The best way to understand a person is to discover what he is most interested in, to learn what he judges to be the great purpose of his life. If we wantto discover the secret of Jesus Christ, we have to know what He set out to do; and for this we shall have to make a journey. So pack your things and get ready, so that we can travel back through the years, back through 20 centuries to the little country of Palestine.
As we arrive, we see a man in the middle of a group of people. They seem to be ordinary people: workers, businessmen, farmers, shopkeepers, students, professors, as well as many poor people. There are some women in the crowd too. They are young and old. Another small group seems to be standing a little apart watching this man and the people with him. They seem to be indignant and look at the large group with scorn and superiority. Then one of them in a haughty manner says: “Look at this man, He meets and talks with sinners and He even eats with them”.
The man in the centre of the group hears this remark and sees the pride behind it. He answers him with a story: “If any of you owns a hundred sheep, and has lost one of them, does he not leave the other 99 in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders rejoicing, and so goes home, and calls his friends and his neighbours together. Rejoice with me, he says to them, I have found my sheep that was lost.
So it is, I tell you, in heaven; there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents, than over 99 souls that are justified, and have no need of repentance”.
Few of us would feel at ease with the proud group watching the others with such contempt. For we feel more comfortable with those who may not be saints, but who are honest enough to know themselves as they really are. I know that I have often done what is wrong, and I know that hope does not lie in shutting my eyes to what I really am.
If I have known moments of sorrow and disgust with myself after doing something evil, after treating someone unjustly, after cheating or lying or doing something indecent – if I have tasted the bitterness of such moments, then the story of the shepherd who goes to such trouble to find the lost sheep and who is so happy when he finds it, is a story that touches something in my heart. But if I have never felt such moments, if I feel that there is nothing missing in my life and that I can save myself without help from anyone else, then I should cross over to that other group, or better still, I should go away - for these pages have no message for such a one.
The man in the centre of the group, whose name is Jesus Christ, now tells another story. It is one of the most truly human stories ever told, for it is often the story of each of us.
“There was a certain man who had two sons. And the younger of these said to his father, ‘Father, give me that share of the estate which falls to me’. So he divided his property between them. Not many days afterwards, the younger son put together all that he had and went on his travels to a far country, where he wasted his fortune in riotous living.
When all was spent, a great famine arose in that country, and he found himself in want; whereupon he went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, who put him on his farm, to feed pigs. He would have been glad to fill his belly with husks, such as the pigs used to eat; but none was ready to give them to him.
Then he came to himself, and he said, ‘how many hired servants there are in my father’s house, who have more bread than they can eat, and here am I perishing with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you. I am not worthy, now, to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants’. And he arose and went on his way to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and took pity on him. Running up, he threw his arms round his neck and kissed him. And when the son said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy, now, to be called your son. The father gave orders to his servants, “Bring out the best robe, and clothe him in it; put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Then bring out the calf that has been fattened, and kill it; let us eat, and make merry, for my son here was dead, and has come to life again, was lost, and is found. And so they began their merry-making.
The elder son, meanwhile, was away on the farm; and on this way home, as he drew near the house, he heard music and dancing; whereupon he called one of the servants and asked what all this meant. He told him, ‘Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the fattened calf, glad to have him back safe and sound’.
At this, he fell into a rage and would not go in. When his father came out and tried to win him over, he answered his father thus. Think how many years I have lived as your servant, never transgressing your commands, and you have never made me a present of a kid, to me merry with my friends: and now, when this son of yours has come home, one that has swallowed up his patrimony in the company of harlots, you have killed the fattened calf in his honour. He said to him, My son, you are always at my side, and everything that I have is already yours, but for this merry-making and rejoicing there was good reason: your brother here was dead, and has come to life again, was lost and is found.”
When the younger son had squandered his fortune and his `friends’ had left him because they could get nothing more from him, he found himself completely alone. That terrible feeling of being alone is the experience of everyone who has done wrong. And who of us would try to say he has never done what is evil?
After sin, I feel myself abandoned by all. No one can help me, no one cares for me, I know exactly how that young man felt in that lonely moment when he found himself alone with the pigs. He was all alone – and it was his own fault; his own actions had brought him to this.
He had freely left a good home and his loving father. He had chosen bad companions who did not care for him, but only for his money. And now here he was alone. His life ruined.
This is exactly what sin is. It is my own work. I turn my back on God, my loving Father; I go my own way and I find that people use me only for their own pleasure or gain. And in my thinking moments I find myself completely alone. Like the young man, I taste the bitterness of my own self-and bitter indeed do I taste.
Sin is really death - death to my friendship and union with God. It is death to union with my fellow men. Sin puts me into complete isolation. The sinner is alone with his own self – completely alone.
