Flannery O’Connor, in her novel Wise Blood, describes an inner monologue of her character Hazel Motes. Hazel is remembering his grandfather, who was a preacher. As the idea that, for every sinner, Jesus would have died “ten million deaths” haunts him, Motes comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t need any such thing. O’Connor writes:
“There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”
In one sentence, O’Connor summarizes the problem with “religion.” Many of us have been taught that there are primarily two ways to live: our own way (rebellion) and God’s way. But, as the parable of the prodigal son(s) (Luke 15:11-32) reminds us, there are actually three ways to live, and two ways to run from God.
Many of the treatments of this parable I heard growing up focused on identifying primarily with the younger brother who squanders his inheritance (obtained prematurely, which communicated to the father that the son wished him dead and had no love for him other than what he could get from the father) on “reckless living,” and how good the father was in taking him back, and see, there’s nothing you can to that God won’t take you back.
While that’s true, it’s not all. There are two brothers. When the father throws a party for his lost son’s return, the older brother is not happy. In fact, he says to the father: “but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). The older brother makes it clear that he too, had no real love for the father other than what he could get from him. Except, his path was not rebellion but obedience. He felt that because of his obedience, he was entitled.
I wonder how many of us consciously or unconsciously think of God this same way? We “go to church,” do our bible study and we don’t drink, we don’t smoke and we don’t go with girls who do, so God is obligated to give us a good life? How many of us believe that because we obey God, He accepts us?
Motes’ thoughts betray that there is another way to run from God other than flat-out rebellion; perhaps a more sinister way. If we “live good lives,” why do we need a savior? If we feel like we avoid sin, then we can avoid our need for a savior.
But the Gospel reminds us that there is nothing we can do to come to God on our own. We are saved by grace alone. If this doesn’t seem scandalous, it’s because we don’t get it yet. Grace should shock us. Does it?
- Read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor