The idea that the Son had to die so the Father would be able to forgive us has never made much sense to me. If God loves us no matter what, why can’t God just go ahead and forgive us?
I remember asking this question even as a child, pointing out to my parents that they seemed to forgive my brother and me for things all the time, and rarely felt the need to punish. If they did give us some kind of penalty, it was not because they needed it in order to be able to forgive us. It was so we would learn, better, how properly to behave. So why couldn’t God just forgive, if my parents could? How could Jesus’ dying really help anything, anyway? And how could something as terrible as the cross be something God wanted or needed?
My mom and dad and Sunday school teachers in our little Presbyterian church up in Babylon, N.o., tried very hard to answer my questions. But the answers they delivered were spoken so concisely, and with so much certainty, I figured you had to be a grown-up to understand. “Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins,” they told me. And so I tried to imagine what I — a really well-behaved, zealously Christian 8-year-old —could possibly have done so wrong that it necessitated the God who created the universe come down here and die. “A price had to be paid,” another grown-up explained — we sinned, and the penalty for sin is death. So God gave his only Son to die in our place. Jesus died for us because he loves us.”
Is there any truth to these statements said to us, over and over again, about how it is that Jesus saves us? Is there any falsehood? Is there any way we can and should interpret Jesus’ violent death as a loving act? And even if we can reconcile violence and love, what do we make of the persistent claim that God requires a price to be paid?
I remember how excited I got, sometime when I was in college, when I sat down and really studied the so-called parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). It was fascinating to me that this was a story about forgiveness and reconciliation, but with no explicit mention of the cross. It seemed to me, at least at the time, that the father simply, seamlessly and completely forgave. No sacrifice was required. No economy of exchange had to be satisfied. What I saw in the father was immediate, unconditional love and celebration. Period.
“Well,” I was told, when I tried to share my emerging insights with a friend from an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, “maybe the story doesn’t talk about the cross, but it is focused on what we need to do, on our side. We need to repent, and to confess to God we’re sinners. Then we will be forgiven!”
Another definitive explanation. An explanation grounded in important, biblical ideas about repentance and confession. Except that, when you read this particular story carefully, it’s hard to be sure whether the prodigal son actually is repentant. A good case can be made, in fact, that he is simply desperate enough, and hungry enough, to develop a concession speech as a kind of strategy. The text tells us, after all, that he comes to the realization that even his father’s hired hands eat better food than the pigs’ fare he is chewing on. He even rehearses what he will say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and earth and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” Not a bad strategy, all in all. And even if the son is sincerely contrite, one thing the narrator of the story emphasizes is that his father is already running out to meet him long before he opens his mouth. The son begins his speech with his father embracing and kissing him, and he doesn’t even get to the end of it. A ring is placed on his finger, a robe on his body and sandals on his feet. The father calls for the fatted calf to be killed, and a celebration to be arranged. Clearly, it never occurs to the father to take his youngest back as anything but a beloved son!
If the younger son had been more explicitly sorry, with the father receiving his apologies mercifully, the story would be easier to fit together with the way we understand the world actually to work. What would make it more manageable is if the father weren’t so excessive in what he offers the son. It would be touching if the son were convincingly contrite, and the father waited for him in the kitchen, unfolding his arms only to let him through the door. And then if the younger son gave his speech, authentically, we might respect the father for being moved. For having a heart, for embracing him and inviting him in for a cup of coffee, maybe a peanut butter sandwich. Such interaction would be honorable, both for father and son. The father would of course still be giving “more” than the son, but at least the son’s contrition would clear a workable space in which the two could re-establish their relationship. When I read the story, I want to edit it to make it more about a meeting between two people who love each other and less about a desperate father giving everything he can think of to express his love for a still-scheming son.
What is it about us that leads us to try to moderate things when it comes to our relationship with God? To try to balance scales we know cannot possibly be balanced? To develop give-and-take formulas for how forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration work? I still find myself trying to balance out the excesses of the Luke 15 story. The other day, for example, I started thinking it might work to say the elder son is being called to sacrifice for the sake of the younger son’s restoration. Like many of us “hard-core” Christians (you know: we types who read, or write, articles like this!), I have special sympathy for the elder son. It really does seem like he is put upon. He is, by his own testimony and his father’s confirmation, reliable, responsible and hardworking. And suddenly he is being asked to go in to an extravagant party for a squandering brother who is none of these things. He is being asked to celebrate this one who has not simply been given a second chance, but has been showered with riches —a ring, a robe, new sandals, a fatted calf, a party. When the elder son accuses his father of acting unjustly by honoring “this son of his” and giving nothing to him (who is certainly more worthy), the elder son couldn’t be more correct. And the father doesn’t even try to argue back. What can he say? About the only speech I can imagine him giving, effectively, is one about the importance of making sacrifices. “Let me tell you something, son,” he might have said. “I know something about how this world works. And I’m here to tell you that this is one way you need to start stepping up to the plate, as my eldest. You need to start making more sacrifices, instead of asking for rewards. Look at all the sacrifices I’ve made —giving up half of what I own before I’m even dead, watching by the window every day, hoping against hope that your brother will return. Swallowing my pride and running out to meet him. This is the kind of thing the leaders of families need to do if we are going to hold everything and everyone together. I hope you will give serious consideration to following in my footsteps and making sacrifices yourself. Suck it up and come into the party, son —for the sake of family, for the sake of love.”
Such a speech, offered by the father, would have lent a kind of nice balance to the story. The younger son gets too much, but the older son gets too little. So some zero-sum quantity of blessing is, somewhere, logically retained. The problem is, of course, that this is not the speech the father actually gives. There it was, right in front of him, the opportunity to insert a significant bit of cross. “Sacrifice yourself, son. So your brother can be restored.” But the father does not even come close. He does not ask the elder son to sacrifice. He does not think in terms of burden, or sacrifice, at all. “My son,” he says instead, “I am always with you, and you are always with me. Don’t you realize that everything I have is yours?”
What in the world is this response? What is the elder son supposed to do with it? It seems to be made in the order of grace, rather than the order of justice. It seems to ignore not only the struggles of the elder son, but the genuine sacrifices the father himself has made. But it doesn’t seem like the father is thinking in such terms at all. The father, in fact, resists thinking sacrificially. He is all about joy; all about celebration; all about being together; all about being-with.
To be with. That’s what the father wants. That’s why he runs out, and runs a far distance, and meets his younger son. Only to be with; all else falls by the wayside. And that’s why he leaves the very party he is so excited about. He realizes the older son is not present, and wants to be with him. And so he begs his son to come in. This
father who is so joyous, this father whom we would probably send to a therapist to deal with his boundary issues, is not actually all over the map in his demonstrations of love. He is excessive, but he is also very focused. He is not simply with everyone, in a general, warm and fuzzy kind of way. He wants, on the contrary, to be with two very particular people: his younger son, who has gone away and come back, and his older son, who has not yet come in. And the father is relentless, and vulnerable, and even embarrassing, in what he does to be with these two.
The story might be easier on us if the father were a little less fatherly in his focus. You know how fathers and mothers are. Always fixated on their kids, always looking for a call or an email. Always hoping for more time, for a few more seconds of intimate connection. Always watching the horizon, listening for a key in the door, hoping for a return home or an arrival at the party. This persistent desire to be with can be kind of annoying, when you’re the kid. Especially when you’re a grown-up kid who is acting responsibly and wants to do your part. It would be a lot easier if the father in the story were less of a parent and more like the Great Gatsby. You remember Gatsby. The star of the book all of us read in English class, at some point or another. Gatsby knew how to throw a great party. He threw great parties all the time. He called for fatted calves to be slain, and for wine to be poured. He wanted everyone to celebrate. Everyone in general. Everyone he could get. He didn’t ever remember exactly who had come to his parties, or even who had been invited, exactly. The point is: anyone who showed up was welcome to come and enjoy the excess he provided.
