What happens after you die?
Americans are more inconsistent and all over the map on life after death than well meant comments at a funeral might reveal.
- Many who are vaguely spiritual or religious hold to the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. “Good people” go to heaven when they die. Definitions of precisely what constitutes”good people” vary. Hell or any kind of afterlife hazard may be a possibility for the worst. Others might embrace annihilation.
- Others will adopt a more skeptical view that wavers between “the big sleep” and the possibility of something good after death. Former CRC pastor John Suk offers such a view.
- Religious particularists of various kinds propose a multiplicity of arguments such as heaven or bliss or resurrection for those faithful to their sect and judgment for all others or some version of cycles of reincarnation until someone achieves release.
Integral to many of these ideas is an evaluation of one’s moral conduct either by a judging God or gods or by an impersonal force expressed in something like karma.
Jesus and the basis of our future hope
Over the last number of weeks we’ve been look at passages found in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is commenting on people’s spiritual and moral assumptions.
- Can we evaluate God’s regard of us by favorable or unfavorable circumstance?
- “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
In many of these exchanges Jesus challenges ancient and contemporary assumptions about morality, our ability to evaluate ourselves and secure for ourselves the outcomes we desire. According to Jesus the common assumptions we embrace are often wrong and biased. He invites us to think about these things in a new way.
Most Favored Parable
Among the stories Jesus told one of the favorites is The Prodigal Son. Most people associate the parable with Jesus’ radical message of inclusion yet few people understand the entire story and the radical ideas Jesus conveys regarding right and wrong and life after death.
The context of the story is the first century Jewish culture war going on around Jesus. Then, as now, people where struggling to locate Jesus in their interpretive frameworks. He drew large crowds by his teaching and miracles yet his religion and politics didn’t fall into line precisely enough with any of the factions. In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 15 Luke notes that Jesus “ate with tax collectors and sinners”. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were unhappy with this why?
Eating with someone, especially in a context where issues of food, morality and ceremonial purity communicated a degree of acceptance and a willingness of association. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were trying to conduct a peaceful resistance to the Roman imperial occupation and the corruption of their culture by the broader Greek culture. If you were to ask a Pharisee or someone concerned with people’s observance of the law of Moses they would complain that Roman power, money and cultural influence were dissolving the fabric of their community, their language and national heritage and corrupting the morals of the youth. You men would be tempted to participate in the tax farming efforts of the Romans and young women lured into the sex trade. Didn’t Jesus care about the morals of his own nationality?
Unlike some of the more violent groups resisting the Roman occupation and Greek cultural invasion the Pharisees used not swords and knives to resist but moral and social power. Social and family pressure were effective ways of trying to preserve their ethnic, cultural and religious heritage. Those leading the Jewish culture war against the Romans naturally hoped that Jesus would visibly back their efforts at peaceful resistance by holding the line against accommodators and collaborators. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners wasn’t he showing that he was soft on the Roman occupation and the corruptive and corrosive violation of their ethnic identity and culture?
In response to this Jesus told three stories: the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son. As we’ll see the story of “the lost son” is really about two sons and in the end Jesus leaves us to ponder the question “which son is lost and why?”
The Selfish Son
The story begins with a social situation of unthinkable offense. A wealthy man had two sons. The youngest of the sons comes to his father one day and demands his inheritance. This is naturally an unthinkable request. One receives their inheritance upon the death of their parents so in a sense what this son is saying to his father is “I want your stuff but I don’t want you.”
Anyone listening to this story would understand what the father ought to do. He should reinforce the moral order by beating his son for making such a request. This son has demonstrated that he doesn’t care for his father, his family, his village, his religions, his God or his people. He only cares about himself.
To the utter shock and horror of the village the father agrees to the son’s request. This action itself would have been regarded as moral failure. Not only has the father not made an example of his son for the moral instruction of others, but by liquidating the assets he likely causes a recession in the economy of the village. This moral failure of the father and the son likely cause suffering and economic hardship in the village.
The son takes his new found wealth and goes off to a far country where he, instead of investing it to build an estate and fortune for himself blows it.
After the younger son has blown all of his money a famine comes into the land and he is reduced to begging. He has to hire himself out to a Gentile at such poor wages that he covets the food fed to the pigs.
By the details of this story Jesus implicitly connects the “tax collectors and sinners” that he is eating with, the ones who the Pharisees and teachers of the law see as “the problems” to the younger son. Jesus shows that he does value their national and religious heritage and that he is well aware of the moral failures of his friends and the ways that they have been victimized by the Gentiles and relegated to what would be a terrible fate for someone raised a Jew. What Jewish girl would be feel proud about being found doing sexual service to Roman soldiers by her devout parents? What Jewish boy would be proud of selling out he family and kinship ties to find money to satisfy Roman demands for taxes? Jesus is not blind to the fault that his friends bear in their familial and moral catastrophe but neither is he blind to their plight and prison they have fallen into.
