or am I going to live His way?

One small step at a time, one moment leading to the next, listening closely and expectantly to the Holy Spirit’s whisper, trusting that all the moments—the small steps—add up to the everlasting path, the Way of Life.

His Way.

Show me Your ways, my Lord, teach me Your paths.

And then, please, help me to walk, step by step, in Your Way.