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Freedom to Choose Badly


Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, May 23, 2015

It is appropriate that we periodically remind ourselves of the importance of religious liberty—what some call “the first freedom”. However, too often Adventists think about it only in terms of our freedom to practice our faith, rather than about freedom of religion as such; or we think about it in purely apocalyptic terms, since scripture prophesies that we will lose our religious liberty at the end of time. But religious liberty is bigger than this. Religious freedom is fundamental to the Christian faith, because it is rooted in God’s love for all humanity. And so religious liberty is something we should uphold for all, not just for us, and not just with one eye on the future apocalypse. Religious liberty is an expression of the divine character and of divine love.

Luke 15 comprises three parables; stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son—all three told in answer to the sanctimonious sneer of the scribes and Pharisees: “This man accepts sinners and even eats his meals with them.”[1] While the substance of the stories may be familiar to most of us, the implications go beyond the obvious ones that God loves us, that we are extraordinarily dear to Him, and that He ardently desires our salvation. Even though on the face of it the parable of the prodigal son may seem to have little to do with religious liberty, in fact it cuts to the very heart of why Seventh-day Adventist Christians should campaign for religious freedom.

Luke begins by telling us that so compelling were Christ’s words, “all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.”[2] The pious proceeded to sneer to each other behind their hands about how this allegedly godly Galilean is constantly getting up close and personal with the wrong sort of people, when Jesus suddenly pronounces: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”[3]He then unfolds a three-fold story, sketching out an allegorical triptych of the human need and divine desire for redemption and restoration.

The shepherd, after finding the missing one percent of his flock, “Joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then … calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” Jesus explains:“there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”[4]

Jesus then supplies another story, for a different demographic, asking his listeners to “suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.” The Greek word that is translated as silver coin is drachma—in ancient Palestine, women were often given a garland of ten drachmae as a wedding present. It is likely that Jesus is describing the loss of one-tenth of such a garland, in which case the missing drachma had more than monetary value, for it was a symbol of the woman’s marriage. “Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, [Jesus declares], there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”[5]He concludes with probably the most famous parable in the gospels and one of the best-known stories in all literature: the parable of the prodigal son.

First, we should note that in both the first two parables, the thing which is lost is ascribed no part in its own misplacement. Some might presume that the missing sheep, like sheep, had gone astray, but Jesus literally says that the man lost the creature. How the woman’s coin became separated from the other nine, we don’t know, but we do know it was not fault of the missing drachma. The story ascribes to neither the shepherd nor the housewife any real volition in the loss of their sheep and coin. They do not want them to go missing, but the stories do not identify any decision on their part that was responsible for the loss. No, these very short stories seem to be telling us that losing a sheep or coin is just one of those things that happens.

Note the difference with the story of the lost son. For a crucial fact in this parable is that the son’s departure results from conscious decisions taken by both the father and the son.

“And He said: “There was a man who had two sons;and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.”[6]

The boy doesn’t somehow just become lost. He has become restless and impatient at home. This is clear from the action he takes, which is the trigger for the whole story.

This is such a simple thing and if we know the parable, it is so familiar, that we lose a sense of its deep significance. The son is not simply asking for some of his dad’s wealth—he is asking to be given, now, what would usually come to him only on his father’s death. The younger son’s sin is often seen as being his descent into what in verse 13 is variously translated as “riotous living”, “loose living” or “wild living”.[7]But his first sin was when he took a conscious decision to violate the fifth commandment, and to dishonor his father, for what is he saying here? “I can’t wait for you to die, dad.” The work of Biblical scholars reveals that itwas not unheard of “for a father … to make a division of his inheritance among his sons while he was yet alive rather than … upon his death.”[8] But that simply meant specifying which of his properties and treasures would be left to each son when he passed away. Thus, on those occasions when “a division of property was made during the father’s lifetime, the property remained intact until the father’s death.”[9]  The younger son wantedhis dad to do much more than merely designate what will be his on his father’s decease. Forget about waiting! The boy makes a request that was so “unusual” it was outrageous: “he asked his father to give him his share of the estate” then and there.[10] “But the father was by no means obliged to do so.”[11] In fact, by contemporary standards, the father would have been well within his rights to rebuke, or even to physically punish, his presumptuous younger child. Instead, he granted the audacious, impertinent request. But it is imperative to recognize that, in doing so, he was not merely countenancing insolence; he was paying a price—he was losing something.

First, in contemporary Jewish culture, the father would have lost face by not upholding patriarchal authority against rebellious youth. In a culture in which shame and honour were vitally important, many friends and relatives would have felt he had been dishonoured. Indeed, we get a hint of this in the way, at the end of the story, in verses 29 and 30, the elder son, supposedly the “good boy”, treats his dad with disdain. The father had lost some of his authority by giving way to the younger son.

Second, the father paid a literal financial price in granting the exorbitant demand. “According to the Mosaic law, the eldest son was to receive a double portion of his father’s estate, and the younger sons were to receive a single portion each . . . . If a father had only two sons, as was the case here . . . the younger son would receive one third of his father’s estate.”[12] From the story it seems clear that the younger son promptly “converted his share of the property entirely into cash”, or else he could not have gone to a foreign country.[13] In other words, a third of the family estate, which those listening to Jesus would assume had been built up over generations, had been essentially sacrificed, given up for no familial gain, to indulge the selfish cravings of a feckless youth.

