Amazing Grace?

The composer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, who had at one time been a slaver, claimed to have written this popular hymn after reflecting on the parable of the prodigal son.  I recently read an amusing story about this hymn, written by a pastor who regularly held services at an adult in-patient mental health facility.  They didn’t have hymnals, so they had to sing hymns that everyone knew by heart.  “Amazing Grace” was sung virtually every day as a result, and one day, after the minister announced that they would sing the hymn, a female patient blurted out,  “You know, when we sing that damned song as much as we do in here, it’s not that %#!&  amazing anymore!”

Despite the humor of the remark, maybe she had a point.  Is God’s grace really all that amazing?

If we look at the parable from the perspective of the older brother, we would not be amused.  He was the one, according the Law of Moses, who was to inherit a double portion of his father’s estate.  This was only fair that he receive more than the other siblings, because he was the one who was required to care for his parents in their later years and to keep the household going.  But the parable ends in a way that has the younger, prodigal son restored to glory, while he, the older brother, ends up looking like a party pooper and a sore loser.  What’s up with that??

In light of the Law,  the younger son’s request for his share wasn’t unusual in first century Judea. He was the one who had to start his own business, trade, or farmstead. What is outrageous indeed is that he spends all of his money partying, drinking, and womanizing instead of creating an independent life for himself.  He squanders his entire inheritance on his various addictions, and only then does he come to his senses. 

Historically, the rock-bottom experience of the prodigal has been interpreted as his moment of repentance.  But does he repent?  It doesn’t say that in the text, and furthermore, he never says he regrets his bad choices.  Instead, he comes to the knowledge that he doesn’t need to be living at the margins of society.  “What on earth am I doing in this pigsty?  I am from an honorable house.  I don’t have to live like this.”

Following this realization, the young man has an idea that millions of young adults before him and many more after him will have in the future:  he can call his dad.  Luke even has him rehearsing what he will say to dad, “Look dad, I have sinned against you and God. I’m not even worthy of being called your son anymore. But don’t send me away, please.  At least treat me like one of your hired hands.  Give me what I need and I promise, I’m going to pay you back.”

We don’t know if he even meant what he planned to say.  Perhaps he was just saying what he knew dad wanted to hear—just the right amount of emotion to evoke his dad’s pity and love.  What father would be able to turn a son away after a speech like that?

This is a stark contrast to his older brother.  It is significant that the first time the older son is mentioned, he is out in the field working. As a man of integrity, the older son takes responsibility. His father is apparently not working anymore, he’s probably sitting on the porch when he spots his younger son in the distance.

And before the younger son can even deliver his rehearsed speech, dad runs out to meet him, hugs and kisses him and welcomes him back home.  Before he  knows it, he’s back in nice clothes, has a nice ring and is once again being celebrated at a party.  All the while, the older son works hard in order to provide for the family. Unlike his younger brother, he proves his love to dad in very tangible ways. He’s been out there in the fields every day, laboring and sweating.

On his way home, tired from the day’s hard labor, he notices music and laughing coming from the farmstead. He is wondering: “What is going on?” He finds out from one of the hired hands: “Your brother has come home and your father is throwing a party–he even slaughtered the prize calf for him and we’re having brisket!”

I have always been able to related to the older brother’s anger, disappointment and resentment at this point in the story.  Dad is even making brisket from the prize calf—the animal  that was the basis for all future breeding programs for the family.  To make things worse, he hadn’t even been invited to the party, he’d only found out about it by accident.  He was so upset that he was not capable of even going inside. So dad, after being told that his older son is out on the front porch, comes out and begs him to come in.

This is where the story gets interesting, because the faithful son, who is overcome by hurt, asks a direct and justified question: “What about me, Dad?  I’ve worked hard for you all my life, and you’ve never once given me a party.” Notice that the father doesn’t even offer an excuse.  He doesn’t say, “Well, remember how wild you were when you were young??”  That’s because the older son is right.

Instead, the father responds: “But…he’s your brother! He’s back. He was lost, but now is found”—none of which is convincing to the older son.  If anything, he must have thought that his father’s grace was ridiculous and irresponsible. How did dad know that his brother wouldn’t leave a second time, with even more of his money the following week?”

Those of us who have experienced problems raising teens know that sometimes they need “tough love”.  They need us to say “no” instead of always being there to bail them out of situations their choices have created for them.  It’s the only way they’ll learn to become responsible for themselves.

Most of us would, I think, consider ourselves in that group with the older brother.  We are the responsible people who have been faithfully providing for our families, taking care of our friends, supporting those who need it, helping those in need, not expecting anything in return.

So where is God’s grace?  According to the parable of the prodigal,   God’s grace does not seem all that amazing. It doesn’t seem fair. God’s grace can even be annoying to those of us who are more responsible, and it clearly isn’t “tough” enough on those who need to grow up and become more responsible themselves.

The story of the prodigal son is Jesus’ way of telling us that God’s grace is completely irrational, undisciplined and downright crazy.  It’s unconditional, unmerited, and has nothing to do with us: it has everything to do with God.  Regardless of how absurd it sounds, no matter what outrageous hurtful things we may have done, God chooses to welcome us back every time, no questions asked. This is a tough concept to understand. In fact, this kind of grace offends us–it goes against everything we think we know.  And it’s precisely that that makes that grace amazing—in a mind-boggling, irrational, infuriating kind of way.

None of us is perfect.  Each of us has, to use Paul’s words, “…fallen short of the glory of God.”  So we, too, are welcomed back into God’s loving embrace. The knowledge of God’s unconditional love and amazing grace allows us to face the future with a greater sense of security, and ironically, a greater commitment to living up to God’s faith in us.  Our family, our siblings, our friends and colleagues will, given enough opportunities, decline to keep offering us second chances.  But God will not.  If that isn’t reason enough to join the party, I don’t know what is!

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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