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.

Does God Grade on The Curve?

Last week, in the classic Peanuts comic strip reruns, Linus and Charlie Brown are deeply involved in a theological question. Linus asks Charlie if God will grade us on a percentage or a curve after we die. Charlie responds with confidence, “On a curve naturally.” Linus questions Charlie’s confidence to which the latter responds, “I’m always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.”

Charlie Brown’s response reflects the opinion of many people today. I emphasize the word opinion because that is exactly what it is whenever people try to figure out God on their own terms. It usually ends up in the same place: We imagine Him to be like us and think like us.

We have been created in God’s image, and we try to return the favor by creating God in our image. None of us, however, not even the greatest minds, can accurately describe God. Unless God reveals Himself to us, we will fail to understand Him. Note that I use the personal pronoun “Him” with a capital H. That is because I believe God has introduced Himself to us in the Bible. God is a Person, not an influence or part of the creation. He is transcendent, which is another way of saying He is out of this world. He is unique and beyond human comprehension. Yet He is also personal. He loves us and became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.

But let’s return for a moment to Linus’ honest question about God grading on a curve. Like Charlie Brown, many people prefer that kind of God. They don’t want a God who is righteous—always doing everything by the book and never bending the rules. In their estimation, that kind of God would be too harsh to be good.

The point of today’s visit on the Front Porch Swing boils down to this: How can God be good if He condemns a person to Hell? To be good, some believe God must grade on the curve. He should look at our good intentions, rather than our words or deeds. He should (if He is really good) realize how difficult it is to never do the wrong thing or always do the right thing. Like an elderly benevolent professor, God should grade us on the curve. Perhaps that is what you believe as well. But let’s think about that.

Would an earthly judge be considered good if they ignored the very laws they had sworn to uphold? Would they be a good judge if they excused a convicted murderer, just because he had also done good things in the community—maybe donating to local charities or volunteering at the public library? If a judge rendered sentences based on the reasoning that a person’s good deeds justified or excused an act of pre-meditated murder, would you respect that judge? Would they be a “just” judge if they put a murderer back on the streets? Of course not! We want the judge to carry out justice, to punish the convicted felon, not to release him just because he had also done good things.

So why would we expect anything less from God? If He is the supreme judge and righteous (always doing what is right), shouldn’t He apply the Law consistently? To expect God to bend the rules and grade on the curve is to make Him unrighteous and unholy. He would not be good. He would be evil.

I illustrate with an extreme example. Would God be good if He judged Hitler based his supposed positive motivations? Hitler wanted to raise Germany out of the depressive results of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. His nation had been so utterly broken by the terms of that treaty that it seemed she would never rise again. Hitler’s methods and his motivations were clearly evil. Hitler’s hellish attempt to destroy the entire Jewish race and to create a united Europe under the authority of Germany was incalculably evil—and probably satanic. But what about his “good intentions” to rebuild his broken nation?

Should God judge Hitler on the curve and give him less than the F he deserves? Of course not! That wouldn’t be fair or just.

So why should God judge me any less fairly? I too am a law breaker—even though I have never robbed, raped, or murdered. But have I hated and lusted? I certainly have. Have I lied to save my own skin? Guilty as charged. According to the Book, I am guilty. I am a sinner deserving separation from God both here-and-now and for eternity. That is what the Law requires. God, the judge, will not grade me on the curve for the bad things I haven’t done or for the good things I have done. Serving as a pastor for over 45 years won’t earn one point on the final exam. I deserve a failing grade. I deserve death and separation from God forever. I deserve Hell, just like Hitler.

So if God never grades on the curve and if everybody is a sinner, a lawbreaker deserving death and hell, how can I ever hope to enter heaven? One thing is certain; Peter won’t be standing there jangling his keys and asking me what I have done to deserve entrance. There won’t be a cosmic scale there to see if my good deeds outweigh bad behavior. I deserve to hear the righteous Judge say, “He is guilty. Send him away where he deserves to live forever in hell.”

Okay, that sounds harsh. Even in my ears. But that’s also the way it is. I didn’t write the book nor can I adjust the Law to suit my fancy. But I can appeal to God’s mercy and grace. I can admit my guilt and repent or turn away from trying to stack up brownie points. I can and have placed my faith and complete confidence in the fact Jesus died in my place and paid my debt in full. The sentence against me has been served; the Law has been satisfied. The Judge can remain just and righteous when He pronounces me innocent of all charges against me and goes a step further by pronouncing me as righteous as His Son who paid my debt.

That is the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. That is biblical truth.

Here’s the bottom line: God cannot be good or remain good by ignoring or bending the rules. But He was good and perfectly righteous when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to cancel the debt that I owe by serving the entire death sentence in my place. Now that is the most amazing good deed possible!

Sorry, Charlie Brown, God doesn’t grade on the curve, and really, I’m glad about that. Why? Because He can only be good if He is also just. He can only remain just if He enforces the Law faithfully and fairly. And somehow, in the wonder of His mercy, He has found a way for this failing student to pass the test and enter into His heaven.

That’s Reality with a capital “R.”

That’s also Grace with a capital “G.”