Just when we think we have it figured out, God surprises us in a big way.
When I read Luke 15, I’m sympathetic to the Pharisees and scribes who were unhappy that Jesus was keeping company with the tax collectors and sinners. It’s not right for a religious leader to hang out with notorious good-for-nothings! And, when I read Jesus’ reply to them—the parable of the Prodigal Son—I’m sympathetic to the older brother, whose disapproval of his father’s lavish forgiveness is illogical and unfair. What kind of out-of-his-mind father rewards that sort of ungrateful behavior?
But I suspect that my sympathies reveal something more than just my oldest-of-three-brothers identity or my ESTJ personality. I think there’s something basically human about expecting that someone should get what she deserves, and I see it all over the place.
Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Benjamin Franklin: if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.
Karma: what goes around comes around.
That’s how we expect the world to work. That’s how we teach our children the world works. That’s how we run our businesses. That’s how we run our healthcare system. That’s how our judicial system works. That’s how everything works…except for God.
But how do we break free of the entrenched expectation that God works like that, too? How do we convince ourselves that God will welcome us back—that God will forgive us—that God can love us even though we are so totally unlovable? When something is so contrary to our expectations, the only way to learn it is by experience. And the good news is that God’s love doesn’t have to be understood in order to be enjoyed.
Consider the prodigal son, who came to his senses and decided to return to his father, beg forgiveness, submit to judgment, and work as a hired hand. The son came back expecting to reap what he had sown. He couldn’t anticipate what his father’s reaction would be because his father’s reaction didn’t make sense. But when he felt his father’s arms wrap around him, he knew what it meant to be loved and forgiven and restored by one whose love shattered all the expectations of life.
God is like that. God is always loving. God is always forgiving. But the world teaches us to expect the opposite. The reconciliation of those two contradictory principles is found on our knees—through repentance. Just as Rembrandt depicted the return of the prodigal son, one must throw himself down at the feet of the father and allow himself to be surprised by God’s grace. If it makes sense—if you think it’s fair—you’ve missed the point. God’s grace must always surprise us. It must shock us with its illogicality. It must disturb our sense of right and wrong. It must shake us loose from our grip on what we know is right. We can only encounter the inexplicable, unjustified love of God when there are no other options—when the only thing that can save us is a complete surprise.