The Controversial Turn
In the story the fallen son “comes to himself”, appreciates the fact his poor choices have placed him in this mess. He then hatches a plan to save himself from this mess he’s now in by appealing to the mercy of his father and asking to work his way back into his family’s good graces.
Many readers of this story imagine that this selfish son has “come to his senses” and has now plotted for himself a logical rescue. This fits into a narrative of self-salvation which our culture esteems. Surely what is required to save our selves morally and economically is self discipline and a finding a savvy way of re-establishing our self esteem and earning the regard of others through moral self-discipline.
I began this process talking about our common regard for those who are good, moral and deserve afterlife reward. People who have stumbled and fallen but who through a moral transformation and renewed self-discipline earn the respect and approval of their piers surely would be counted among those who God approves of. Isn’t that right?
I believe there are clues in Jesus’ telling of the story that reveal that the younger son’s change of heart is just as self-serving as the offensive request that landed him in the pig pen. His motivation to ask his father for a job and asking his father for his inheritance is exactly the same. He still doesn’t care for his father. He still wants his father’s stuff more than he wants relationship with his father. Initially he used his relationship with his father as a means by which to claim his inheritance. Now he’ll use his relationship with his father, even after he betrayed that relationship, to ask for a job. He implies that through hard work and determination he can somehow restore what was lost but any astute accountant will likely vouch that no amount of day laboring for his father will every make up for the losses suffered by his father and the village. The son cannot make up for what he did economically. We like to imagine that “he means well” and in our habit of soft moral accounting we with our own biases want to assert “that should be enough”.
If you would, however, look at it from the point of view of the villagers, the older brother and the Pharisees and teachers of the law the answer would be “no, he can never restore what was lost, not in a thousand years! The harm that he has done cannot be undone by human effort” and they would be right.
Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar who has worked on this parable in numerous books also asserts that Jesus puts a clue into the mouth of the younger son in the pig pen that should indicate that his heart is not right. The younger son quotes Exodus 10 when he concocts his scheme.
Exodus 10:13–20 (NET)
13 So Moses extended his staff over the land of Egypt, and then the Lord brought an east wind on the land all that day and all night. The morning came, and the east wind had brought up the locusts! 14 The locusts went up over all the land of Egypt and settled down in all the territory of Egypt. It was very severe; there had been no locusts like them before, nor will there be such ever again.15 They covered the surface of all the ground, so that the ground became dark with them, and they ate all the vegetation of the ground and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Nothing green remained on the trees or on anything that grew in the fields throughout the whole land of Egypt. 16 Then Pharaoh quickly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you!17 So now, forgive my sin this time only, and pray to the Lord your God that he would only take this death away from me.” 18 Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the Lord, 19 and the Lord turned a very strong west wind, and it picked up the locusts and blew them into the Red Sea. Not one locust remained in all the territory of Egypt. 20 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not release the Israelites.
By putting the words of obviously faithless and self-serving Pharaoh into the mouth of the younger son Bailey believes Jesus is signally that even the heart of the younger son still isn’t right. Bailey believes that Jesus’ audience of Bible scholars would not have missed this point. Again, Jesus is, in his association with the “tax collectors and sinners” does not fail to notice that their desire to be with Jesus might not simply be a self-serving way of mitigating the social and familial cost that they have incurred by making their decisions to collaborate with their national enemies and betray their familial ties.
Embracing the Undeserving Son
The son, now armed with his self-saving scheme heads back to his father’s home. The father, we learn, has never forgotten or forsaken his son. He has kept watch for him out of his desire to protect his son from the moral justice of the rest of the village. Everyone would have understood that the son’s actions have done irreparable harm to the village and that the village elders would not permit the return of the son. The father knows this and so he keeps watch. Upon seeing his son he sprints out to meet him before the alarm would be raised alerting the village elders. He runs out to embrace and protect his son clothing him in his own robe, his own ring, his sign of authority, and sandals for his feet so that he’s no longer a beggar. Neither does he allow his son to finish his foolish, self-serving speech. He calls for a banquet.
Luke, Jesus, Hell and Parties
It’s important to pause here to remember some things about Jesus’ teaching and imagery especially picked up by Luke. As we’ve seen in past weeks Jesus locates his stories in the broader drama of God’s relationship with us in his search for glory. Parties for Jesus are images of the celebration when God finally realizes what he’s desired all along from his creation as seen in Isaiah 5:1-7 and Isaiah 25:6-8. He claims that his work anticipates a party in which the glory of the world will be harvested as in Isaiah 60 and they will celebrate God’s goodness without interruption or disturbance. Not all will participate in that party. Some will want to come it but be barred by a closed door. Outside the party will be darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The party for the younger, rebellious son is just another of these “end of the world” parties. The younger son does not deserve the party, but it is the will of the father to throw. We are left to ponder the moral qualification of the son. The only reason he seems to be at the party is because he came home, even if his motives were wrong. We are left to ponder what will change the heart of the son. It would seem to me that his heart is not changed by his self-serving desperation in the pig pen, but rather by the unfathomable love shown by his father to him in the father’s rescue of him from judgment and embrace of him as son, regardless of his ability and even motivation to undo the harm he had done. What truly changes the younger son is not his own hunger, but his father’s generosity. What we are finally looking for is not simply the upgrade of the younger son’s food supply, but the change in the son to actually love and esteem his father for who he is, for how good he is, and for his love that is overflowing.
