On Grace: Week’s End Lecture

I gave this brief lecture at the end of class today in my course, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Honestly, I don’t lecture veryRembrandt.The Prodigal Son often, and when I do only briefly. But there are times for it. Like today when I needed to grab hold of the “threads” from the week and suggest how to pull them together.

The week began with readings from Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son—then into excerpts from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, and today into Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen’s excellent book of the same name was our guide into the world of the painting. What follows below is my attempt to draw these threads together as they relate to the doctrine of grace (the central “thread” of the course). As always, I welcome your interaction.

Our week began with three parables told by Jesus to a mixed audience: his disciples, the crowd that generally followed, and the religious leaders (Luke 15:1-32). As Luke records it, Jesus is on the long climb to Jerusalem. All along the way conflicts crop up with religious leaders. In some cases Jesus heals when he isn’t supposed to: on the Sabbath. In other cases he doesn’t wash as he is supposed to: his hands in the ceremonial fashion before eating. And in other cases, like this one, he hangs about with the wrong people: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, the diseased, the unclean, sinners all around. This delights the crowd but offends most but not all of the religious leaders for various reasons.

Disobeying God is what got Israel into their messy exile in Babylon in the first place. “Doesn’t Jesus know that obedience (cleanness) will pave the way for the Kingdom of God? Hasn’t he read Deut. 30?” the Pharisees wondered.

Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach (vv. 9-11, 16).

“Come-on Jesus, get with the program! Stop hanging about with those on the outside,” they grumble.

So Jesus tells three parables. Three things are lost, then found. Three celebrations. The point seems direct enough:

God seeks that which is lost, and when found a party breaks loose. “Pharisees,” Jesus seems to be saying, “You have not merely misinterpreted the Mosaic Law, but you have misread the One you gave it to you. In misreading him, not seeing him correctly, you have missed his priorities. These here, the sinners, are his priority.” (I imagine that Jesus always said “sinners” or “tax collectors” so compassionately that no one within ear shot who was a prostitute or tax collector felt the least bit offended.)

The sheep, the coin, the son; all lost, sought, then found, then celebrated. It seems that what matters to Jesus when it comes to our attitude toward those “on the outside” – if you will – is not what we have to offer, what we esteem, but what God esteems, what he offers.

Our reading from Irenaeus showed us the same. When faith is perfected in the new heavens and earth we see God. Seeing God, however, isn’t something we are capable of; we are finite, limited, and will never be God – only God is God. Our perfected sight is made possible by the One being seen. God, in Ireneaus’s words, “vivifies” us so that we might see God as he is, that he is “gives us what we require” in order to see as we are destined to see. And when seeing we become fully ourselves; finally, truly and genuinely human as God intended. The point is simply this: when it comes to seeing God, it is not our faith, capacity, or vision that matters. Like the parables, what matters is the one who seeks or in this case the one who provides sight.

Things are no different in the painting of the Prodigal Son’s return by Rembrandt. As Nouwen wrote, the painting might just as well have been called “The Welcome of the Compassionate Father.”

The parable is in truth a “Parable of the Father’s Love.”…Seldom, if ever, has God’s immense, compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant way. Every detail of the father’s figure – his facial expression, his posture, the colors of his dress, and, most of all, the still gesture of his hands – speaks of the divine love for humanity that existed from the beginning and ever will be (The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 93).

As Nouwen pointed out, Rembrandt left us cues: the hands. All the light in the image falls on the hands. Everyone in the scene looks upon them. One is powerful and presses upon a larger portion of the son’s back. In this hand Rembrandt wants us to see God’s ever-pursuing, ever-grasping, never-letting-go sort of love. The right hand however is soft and tender. It doesn’t press, but lies gently on his shoulder. The tenderness of God is what Rembrandt wants us to see in this hand, the love of a mother. Like Isaiah said so long before Rembrandt,

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (49:15)

Or as Jesus said on another occasion,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Mt. 23:37)

In each case – the parables, Irenaeus, Rembrandt, and Nouwen – the focus falls on the one who offers grace: the one who seeks and celebrates; the one who makes sight possible; the one who receives with strength and tenderness. There is a logic to all this that should guide us as we explore the doctrine of the Christian life: comprehending grace in the Christian sense requires first and foremost that we give attention to its source. The effects of grace matter, how grace is mediated matters, and the forms of life that spring out from grace matter – but more primarily, for understanding the Christian life the source and giver of grace matters most. We must first and foremost seek to understand the One who establishes it, the One who seeks, the One who finds, and the One who celebrates. This is so because the Christian life is at its most basic a life that is given and received from the Gracious One.

Our challenge will be this: how do we keep the God of grace at the center of our study of the Christian life? It is not simply a matter of focusing on God first (although we do this). The temptation will still be to let our experience of grace set the terms of our understanding of the One who offers grace. This has been the challenge within Christian thought from the beginning. We may not make gods out of wood and stone much, but we still, all too quickly, make God look like us.

To avoid this error, we launch ourselves toward the deep center of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity and the adoption of men and women into God’s very life of eternal fellowship.

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