A Great Movie Never Filmed

As a Bible teacher, I love to teach about and from the Bible. I love to dissect complex truths and present them with simple words so people can understand.

In my early ministry Paul’s epistles were my favorite because they present truth in a logical manner. In later years I have enjoyed helping students appreciate the Bible as great literature. I didn’t say the Bible was just literature, but that it is great literature.

No matter your favorite genre, whether presented in the pages of a book or on the large screen or small screen, chances are you can discover its roots in the Bible.

If you like romance, try Ruth or Esther for a good chick flick. If you want epic warfare, there’s plenty of that in the older testament and The Revelation. Enjoy poetry? The Psalms and many of the prophets’ sermons were composed by consummate wordsmiths. If you are a thinker and like philosophy, try Ecclesiastes or Job to help answer the riddle of life.

Did I hear you ask, “Where’s the comedy?” Satire drips from lips of several biblical characters, but for a real belly laugh consider these words describing a renegade prophet: “And Balaam rose up in the morning and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. … And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside …” (Numbers 22:21, 23, kjv). Here we meet a talking donkey who understood the perilous situation better than the fool on his back.

We all enjoy a good drama, especially those that drain salty water from our eyes. I believe one of the greatest dramatic short stories ever written is recorded in Luke 15. We tend to call it the story of the prodigal son, but this is not his story nor is he the leading character. Rather this is the story about a compassionate, patient father whose love for his son can never be broken. There are only four characters in the story: a father, two brothers and a servant.

When I taught from this story at the Shepherds House several months ago, I challenged the men to help me make this story into a script for a movie. Here on the Front Porch Swing, let’s imagine we are producing a “made for television” movie based on this story. Let’s try to get inside the heads of the characters—to experience their emotions as the story unfolds.

What motivated the younger son to request his share of the inheritance while his father was still living? Was there sibling rivalry making home unbearable? Or was he simply tired of the dirty work of managing a farm? Did he have itching feet to explore the world—to see if the grass might really greener beyond the fences?

How might such a crude, insensitive request impact the father? Were tears streaking the father’s face as he watched his youngest disappear on the horizon? It’s your movie, so you decide.

Was the son whistling as he skipped down the path toward freedom? Did he pause to look back one last time to see if dad was still on the porch? Perhaps the jingle of the money in his pockets was music to his ears. As miles passed and borders were crossed, did he feel exhilarated in his new adventure?

Entering the big city with all the new sights and smells, did he check into the best hotel and spend the night out on the town? What kind of new acquaintances did he make, and what drew them to become his friends?

Meanwhile back at the home ranch there is an empty place at the table and a hole in the father’s heart. A cloud of grief filled every room. Imagine the old father kneeling by his bed praying for his son night after night, and wetting his pillow with tears.

Out in the far country, the scene has changed for the young rebel. Drought has come, and the son soon expends all his inheritance in pursuit of his new life. Like his money, his friends are gone. So where is he sleeping tonight? Famine-like conditions make life miserable for this immigrant kid in the big city. And what is that strange, uncomfortable sensation in his midsection? Is this what they call “hunger”? Seeking employment for the first time in his life (and without a resume), he settles for herding pigs, unclean animals he didn’t have to deal with back on the homestead.

Finally, groveling with the pigs for sustenance, he “comes to himself” and says, “How many of my father’s hired hands have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” Consider those last lamenting words, “starving to death” and describe his physical appearance compared to the day he skipped down the road and out the front gate wearing the best sandals and robe.

The broken lad continues, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” Is that a true statement? Yes! He continues to refine his repentance speech, adding the line, “make me like one of your hired men.”

Then comes the moment when he leaves the pig pens behind, turns on his heel, and begins the long walk home. Back to his father. What is his emotional state now compared to the day he declared his freedom to be and do whatever he pleased? Night after dusty night he sleeps beside the path. Day after day he moves closer and closer to home; old familiar sights greet his eyes. Increasing shame weighs on his shoulders and drags at his feet.                  Early one morning, just like every other morning, the old father sits on the front porch watching, hoping–even imagining—his wayward son’s appearance down the pathway.

But this morning it is no daydream. It’s real. He sees the unmistakable figure of his young son plodding down the path. (Cue the dramatic music.) Filled with compassion and casting dignity to the wind, the old man pulls his robe high above his knees running as fast as his old legs can carry him.

This is the moment the son dreaded for days on end. But it is also the moment the father prayed for unceasingly. Two bodies meet on the path. Two hearts race with anticipation.

The son begins his recitation, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you and am no longer worthy to be called your son…” Before he can complete his speech and bargain for a second chance, the father throws his arms around his son, kissing his dirty cheeks. Fearing and deserving the worst, the son discovers grace—amazing grace. A ring is placed on the boy’s finger. It’s a statement. This is no hired hand or second-class citizen. This is my son.

