Too many of the big religious words go undefined these days.
And I’m one for words.
I can sink my teeth for days into a single word or a short phrase. I have little capacity for more. The sheer noise of this household, the demands of our schedules, the insistence of my technological devices,the quiet voice of the Spirit. Everyday I feel battered by the simplest of decisions: to what do I pay attention?
And so it is that simple words and phrases have a way of arresting my attention and capturing my imagination. I knead the words, pulling and stretching and letting them rise, hoping that something permanent will lodge within me and do that mysterious and invisible work of transformation.
At the communion table this past Sunday, our pastor spoke these two words, words that have rattled around in my soul over the last several days.
The context of his words, as you can imagine, was Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for all humanity. But rather than referring to our guilt as sin, he phrased it like this, as infinite obligation.
Those words pierced me in a new way. A sinner, I know I am. Anger. Pride. Hypocrisy. Fear. In defiance of all my best efforts, they cling to me, lurking in the shadows, publicizing that I am chronically failing God, myself, and the ones I love most fiercely.
But infinite obligation?
The story of the Prodigal Son, to which I referred yesterday, is a story of obligations. Against cultural convention, the younger son demands his share of the inheritance before his father’s death. He wants it now.
It’s a shameless act. A flagrant kind of slap in the face.
And of course the inheritance buys him his share of fun, but it’s only a matter of time until the funds run dry. At his most desperate, he decides to return home.
“I shall get up and go to my father, and I’ll say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'”
And if you know the story, you remember that it is when the son is still a long way off, barely visible on the horizon, that the father sees him, gathers his robes and runs to him, announcing to that his son, his lost son, is found! Kill the best calf, bring the best robe, we’ll throw the kind of party that no one will forget!
Because Jesus is such a masterful storyteller, the parable of the Prodigal Son offers some many layers of meaning, too many to explore here. (I highly recommend the book, Prodigal God, by Tim Keller.)
But one thing the story does do is explain a word that wants to wriggle out of our hands. A word we’re convinced is outdated. A word that makes us uncomfortable, but a word that is uniquely biblical and indispensable for describing just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
The son came home with empty pockets. He had no excuses to offer his father. The damage was irreparable, the obligation infinite.
And the father received him because his love for his son, screw-up that he was, was just that big.
Repentance is an empty-pockets kind of moment and requires just enough faith to come home.
Before we’ve yet reached the door, the Father’s love silences our speeches and receives us, screw-ups that we are.
It’s just that big.