What's Tony Thinking

The International League of the Guilty, Further Thoughts


In my previous post I reviewed the past week’s session of the UnApologetic webinar in which we discussed Francis Spufford’s chapter on the church, “The International League of the Guilty.”

Spufford says what distinguishes the church is not our superior virtue, but our common awareness of our need for grace, or if you prefer, forgiveness and liberation. What he calls the HPtFtU, the human propensity to f-things up, is universal. It afflicts us all.

But wait a minute . . . is that really true? What about the truly good, the truly brave, the truly decent? Surely, not everyone is marred by the HPtFtU? We may be thinking of a particularly admirable person who we simply cannot imagine is capable of f-ups, meanness, or self-centeredness. Or we may be thinking of, gosh, ourselves. “I’m a good person,” we protest. “I haven’t been deceitful or malicious, harmed innocent life, wasted life’s blessings or wished ill upon another.”

To which we might say, yes, on a comparative scale you are pretty good, not at all like, say Ted Cruz. But we might add that there’s more than one way to be lost, more than one way to f-up.

The gospel lesson for this Sunday is the well-known parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). You know this story. A son, in effect wishing his father dead, and his inheritance already in his grasp, is given that inheritance outright by said father. With this wad of cash in hand, he heads off to have a good time or what he thinks will be a good time. It works until it doesn’t, at which point the young man, having hit a smelly, sour bottom decides to head home and ask to be taken in again, but as a servant.

Seeing his wayward son from a distance, the old man runs down the road, robes flapping, sandals slapping, to embrace his son, “who was lost but now is found.” He throws an extravagant party to welcome the boy home again, and as a son not a servant.

The common title, “the parable of the prodigal son” may lead us to think that’s it. But it’s not. There is another son. There is, cue stormy music, the elder brother. While his sibling was off squandering the family estate, this one, the elder brother, was hard at the task of working the farm, staying at his father’s side and being a responsible dude.

When said elder brother gets home, after another sweaty day in the fields, he finds a joyous party for his neer-do-well brother in full tilt. He is not happy. He stands outside the party, fuming. Shortly, he will give the old man a piece of his mind.

Truth is, grace is offensive, just “not right.”

Many of us think of ourselves as good, faithful, hard-working, dutiful and generally doing the right thing. Not only do we think that, it’s true. (Well, there was that, but memory has a way of deleting certain things). But, in his own way, the elder brother was also lost, except his particular form of lostness is hard to spot because it is socially sanctioned. Welcoming his profligate brother home with open arms? He wasn’t feeling it.

Here’s a bit from my friend, Jason Micheli on all this,

“Just about every one of you could tell a story . . . about outstanding grievances, about someone who if you saw their name on the invite list you’d say ‘no thanks’ and turn back the other way, about someone who hurt you, or broke something in your life, or took something from you that can never be given back.”

That is, most everyone of us can relate to that elder brother, whose lostness was different but just as real. He never left Dad but was as far from the the parental love and joy as his sibling had been.

Yes, grace/ forgiveness are offensive. We think people should get what they deserve, like Ted Cruz. But God doesn’t give us what we deserve. God is gracious. Grace for wayward prodigals, and grace too for grumpy elder siblings.

What the elder brother embodies is also is a form of the HPtFtU, one which as I say, is generally harder to spot because it is law-abiding and dutiful, yet no less destructive and painful.

As the prophet Isaiah put it, “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways.” Thanks be to God for that.





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