This revised understanding of the meaning of "prodigal" opens up Keller's book title as well, as we understand that Keller wants to clue us in to the "wastefulness" of God. At first this notion perhaps comes across as blasphemous. But as Keller expounds on the story of the Prodigal Son, highlighting Christ's audience, Christ's character, and the overly generous love of the father, it becomes clear that God is "wasteful" in his love, at least in the eyes of the world. The Pharisees couldn't understand how Jesus wasted his love and attention on the sinners and tax collectors. Such a message is just as important for us today, as we likewise horde the love and forgiveness of God which we believe we have obtained through our merit, refusing to dispense any of it to those who we perceive to be less than us.
After thinking about the question for a bit, I concluded that there is a slim middle ground for giving like God. If one is licentious, they won't be giving freely for the sake of others. The younger brother in the story of the "Prodigal Son" gave of his money to others, but only as a means for obtaining his own pleasure and fulfillment. Though he gave, his giving was empty, as both his enjoyment and the enjoyment of his benefactors disappeared when his wealth was spent. These relationships were empty and meaningless and dissipated as quickly as they had been formed.
But giving of oneself from the other end of the spectrum isn't better. When one gives as an older brother, they are giving from a position of merit. They don't give freely, but rather give to those whom they deem worthy of their charity. In that sense, charity is no longer charity, but meritorious earnings. In this way, a moralist's giving is fraught with similar emptiness as the giving of one who is licentious. Relationships are just as meaningless on a moralistic system, as seen in the older brother's willingness to leave his younger brother stranded, without a home, and without forgiveness. To a moralist, brotherhood means nothing if your brother doesn't merit your help. Likewise, the older brother's personal enjoyment was tied to his system of merit. He could enjoy his position in the father's household so long as he was able to understand that his hard work and merit warranted his sonship and his inheritance. But when he saw the father forgive the undeserving younger brother, the older brother's world came crashing down and he could no longer enjoy his sonship. He recognized that all his hard work and persistence - the very actions which allowed him to value himself and assure his high standing - meant very little to his father. What was meaningful to the older brother was not the status of sonship or the love of the father, but his own good deeds.
In light of this juxtaposition between the emptiness of giving in a licentious system versus a moralistic system, I want to explore what it means to give rightly - to give in a Christ-based system.
Those Like Us:
In the mid-1900's, as schools began to desegregate in the United States, a phenomenon known as white flight began. In the eyes of many in the white majority, schools became "corrupted" by minorities, so the wealthier families, usually white, fled to the suburbs. In the suburbs, middle class and wealthy white folk surrounded themselves with those who were just like them.
It's easy to look back at our ancestors and critique them for their brazen racism, though we do the same as them today. We do it with our gated communities, our move to better school districts, the places we choose to visit or avoid, our homeschooling, and our Christian schooling. Unfortunately, we even do this with our churches. As Martin Luther King Jr. I believe rightly stated, Sunday mornings at 11 are the most segregated hour in America. We form our lives around those who are like us, in almost every aspect we can control. We constantly move up to live with better people - people like us - leaving the others behind or outside. We surround ourselves with people who are just like us. Now perhaps some of us have good reasons for doing what we do. Maybe some of us live with those like us, but make incursions into the lives of others in need. However, I've come to find that quite often our mercy, like our communities, is an indicator of where our hearts usually lie. If we are only or mostly loving people who are just like us, we likely have some glaring deficiencies in our understanding and administration of love and grace.
Take for example two different cases with which I was involved on my church's diaconate. One individual was a white man from our church who I didn't know very well. He was having significant marital and financial struggles. The financial struggles were so significant that the diaconate was looking at helping him with his mortgage for a time. The other case was a poor, single (divorced), minority woman with children who was living in some dilapidated apartment complex, and was coming to the church for help with rent.
My feelings for the man throughout our assistance were empathetic. As a Christian, church-going, married man who could be capsized by unemployment, marital issues, or a health problem at any time, I understood this man's plight. I didn't really question who was at fault in the marital issues, why there was such a significant financial dilemma, etc. This man was like me. I would want to be helped - and I may even say I would deserve help - were I to be in a position like his. And as we helped this man, I approved of him in large part because I (unknowingly) ascribed my merit to him.
