Limitless Mercy

When our real life experiences are paralleling a story we read about in the Bible, it becomes easy to see where our faith really lies. Our beliefs are confronted and we see just how hard some of Christ’s teachings are. He never promised it would be easy for his followers… and in fact his word even says some of his teachings will be hard to swallow. I’m having a hard time swallowing.

Good thing there’s grace.

For the past couple of years I have lived (in real life) almost exactly the story of the prodigal son. Except I’m not the prodigal, I am the older sibling. I’ve been meditating on this story for the past year since it so closely relates to what I have gone through. I invite you to ponder the life and situation of the older brother with me—I want you to imagine yourself in his situation, because I feel like many of us who have been Christians for a while might relate to his feelings.

Imagine watching a younger sibling use and abuse your beloved parent. If you remember—in the story, the younger brother asks his father for his inheritance because all he wants (selfishly) is to go live for himself and blow it all. By asking his father for the inheritance he basically is wishing his father dead. His actions show us that his mind and desires are fixed on what should be his, and only upon his father’s death. He wants to use his father for what he can get from him, with a total disregard for their relationship. Imagine the pain and heartache the father must have felt at this utter betrayal by his son. So the prodigal runs off and for years the older brother stays faithfully close, working hard (and doubly so as he must have taken on his absent brother’s workload) alongside his father, treating him with the utmost loyalty and respect, and bearing the burdens of his father’s pain over experiencing the rejection and loss of his son. He must have witnessed his father go through much turmoil over his brother’s belligerent actions. For years the father would continue to feel the hurt and pain as he missed and longed for his son, and surely the older brother carried the weight… he was the one there to comfort and care for his father during those sorrowful days. And how the weight of carrying such a burden must have affected his own life—the turmoil he must have felt to witness his father experience such grief.

And then one day the prodigal returns. How hard it must have been for the older brother to just forget the burden he had carried for years, to all of the sudden forget the years of agony his father had experienced—and he had himself experienced as his father’s support and confidant. To forget this all in an instant, setting it aside to… party? Apparently it was too hard—as the older brother refused to join in the celebration. He was resentful for this burden he had been made to carry. But do you blame him? Imagine if someone was so rude and utterly disrespectful and rejecting of the person you love most— your parent or spouse or child— and for years on end. Would you want to celebrate if they suddenly claimed to have a change of heart? Would you feel a bit distrustful? Would you rather keep some distance than embrace them so warmly? I would, and I do.
But then, there is this:

1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load.

I think these verses from Galatians greatly illuminate this story. We may have read verse 1 many times and thought to apply it in the sense of “watching ourselves so that we are not tempted to join in the sinful activity at hand”. But I think the temptation is more to judge the person who is caught in their sin. The temptation is to act like the older brother, to think the prodigal’s behavior to be wretched and that somehow we are above it, that we are better than them. The older brother’s sin was in thinking that he was better than his brother. After-all he was more faithful, more hardworking, more responsible, and he had carried the burden his brother had inflicted on the family—for years. Doesn’t that seem like a better person than the prodigal? But no matter how faithful we are, these few verses in Galatians teach us that we are not to think so highly of ourselves, we are not to compare ourselves to others… because we do not earn our place in the Father’s house. They and we are already accepted, just as we are. All is grace. All is because of his limitless mercy. We are all undeserving sinners, whether our sin is more like the prodigal’s or the older brother’s. We are not to measure who has been more faithful, more responsible… because the reality is we would be nothing if it weren’t for the Father’s great love. We are to called to carry each other’s burdens—and without resentment or judgment because it is there that we live as Christ—fulfilling his law. And just as we are not called to live so foolishly as the younger brother, we also are not called to judge and think ourselves superior to others—as if any of us have earned or deserve more our place in the Father’s house. We are called to be like the Father—to offer limitless mercy to others. Sometimes when we are caught in the thick of a sinful , burdensome mess, this reality is hard to swallow. Lord help me… help us… to swallow. As we grow and find our home in the Father’s house, may we live not like the prodigal or the older brother, but like the generous Father, extending limitless mercy to others, even as we carry each other’s burdens.

For further mediation on this story, I recommend this.

 

 

 

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