Maybe the Great Gatsby helps us imagine what God would look like without a cross. A God without any need to be with anyone in particular; a generous, benevolent God who opens her arms wide with the invitation, “come one, come all.” A God who invites us to the party, but leaves it to us to decide whether we will show up or not.
Poet Christian Wiman writes that such a wide-open understanding of God is appealing, but ultimately not very satisfying. He talks about “the fog of God,” the experience many people have of feeling vaguely loved with glimpses here and there of how they are in some sense “at one” with the universe. Something that comes to mind, along these lines, is Paul Tillich’s well-known sermon, “You are Accepted.” “Accept the fact that you are accepted,” Tillich instructs us, and of course there is some consolation in this.1 There’s a party to go to, and we are welcome, and we can show up if we want to. But the parable in Luke 15 pushes matters beyond such supersized generosity and generalized niceties. If we don’t show up at the party, it warns us, we will be sought out. And when we do return home, we will not be permitted to slip quietly and inconspicuously into a place long ago set up for us at the table. On the contrary, there will be attention drawn to us! There will be robes put on us, and food prepared for us, and wine poured out in celebration of new life. There will be a joyful feast in the kingdom of the father’s estate because this one has been lost, and now is found. It will be an occasion when everyone who shows up will be fed, but particular ones will be called to be present.
Wiman notes that modern conceptions of God are “mystical and valuable,” but tend to portray God as distant. It is our confession of Christ, he says, that reminds us God is near; that God seeks us out as particular individuals and goads us to behave in particular ways. If the “God of the fog” is unsatisfying, Wiman notices, the God known in Christ is at times quite aggravating. “Christ,” he says, “is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.”2
It strikes me that the father is pretty ungodly, if being godly means keeping one’s distance and letting everyone come to you. The father has the habit of being a little too eager, a little too transparent, a little too close. He might even be seen as degrading himself, allowing the younger son to take his inheritance, then being overly vulnerable when he runs out calling for a party; and finally when he begs the elder son to please come on in. The elder son seems to find the behavior of his father to be inappropriate and distasteful, and maybe we do, too.
This is where the cross is, I think, in the parable. It is in the father holding nothing back from his sons. It is in the father risking being demeaned for the sake of these two particular beloved ones. And maybe most of all it is in the father not even considering that he might be making a sacrifice. As it says in Hebrews 12:2: “Jesus, for the sake of the joy that was before him, endured the cross, despising its shame.” That seems to be the father to a T.
My husband Bill gave my brother Mark a framed photograph for Christmas. It is a picture Bill took of my brother’s 7-year-old son, Oscar, running down the sidewalk toward his father. Oscar is running down the sidewalk with an expression of the purest joy on his face. And in the foreground of the picture, you see only my brother’s hand, extended and open. He is facing Oscar, waiting to receive him.
The God of our imagination waits patiently for us to run to him, ever ready to receive, ever ready to bless. But this God is too foggy, too distant, too predictable, too respectable. The God we see in Luke 15, by contrast, is the God we know in Jesus Christ. This God cannot wait to receive us, and so comes running toward us. This God is running down the sidewalk even now, a look of joy and expectation on God’s face, eager to be embraced. God runs out to the pathway to meet the younger son; God runs out of the party in search of the elder. I know that there is more to understanding the cross than this, but I propose this as a start. I propose the cross begins with God’s exhilarated, joyous, ungodly running to meet and to find us. And I think it continues with a running toward us that keeps on and keeps on even when we pull our hands back, even when we refuse to go in to the party, even when we deny and wish dead; even when we crucify.
In this Lenten season, may we be graced with the capacity to receive the God who never stops running to meet us. May we be subject to the work of the Spirit as we rethink the cross in ways that revel in the ungodly clarity of God’s love.
1 Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” Chapter 19 of “The Shaking of the Foundations.” Wipf & Stock, 2012.
2 Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” Page 119, Kindle edition. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.
Editor’s note: This article originated as a sermon delivered at the “Confronting the Cross” conference at Montreat Conference Center in January.
CYNTHIA L. RIGBY is the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she has taught theology since 1995. She is the author of “The Promotion of Social Righteousness” and is currently writing “Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine.”