The rest of the story seems almost anticlimactic. A celebration breaks out and carries into the night. Everybody is happy except one. The older brother has never physically left home, but has remained a stranger in his father’s house and a stranger to grace—trapped in his own resentment and self-righteousness.

This story has universal appeal.  Each of us is a prodigal. We have all sinned against God and are not worthy of being called His child. Truth be told, we deserve spiritual death and separation from God. We live our lives experiencing alienation from God and from one another. Sin has introduced words like guilt, shame and alienation into our vocabulary.

Consider these lessons from this story:

It’s not what we have done, but what we will do that matters.

It’s not where we have been, but where we are going.

It’s not why we left home, but where we belong.

It’s not how long we have stayed away from home, but how soon will we return.

It’s not how unworthy we are feeling, but how much our father loves us.

It’s not what we plan to say, but what our father will say to us.

It’s not what we deserve, but what our father offers: amazing grace.

Rhinestones or Diamonds?

If offered a diamond or a rhinestone as a gift, who would opt for a rhinestone?

Yes, both reflect light. Both are used in jewelry.

So why do we value one over the other?

In the book, God in His Own Image, I write about God’s grace and mercy. His grace is beyond amazing and His mercy immense. Everyone can fall in love with a God like that. Many of our traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs are focused on God’s mercy or grace.

We love to praise God for His softer attributes such as love, grace and mercy. In the process, however, I wonder if we have lost proper reverence for God? He is also holy and just, and will not excuse willful disobedience when we fail to do what we what He has commanded or choose to do what He has forbidden. Either way, it is called sin.

God commands us to love one another—even our enemies. He clearly directs us to pursue justice for the weak and vulnerable among us. Jesus summarized the commandments as loving God and loving other people. Loving is doing the right or proper thing.

We are also commanded to worship only God and to treat His name with respect. Idolatry is forbidden. We are commanded to speak truth (never lie), respect property (never steal), respect life (never murder) and honor marriage (no adultery).

Not one of us has kept all the commandments. Not one person, except Jesus, has never lied, envied, or spoken evil about another person. The apostle Paul summed it up neatly with the words, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We have missed the mark and have also broken the rules. Each one of us is guilty; we are condemned because there are consequences for our actions. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death.” That sounds pretty severe, doesn’t it?

Those are the rules. I didn’t write them or make them up. God did. He is the judge determining the sentence. He is just and righteous; He will not bend the rules. He is not a doting grandfather saying, “Boys will be boys” and excusing our actions. Even so, I wonder if we have treated God like that doting grandpa by thinking or saying, “God is too good, too loving and too kind to punish.”

A pastor who worries about offending sensitive ears may not come right out and verbally describe God as a kindly, soft-hearted grandfather. But if that same pastor never speaks about God’s holiness and judgment and refuses to teach about hell, doesn’t it amount to the same thing?

The attributes of the living God are not products in a supermarket. We really can’t pick or choose our favorite attributes about God to the neglect of others.

To do so is to create God in our image.

To do so is to worship an idol.

In Romans 11:22 Paul writes, “Note then the kindness and severity of God.” Did you catch that? God is both kind (gentle and loving) and severe. We hear so little about God’s severity today. Hell has essentially been deleted from our vocabulary. Have we created a “safe” god we can manage or “buddy up to”?

Yes, let’s continue to sing about and talk about God’s indescribable love. Let us sing about His incomparable grace. His grace is as amazing as John Newton described it in his wonderful hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton, who once dealt with human trafficking of African slaves, admitted in his own words that he was once “blind,” but by the grace of God gained his sight. He was once lost, but then miraculously found and rescued.

Newton never lost the wonder of God’s grace and mercy; nor should we. Let us sing and boast about God’s grace. But the very words grace and mercy have no meaning if God is not also holy and severe. If God does not judge sin, I don’t need His mercy. Because God is holy and just, I deserve death and hell and desperately need His mercy. Praise God for His mercy that spared me from His wrath and justice. Praise God for His grace that lifted me from the pit and canceled my debt and made me His child forever!

I love and praise God for His severity revealed in His righteous wrath, because it is God’s holiness and justice and righteousness that make His grace so amazing! His severity makes His kindness precious. His holiness and justice are like black velvet upon which His mercy and grace sparkle like diamonds in His light.

When we focus on God grace and mercy while neglecting His holiness and righteousness, we have made those indescribably precious attributes into cheap rhinestones, not the unimaginably costly diamonds they truly are.

Today we are offered nothing less than the unspeakable gift of God’s grace. Grace purchased with the most precious substance in the universe: the blood of Jesus Christ, freely given to save, redeem and restore us.

Never, never settle for a cheap substitute.