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Jesus' Parables about Priorities
By James W. Moore
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Priority of Love "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"
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Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
It took Alex Haley twelve years to do it, twelve years to research it and write it. But finally in 1976, he completed his book. It was titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
In this epic work, which some believe is destined to become a classic of American literature, Alex Haley traces his family's origins back to their "roots" in a two-century drama beginning with the African Kunta Kinte, continuing through the six generations that came after him, and concluding with Alex Haley.
Roots also helped usher in a new era in television as millions of Americans watched the graphic portrayal of a novel on prime-time television. Our family watched as many of the episodes together as we could—and we discussed them. During the last television segment, there was a powerful and poignant scene. Tom Moore, the son of "Chicken George," is preparing to take his family to freedom in Tennessee when Evan Brent, who has treated them so terribly, comes out to try to stop them. Brent has cursed them, beaten them, abused them, and overworked them with horrendous cruelty, especially Tom. Brent always seemed to have it in for Tom, and, on at least one occasion, he flogged Tom almost to death with a whip.
In the scene where Brent tries to stop them, the slaves, with the thirst for freedom in their hearts, turn on him. They capture Brent, tie him to the whipping post, and bring a whip to Tom so Tom can pay Brent back for the brutalizing things he has done. Brent whimpers and pleads for mercy. Brent—the one who has been so cruel, so hateful, so mean to them—now pleads for mercy.
Holding the whip tightly in his hand, Tom looks at Brent tied to the whipping post. He hears Brent whimpering and begging for compassion. If ever a man deserved to be flogged, it was Brent. Here was Tom's chance to get back at him. Here was Tom's chance to unleash two centuries of his family's hurt and heartache and frustration. And yet, as our family watched that scene together, I found myself uneasy and saying out loud: "I hope he doesn't whip him. I'm going to be disappointed if he beats him." Our daughter said, "Don't worry, Dad, he won't, it just wouldn't fit his character. It wouldn't fit his personality." And she was right. Just about that time, Tom drops the whip to the ground and turns and walks away. He refuses to beat Brent. Brent falls to his knees at the whipping post and cries in relief. I felt relieved too. I would have been let down if Tom had beaten him. Tom had been there. He knew what it felt like, and in that tense moment, compassion had won the day. I thought to myself, "That is beautiful; the quality of mercy is indeed beautiful. It is so much better than vengeance or hostility." Then I realized that that is precisely what Jesus believed, taught, lived for, what he died for, and what he rose again to show us—that mercy is better than vengeance, that love is better than hate.
Since that time, I have realized even more deeply something very important. Namely, that the best qualities we know in life are reflections of God. Let me express that again: the best qualities we know in life are reflections of God. The best attitudes we see and feel and know and express in this life are reflections of the spirit of God.
For example, we know from our own personal experience that some attitudes are better than others. The word better here may mean more "Godlike." To say love is better than hate, mercy is better than cruelty, empathy is better than jealousy, is just another way of saying that love, mercy, and empathy are of God; they are more Godlike. Thus, when we express these kinds of attitudes, we are at that moment reflecting God.
In 1 Corinthians 13:13, when Paul said, "The greatest of these is love," he meant that the most Godlike thing in the world is love. And this is what Jesus is showing us graphically in the parable of the prodigal son as he paints the picture of a loving father whose attitudes and qualities are reflections of God. Jesus is saying, "This is what God is like." Here in this parable, we see a father who is kind, patient, compassionate, tender, forgiving, merciful, understanding, and loving. Jesus brings out the greatness of these qualities even more dramatically by setting them over against the backdrop of the elder brother, who is jealous and resentful, spiteful and unbending, harsh and vindictive.
There is no question about who is reflecting God in this story. The father is. There is no question about which qualities depicted in the parable are in keeping with the character of God in this great parable. Jesus is saying, "This is what God is like, and this is what God wants us to be like." Don't miss this now, the father is gracious and merciful, and he wants his older son to be gracious and merciful too. The father reflects the love of God, but the elder brother misses it and, instead, reflects bitterness and pettiness. That's the way it works. Every time you and I perform an act of love or kindness, we are reflecting God, and when we fail to be thoughtful or patient or tender, we are blocking God, opposing God, hindering God. Let's look at this more closely by being more specific.
First, Compassion Is Better Than Condemnation, So It Must Be More Godlike
Compassion is a reflection of God. This is seen vividly in the prodigal son parable. The father is the picture of compassion while the elder brother angrily points the accusing, condemning finger. No quality is more beautiful than compassion; no attitude is more reflective of God.