There was a third price to pay, of course, and a third loss; for the father lost his younger son.

So, in contrast to the loss of the sheep and the coin, the son is lost because of choices that were made. The son chose both to ask for his inheritance and then, having received it, to go far from home and squander it. He was lost of his own volition. We are right to point the finger at the son for his disrespectful, disreputable, behaviour—for the decisions that took him down the path of prodigal living, to the doors of prostitutes, and finally into a pig field.

Yet we should not ignore that another decision was also crucial to the son going missing—the father’s decision to give his son the power of choice; and then his choice to honour his son’s decisions. This was not a notional, theoretical, abstract choice for the father—it cost him, dearly. But having decided to give his sons the freedom to choose, he did not take away that freedom when one son made bad choices. The son is lost against his father’s desire but, in a sense, not against his volition.

Why would God, whom the Father in the parable represents, be willing to sacrifice in order to honour the freedom to choose? Why, to bring it closer to home, was Jesus willing to be tortured to death because of the decisions we made? What is so important about human beings’ ability to decide? The Scriptures say nothing explicit on this score, but of course we know that humanity was created with free will. Adam and Eve’s obedience to God could not simply be commanded; they had to decide for themselves whether or not to trust and obey God. Sadly, their decision was a bad one. But their freedom to choose is an essential pre-condition of the entire story of redemption in the Bible. Furthermore, since it was present from the very start, their power of choice was something God Himself chose to give them. The ability to consider and make judgments, rather than simply acting like an automaton, is an integral part of being human.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus had told His audience of tax collectors, sinners, scribes and Pharisees only the first two parables found in Luke 15. Jesus would still have answered the question of just why the Son of Man was consorting with moral outcasts, even spending quality time with them. We would still value these two stories and tell them, because they tell of a God who desires to save the lost so much that He does not focus on the 99 per cent that may stay—no, He will inexorably search for the one per cent that has gone astray.

So there is great value in these two tales; but we would not have the same picture of God without the third parable. This is true in two ways. First, there is the fuller picture it gives us of God’s attitude to us when we are lost in sin; but second is what it reveals about the divine gift of free will.

Where the third parable tells us something quite different is in what it reveals about the importance, to God, of our divinely granted freedom to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we relate to our Creator.

And this is treated at the end of this story, as well as at the beginning. When the father welcomes back his younger son with open arms, he is honouring the freedom to choose which was his gift to his sons. He hadaccepted the younger son’s decision to disastrously experiment; he welcomes his choice to return to his childhood home. But he imposes no conditions: there is no “I told you so”, no “Well I hope you learned your lesson”, no “You’re welcome back this time, but if you make the same mistake again, that’s it.” The father’s welcome is unconditional. The restoration of the son to his position before he left means he is also free to make a mess of his life again—if he so chooses. Maybe the younger son woke up the morning after the feast with the fatted calf and said: “Well that was easy! I’ll grab some cash from dad’s safe and be off down the bar and the brothel. Fun times tonight!” However, not only does the story not tell us “what happened next”, it doesn’t do so, because it doesn’t matter. The son is free to choose, free to err, free to make mistakes; and because the father honours his ability to choose, the son will always be welcomed back when he makes a better choice.

What is religious freedom? It is acknowledging the freedom to choose that God gave to every man and woman. It is acknowledging that God Himself does not compel obedience: He seeks to persuade us; He honours our choices, even when they are bad ones; and He does this because He loves us and wants us to love Him.

Jesus Christ suffered the excruciating, indescribable, agonies of the Cross even for those who would not accept His sacrifice. So often we say “Jesus died to save me from my sins”. And of course that’s true. But it’s only a partial truth. To be precise: Jesus died to give me an opportunity to be saved from my sins. It is a powerful, humbling thought that He “humbled Himself . . . even [to] death on a cross”,[14] to give human beings a chance to choose whether to accept salvation or not. SinceJesus was willing to die even for those who would decide to reject Him, even the thought of compelling another human being to believe or worship against their conscience must be repellent to those who follow Christ.

And so, religious freedom is something every Christian ought to be passionate about because it reflects the very nature of God. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we need to see religious liberty as more than protecting Sabbath privileges for ourselves or our fellow church members. We should strive to defend the freedom of every man and woman to choose who or what they will worship and how. Religious liberty is not just for us, it is for everyone—including people whose choices we dislike or even detest

This is no small matter. For religious freedom is not just a human right; it is a divine gift. When we uphold it for people of all faiths and none, we are truly reflecting the image of God, who loved us so much that He gave us the freedom to choose.

[1] Luke 15:2 Phillips.

[2] Lk. 15:1 NKJV.

[3] Lk. 15:4 NIV.

[4] Lk. 15: 5-7 NIV.

[5] Lk. 15:8-10 NIV.

[6] Lk. 15:11-13 RSV.

[7] KJV, RSV, NIV.

[8] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[9] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12, emphasis supplied.

[10] The Bible Knowledge Commentary, on Luke 15:12-20a, via Logos Bible Software – emphasis supplied.

[11] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[12] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[13] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[14] Philippians 2:8 RSV.

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