In the case of the woman, however, I held many reservations. Why was she divorced? How many times was she divorced? Did she have kids before her husband, with her husband, or after her husband? Were all the kids from the same man? If she is in such a bad situation, what did she do to get herself there? She doesn't go to our church and isn't churchgoing, so why is she coming to the church for help? Is she just trying to use us? I know the type of people who come out of those apartment complexes (I taught many students from there). Many were "riff raff." Would helping her just perpetuate her situation? Would helping her make her send a hundred of her friends knocking on our door because we were now an easy target? The lady drove to our church in a nice truck. If she could afford a truck why was she coming to us for help? And the list could go on. Every possible negative scenario was played through in my mind as we considered helping this woman. This woman was not like me, and therefore it was hard for me to help her because, although I didn't know it then, my grace and assistance were based on merit and my own perception of self-righteousness.
The first sign that we view grace as meritorious is that we choose to surround ourselves, help, and withhold judgment on those who are like us (or those with whom we identify). Many men immediately side with other men when accusations of sexual assault arise. Republicans side with Republicans and Democrats with Democrats on various allegations and issues related to their own parties. Whites immediately side with other whites accused of racism. Time and time again we see that we are self-interested creatures who hedge our wellbeing with our own merit, and therefore prop up those who hold the same basis for merit that we do. But true grace and love - the grace and love which flow from the cross - knows no bounds. They are not proud or self-seeking. True grace and love seek out and hear the lost, the sinners, those least like us, and those on the fringes of society.
Us Like Those:
Every time we exit a grocery store here in Romania, we are greeted by small, dirty, beggar children. We used to withhold giving from these children, as we had always been taught that such generosity would only enable them and perpetuate their physical poverty - though nobody ever warned us that a continual failure to give would also work to harden us and perpetuate our spiritual poverty. After a short time of withholding our generosity, we realized that for our own hearts, and the hearts of our children, we needed to give. We didn't give much, just a loaf of bread, milk, or some eggs. But we gave.
The small gifts we gave to these children weren't life changing for them. In fact, they probably weren't that meaningful at all. Even if we had given them $100, while I'm sure their excitement would have been piqued, I don't know that this money would have meant that much to them. It is just money. It would be used up within the day, its meaning as fickle as the consumable and finite material goods it was used to purchase. This is the very thing we see happen with impoverished communities and individuals who have the government or NGO's lavish them with much needed food and materials. Free goods - while helpful and important - lack long-term meaning. Material goods are a start, and James would even argue a necessity. But they're not the ends.
If meeting someone's needs isn't lasting, if providing them with food or housing only scratches the surface of their needs, then what is it that gets at the heart? What is it that brings about change? I think the Bible is extremely clear on this answer. One major way true change is brought about is through incarnational living. The whole book of Hebrews emphasizes this fact - the fact that we can trust God, worship him, have access to him, be bold with him, and relate with him because he lived as one of us. The law which God provided in the Old Testament was vital for Israel to learn about equality and generosity, but it was insufficient to change the heart. The manna God provided in the desert was food for the day, but it wasn't the bread of life or living water. We needed God in the flesh to dwell among us, and so he condescended to us through the incarnation.