One clear admonition that leaps out of this passage is this: be more compassionate. If you want to be like God, start here. Be more compassionate. To be compassionate means to get into another person's shoes. Oh, how we need this great attribute in all of our relationships! Recently, I saw an article for teenagers titled "How to Raise Your Parents." It contained six tongue-in-cheek suggestions for being more compassionate toward your parents. It read like this:
1. Do not be afraid to speak their language. Try using strange-sounding phrases like, "I'll help you with the dishes," and "Yes." 2. Try to understand their music. Play a tape or a CD of one of their favorite tunes until you are accustomed to the sound. 3. Be patient with the underachiever. When you catch your dieting dad sneaking salted peanuts, do not show your disapproval. Tell him you like fat dads. 4. Encourage your parents to talk about their problems. Try to keep in mind that to them things like earning a living and paying off the mortgage seem important. 5. Be tolerant of their appearance. When your dad gets a hair cut, do not feel personally humiliated. Remember, it is important to him to look like his peers. 6. Most of all: If they do something wrong, let them know it is their behavior you dislike, not themselves. Remember, parents need to feel they are loved. (http://susquehannachurchofchrist .org/bulletin/2000/06-18-00 .html#HOW%20TO%20RAISE%20 YOUR. Accessed January 16, 2008.)
In a lighthearted way, that writer is saying something very important. Namely, that we would all be better off if there were more compassion, patience, and understanding in the world. Remember how Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). And then remember how compassionately he dealt with the woman caught in adultery. The mob was ready to stone her to death. But not Jesus. He wanted no part in condemning people. His was a heart of compassion. He said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 8:11).
When you read the New Testament, one thing is sure: compassion (not condemnation) is a reflection of God.
Second, Forgiveness Is Better Than Resentment, So It Must Be More Godlike
The forgiving spirit is a dramatic reflection of God. Anybody can be hostile, anybody can be bitter, anybody can be vengeful, but it takes a Godlike person to forgive. Look again at the prodigal son parable. The father is quick to forgive—he doesn't even have to be asked. He runs down the road to meet his wayward son; he interrupts his confession. He calls for a great celebration. The relationship is restored that quickly because the father was anxious to love, eager to reconcile, quick to forgive.
But notice how the elder brother was quick to resent, quick to get angry, quick to feel hostility, quick to criticize, quick to feel self-pity, quick to point the finger. Don't you feel sorry for people like that? Wouldn't that be a miserable existence?
The forgiving spirit is so much better, so much more fulfilling, so much more Godlike than the destructive, poisonous spirit of resentment. If this parable says anything to us, it says that God is forgiving and that he wants us to be forgiving.
When we read the New Testament, one thing is sure, namely, that forgiveness, not resentment, is a reflection of God, and every time we forgive or encourage forgiveness we are putting our weight down on the side of God.
Third, Redeeming Love Is Better Than Destructive Hate, So It Must Be of God; It Must Be More Godlike
Redeeming love, a love that works to help and heal must be a reflection of God. Every good parent knows about the power and potential of redeeming love. Every good parent knows that the best way to get your children to do and be the right thing is to love them into it. You may be able to use force for a while, but it won't last; the only way to really win your children over is to love them. Abraham Lincoln was criticized for not being tough enough on the enemy. People said, "Mr. President, you must destroy your enemies." Don't you love Lincoln's answer: "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
Now, how does that relate to the parable of the prodigal son? Maybe like this: maybe this father was so thankful to God for his son that he had a heart of redeeming love, even though the son had done wrong; even though the son had run away, he knew that his father had a heart of redeeming love, so he knew that he could come back home. That was very unusual because, back then, if a son ran away from home, he was considered dead. He was written off. He was not to be talked about or spoken of, and, if someone did forget and mention his name, the father was supposed to quickly say, "He is dead to me." And yet this son knew that customs and traditions didn't really matter because his father had a heart of redeeming love—and he was right. He didn't have to win him back over. All he had to do was come home. The father was waiting with open arms.
That son had been looking for love in all the wrong places. Finally, he realized that real love was right there on his own doorstep. It had been there all along, wrapped up in a gracious father who knew full well that compassion is better than condemnation, that forgiveness is better than resentment, and that redeeming love is better than destructive hate.
The point is clear: The father is loving, and he wants the elder brother to be loving too; indeed, he wants all of his children—he wants us—to live in that gracious, loving spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, in Jesus, the message and the messenger were one. That's our calling too: to tell the message and to be the message, to be compassionate, forgiving, and loving.
Excerpted from Jesus' Parables about Priorities by James W. Moore Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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