Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“Prodigal Grace”
Luke 4:21-30[1]
The recent movie “The Kingdom of Heaven” is a story set during the second Crusade. The Christian forces occupy Jerusalem, but they are divided. On the one hand are those who seek to maintain a tenuous but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand are the Christian zealots who are bent on a war with the Muslims, convinced not only that it is their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” “God wills it”—the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime is that they practice another religion.
I’m not sure what it is about religion that seems inevitably to make us think in those terms. Those who, like us, belong to the “right” religion are the chosen ones. If we’re honest with ourselves, we often expect and think we deserve God’s special favor as a result of our piety. Those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation —or at the very least are unworthy of our concern.
The “religious” people of Jesus day— the ones like us who regularly attended the synagogue at the appointed hour—thought that way too. When Jesus preached his sermon at Nazareth, they initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” who made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary prophet puts it, Jesus “threw the book at them” by citing examples from OT scripture.[2] And as a result, they tried to kill him. Although they failed on that occasion, they would eventually succeed!
What scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the prodigal way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone (“prodigal” meaning reckless, wasteful, and extravagant). What made Jesus’ proclamation “prodigal” was the fact that he offered the blessings of God’s Kingdom not just to the “righteous,” but also to “sinners.”[3] The religious people of Jesus’ day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned them by their good lives. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.
We might be tempted to think that we have moved beyond all that. But the reality is that not much has changed. I’m often amazed the way people who have been Christians all their lives respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing the right things. In a very real sense, salvation is not about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s plan to draw everything and everyone he has made into his love and into his life through his grace.
We’re very much like the “righteous” people who were outraged by Jesus’ declaration of God’s prodigal grace—more so than we’d like to admit. We still think that by our worship and service and piety we are somehow making ourselves more deserving of God’s grace. We’re like the older brother who is angry because the Father is running down the road to embrace those who don’t “deserve” it![4] But what makes it grace is that none of us “deserves” it. Nothing limits the saving grace of God![5]
When we look at our world through the lenses of God’s grace, it changes everything. We can no longer view others as “competition” that we have to outdo in our piety in order to “make it in” to heaven. Everybody “makes it in” because God wills it.[6] Period. The whole creation is to be drawn into the peace and love and life of God’s kingdom.[7]
What this means for us is that we cannot view ourselves as God’s “favorites” who receive special blessing over and above others. It means that we all receive the gift of God’s grace that extends to everyone equally. It means that no one can be viewed as outside God’s grace—no one is excluded; all are welcome.

[1] A sermon preached 01/28/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.
[2] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), 20; accessed at
[3] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, 175-76, 185; J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 81-82; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 89-90, 112-16, 131
[4] James Sanders, “What Happened at Nazareth,” a sermon preached 6/20/1971 at Riverside Church, New York; accessed at showchapter.asp?title=800&C=1046.
[5] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 190; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 149.
[6] Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; see also Micah 4:1-3; Luke 4:16–21; 7:20–22; 17:20–21; John 3:3, 5, 16; Revelation 11:15–19; 15:3–4; 21:1–5; 22:1–5. See also Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 139-151; cf. also J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope , 204, 216; Moltmann, Crucified God, 176, 242-43, 276-77; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 83, 100, 134-35, 190-192, 216; J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40; J. Moltmann, God in Creation, 54-6, 288-90; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104, 109, 133, 178, 190, 223, 225, 255, 263-64, 276, 278-79, 282-86, 303-7, 325; J. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 56-57, 94-95, 112, 212-13; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411; IV.3, 478; Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, 61; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. 2: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 299; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 181; cf. also Paul Tillich, “Salvation,” in The Eternal Now, 114; Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 166-67, 177-180; Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at
[7] Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145; cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 255.