What's a good enough method for God to employ should certainly be good enough for us. As God recognized the importance of relationship and condescension through incarnation, so we should recognize this as well. Giving a homeless person some money or some food is kind, but inviting them to dinner at your house or in a restaurant is powerful. One experience fulfills a bodily need with temporary satisfaction, and the other satisfies a relational need while creating a memory which is lasting and a bond which can be built upon. Your willingness to associate with, be in proximity to, and treat as equal those who are "lesser" than you has the power to transform lives. It may not always transform and it may not usually transform, but it is this incarnation which embodies the gospel to those we serve. Just consider Paul's words in Philippians 2 and dwell on Christ's beautiful sacrifice.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Always With Love:
Sadly, it is possible to recognize the first two aspects of true generosity and servanthood without embracing the ultimate requirement for meaningful service - love. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says,
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is what truly changes a heart, and a heart which has been inwardly changed by God's love will likewise love outwardly. Yes, I argued earlier that incarnation and living amongst others is vital for change, but this must be done with love. Incarnation is simply the mode or medium with which love is transported best. It's easy to live amongst others and despise them. In fact, they warn missionaries about this all the time! Many missionaries have a tendency to serve in close proximity to nationals, yet at a distance, as they continue living in the culture but despising the foreign people and their foreign ways of life. But condescension without love is just condescending. While incarnation is vital, love is central. I John 4 is all about the importance of love, both as an evidence of a heart which has truly been changed by God, and as the tool God uses to change hearts. I John 4 says,
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Upon reflection of this point, that love is the crux of all meaningful action, it always amuses me that the world - and even most of us Christians - scoff at generous love directed towards the lowly and undeserving. I know that most days I am such a scoffer. We often view such gifts of generous love as throwing pearls before swine. Enemy love and loving the hopeless is an empty, frivolous pursuit. Why help the poor if they just misuse what we give them? Well, have we ever given to them within a loving, incarnational relationship? Should we expect the poor to change when we just throw material goods at them? Or do shallow, finite, material goods alone simply produce shallow, temporary, materialistic responses? And beyond the desire for others to change, we Christians seem to be largely concerned with the pragmatic side of love - the transformational aspect which can change others. But when we are using love as a tool to accomplish some objective in people, aren't we objectifying people? Is love, love, when its goal is some end and not someone? We are so concerned with "wasted love," as if loving another human being simply because they're human is a waste. We remain overly concerned about what others will do with what we give while failing to consider what we are doing with what we've been given.
Such a focus on expectations - on the speck in another's eye - doesn't seem to be love-infused giving at all. In fact, it seems antithetical to biblical notions of giving. When we see justice and mercy meted out through generosity in the Bible, we aren't usually incentivized to implement these things because they are great tools we can use to change others or fix the world, though such things certainly can change and fix. Even Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, and even he doesn't seem so idealistic as to think that generosity will conquer poverty. Rather than a tool to work on others, biblical giving is often viewed as a tool God uses to shape the hearts of the giver, and is a general measure of our own spiritual health. For where our treasures are, there are our hearts also. Only after our hearts learn love through generous giving will our giving in generosity become steeped in true love. The horse must come before the cart. Unfortunately, we Christians usually get generosity backwards. We view it as an ineffective tool to change others rather than a necessary tool God calls us to use to first change ourselves. The irony of our view on giving is that were we to have a biblical understanding of love and unmeritorious giving - the kind of giving God extends to us - our hearts would be transformed and our gifts would be accompanied with true, transformational, life-changing love rather than the result-oriented, pragmatic, expectation-infused action that actually undergirds our dysfunctional and ineffective "love."
I would love to say that I am writing all this from a position of mastery. I would love to declare that I am not a moralist who seeks my own kind. I would love to admit that I am a generous person who incarnates to all, and I am filled with love for others. Unfortunately, such is not the case. While God has worked a lot in my heart, and while I feel that I seek to be incarnational much more than I had before, these things are still difficult. I do feel that I seek those on the fringe more than before, and I truly do try to meet them where they are. However, love remains the most difficult aspect of generosity for me. That's unfortunate, since love is the only thing that can provide meaning to my generosity. We have undesirables into our home when many others do not. We eat with undesirables when many others do not. We go into the community of undesirables when many others don't. But I can't say I often do these things with a true love in my heart for those I am serving. People are so hard to love.
Fortunately, I do believe there is some light at the end of the tunnel. As we continue to help those who we don't really want to help, it draws us closer to God. We serve not always out of a love for the people we help (yet), but out of a love for God. And as we obey and love God, God is showing us more and more how great his love is for us. He is showing us the darkness of our hearts and how undesirable we must be to him. Yet he pursues us, he incarnated for us, and above all, he lavishes his love upon us daily. As Keller says, our God is a "prodigal" God. I know because he wastes his love on me. As we bask in God's unmerited love and reflect upon his incarnational sacrifice, we pray that God would grow our wasteful love as well. We pray that we would daily become more like God, and we pray that those we serve would eventually see his fingerprint in our lives and in our service. If the day ever comes that we exude true love to the unmeritorious - look out family, look out church, look out Romania, and look out world, for God is at work, and he is life-changing love.