Jesus, in a very subtle way, suggests to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, that the meals he is sharing with the sinners and tax collectors is a meal that anticipates the banquet of his Father in Heaven at the end of the world. Jesus is noting that the sinners aren’t at the table because they qualify by their moral performance nor even their heart condition, but rather by the mercy of the Father for his children and his desire that they be together. These sinners, like the younger son, have come and Jesus, like the father, is trying to shelter his rebellious children from the judgment of the village elders, now Pharisees and teachers of the law.
The Older Son
Now we turn to the other son, the dutiful son, the son who did not tell the father “I want your stuff but I don’t want you.” He in fact didn’t, up until this point, tell his father anything.
Just as the younger son went far away, the older son is now far off in a field. He like his younger brother came near the house. The father didn’t need to keep watch for him. The older brother feared no judgment from the village elders.
The brother inquires as to the party and learns from the servant what has happened and he is angry.
The Father Goes Out a Second Time
The father now goes out to seek the elder brother. Now we are gripped by the question of “which son is lost?” The woman swept for the lost coin. The shepherd searched for the lost sheep. Now the father goes out to seek his newly lost eldest son.
His son, now addresses his father in as rebellious a way as his younger brother had at the beginning of the story. “Look” he says. Again, in that culture such an address should surely have caused a beating. The father listens instead, just as he did before.
The elder brother launches into a self-justifying speech complaining of the injustice of the father. The father has been unfair. The father is unjust. The father should is too soft and too generous and his generosity and patience have ruined the world.
The father now explains his heart to his son. The father allows the elders son to see the internal logic of his heart in a way the younger brother was not offered. “all that I have is yours…” the father declares. “won’t you celebrate?”
What this reveals is that the older brother was not very different from his younger sibling. He too loved his father’s goods more than his father. He just had a much more savvy and patient way of collecting his things. When it came right down to it, however, he was no different.
Open Ended Parable
The story is left open ended. Which son is lost? Does either son qualify morally for inclusion into the party?
Dallas Willard was reported to have been asked “who gets to go to heaven” and he answered “anyone who can stand it.”
Here in Luke 15 Jesus helps make sense of Luke 13 and the story of the Narrow Door along with a good many other parables he tells in this portion of the Gospel of Luke. The party at the end of the world makes no sense apart from the host. It will be all about him. There will be no wedding crashers. It’s food will be poison and its dancing torture for those who care for themselves and not for Him.
In this parable Jesus exposes the Pharisees and the teachers of the law to be elder brothers who have simply been more savvy at trying to get out of God what they wanted than their younger siblings who have, to their own misery, tried to their own misery worked the Romans and the Greeks.
To all of the posturing about “what happens after you die” and the ideas of qualifying for “heaven” Jesus makes the horrendous observation that no one is “good enough” and that we are all self-seeking self-saviors. We just try to get what we want in different ways. Roman Tax collectors and Roman tax resisters are two sides of the same coin. Jesus comes to all of them and invites them to dinner. Will we want to stay for something other than the food?
What we see in the father’s actions is his son’s costly love. He runs out to protect his rebellious son seeking to win him by love. In a strange way the younger son’s misery puts him on the road back home even motivated by selfishness but its the generous love of the father that can change his heart.
As we see by the older brother its the generosity of the father’s heart that exposes the elder brother to be no morally different than his younger brother. Noting they are the same doesn’t take away from the overt rebellion or damage caused by the younger brother, but it does show that neither qualify for the party, but are welcomed if they can tolerate it.
The parable is left unfinished. What will the sons do? Will both be lost? Will the generosity of the party drive the younger brother from the party? Will his pride make the father’s fattened calf taste offensive? Will he join the older brother outside, not together? Will they be outside the party and enemies of each other?
What we hope for from the younger son is that he actually begin to look more like the older brother but with a different heart. That he serve his father now not out of cleverly playing the long game to cash in, but joyfully seeking the joy of his father and the flourishing of his estate.
Isn’t this the picture that Jesus invites us into? Isn’t this the question he asks?
The meal he now sets before us is the meal he sets before sinners and tax collectors. Will you come to the table?
The meal he sets before us is the fattened calf or the lamb given for us. Will we like the elder brother set ourselves apart and refuse to make peace with the father by making peace with our brothers and sisters? Will we enter the party?
It is a love feast for the joy of the father at the expense of our pride and demand that we earn it. Will you come?