It is good to be alone sometimes. It gives one a chance to think and reflect. But to be alone with no chance of meeting anyone – that is unbearable.
One of the worst punishments inflicted on prisoners is called `solitary confinement’. The prisoner is locked in a small cell alone. His food is passed through a hole in the door without a word spoken. For days he is left like this. Strong men often go mad after sometime. But sin is worse than that for it reaches our very heart.
If his picture of sin - my sin - has been painted in grim lines, it is because I need to see myself clearly as a sinner.
Some people like to `study’ religions. They like to read books and get as much knowledge about the subject as they can. This may be a useful occupation, but a big danger has to be avoided. That danger is that I study religion in the same way as I study mathematics or geography or English. But religion should never be studied like that, since it is something that touches the very purpose and meaning of my life. It is my own story. It is the drama in which God and I are the central characters.
It may be useful and important for me to know mathematics or English, but they do not touch me in the very depths of my soul. They do not create in me a hunger that is the one great urge in my life and which explains everything that I am and live for.
When we talk about sin and death, about forgiveness and God’s love, about the soul and the meaning of human life – when we talk about all this in these pages, we are not talking about other people’s stories or about some mathematical problem. We are talking about me and my story – about sin and death as they happen to me, about forgiveness and God’s love for me, about my soul and the meaning of my human life.
If I realize this then I shall find the study of these pages an exciting and thrilling adventure. If I do not, then it may be more useful to study mathematics. It will certainly be much less disturbing and more peaceful, for mathematics will not challenge me or call my whole life into question.
Any real study of religion is a soul-shaking experience, because it challenges a man or woman to rise higher, to journey more deeply into the knowledge and love of God. But if the price to be paid seems high, it is worth it, for it brings one to a fuller, richer and more truly human way of living this wonderful life that God has given us all.
We have wandered away from the boy watching the pigs, but we have done so because we wanted to see the younger son is myself. His story is my story, because I have sometimes turned my back on God, my loving Father.
The first part of his story is mine. If I am honest I easily see that I am like him in my sins. But the second part of his story – his return to his father and his forgiveness – in that my story also? To believe that is not so easy.
Does my Father forgive me? Will he take me back into His family and His friendship? To discover that, I will have to study. I will have to pray to God for light, for I cannot too easily believe it. And the more I am aware of the evil of my sins, the more difficult it is for me to believe that God will forgive them.
In the young man’s story, one moment was decisive. It was the moment that really saved him. It was when he found himself all alone in his wretched and miserable stage, and he honestly admitted it to himself.
Before that he was carried away by his plans, his pleasures, the business of finding a job. He never really stopped to think about the direction his life was taking.
But now as he sits there with the pigs - hungry, cold and alone - he slowly grasps the truth about himself. He sees what he really is. He sees what he is missing. It is his awful moment of truth. From this point, he can really see straight: the goodness and love of his father, his own stupidity and wickedness.
He will go back and ask to be taken as a servant. He will honestly admit to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy now to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”
What a painful journey that must have been for the young man – along the same road he had traveled a year or so before! He knew what he had done; he knew what a fool he had been. What would he do?
If I stop for a moment and think of something evil that I have done, I can then walk beside him and share his doubts, his fears and thoughts about what lies ahead.
The amazing and wonderful truth is that all the time, the father has been watching the road, waiting sadly, hoping that we would come back to him, that we would see our foolishness and turn to him.
He runs to meet us, and as we begin to say, “Father, we have sinned against heaven and before you,” he puts his arms around us. He has forgiven us. He has made us his sons/daughters again.
There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance.”
That is the story that Jesus tells. This is the story that explains His whole purpose in coming into our midst.
It is strange story. It is a story that I cannot easily believe. I cannot easily believer that I am the younger son. I cannot easily believe that the father who forgives is my father.
I shall have to read more. I shall have to see more of this Jesust – to see whether it is possible to believe in him. I shall have to see what He does and I shall hear what He says. I shall try to see whether He has any message for me.
These pages will attempt that rather frightening task—frightening because a writer can only tremble when he sets out on such a terribly important task, and one with such tremendous consequences in the life of every reader.
As you work your way through these pages, it will be necessary to reflect at times on whether what you read has any meaning for you or whether it is really your story that is being told.
At this point, you could ask simply, and honestly in your own heart: Have I really turned my back on God, My Father? Do I ever feel the sorrow of the loneliness of the younger son?
You may like to say a quiet and slow prayer in your heart.
Lord, teach me to see myself-
As I really am; not as I imagine myself to be.
Is the young son’s story my story also?
Show me the evil of my bad deeds.
Show me how I have done wrong against others.
Show me my selfishness, my jealousy, my hatred.
If I see myself as I really am,
Then, I may be able to rise up and to go to you.
My God, my Father, I am sorry,
Call me back to you.