18 – The Atonement
“…until he finds it”
“…until she finds it”
“get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate”
The story of the run-away son has been one of those scriptural gold mines from which great wealth has come over the years. It has been loved as few stories have. And yet, in the past century it came under criticism from those of conservative cast.[i] Liberal theologians like Albrecht Ritschl elevated the story to prominence, and drew the fire of Fundamentalism. Ritschl thought the story the perfect portrayal of redemption. Those of more conservative bearing said, “no!” It is misleading. It is only a story, and only a fragmentary one at that. It has too much missing to make it a full orbed picture of our redemption. It is missing both crucial Jewish and Christian elements. A human father here is forgiving a too human son of his rebellion against human authority and decency. But the father is not God, anymore than the woman who lost a coin is God. They are simply illustrations that should not be taken too far.
When we ask the question, “well what is missing?” The answer comes back with speed. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin.” In the Old Testament, before forgiveness is granted, an animal life must be taken. In the New Testament it has not changed significantly. A sacrifice is still needed, but this time the sacrifice of the Son of God.
In the Old Testament there had to be a mediator between God and the sinner. The priest granted the forgiveness of God as the mediator between the sinner and God. In the New Testament, Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity. Between the Father and his wayward children stands the crucified Jesus pleading with his Father, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
The story of the prodigal son is therefore faulty, it is claimed, for these very reasons. There is no cross. There is no shedding of blood for the forgiveness of the profligate’s sins. There is no sacrifice for sin. There is no mediator between the father and the sinner. No one is punished for the son’s sins. There is no regard for law and justice. The Law is not satisfied. Justice has not been meted out.
So the response was, this is not a bad story. It is actually a very good story. but it is not enough of a story. It is only a fragment of the whole. There is not a word about atonement.
But some of us have not been happy with that response. Technically, the position just stated sounds right. There is no mediator and no other punishment has been applied, other than what sin has already demanded.
But, there is a cross in this story, just as there was in the Bethlehem story of the birth of the Christ Child. The cross is not in the foreground, but it is there nonetheless. It is not visibly present, but it is there. Simeon had said to the Virgin Mary shortly after the birth of her son, “A sword shall pierce your heart.” The birth is a prelude to the tragic drama of Calvary. And in this story a sword has also been driven deep into a Father’s heart. There is suffering written throughout the fifteenth chapter of this gospel, that does not seem to go away.
The first story in this chapter is about a shepherd who loses a sheep. And the shepherd goes out and looks for it, until he finds it. And when he finds it, his heart is filled with Joy. But it is a joy that replaces the previous experience of loss.
Ira Sankey, one of the great song leaders of the era of D. L. Moody was best known for the song, There were Ninety & Nine, written by Elisabeth Clephane.[ii] Listen to its notes about the atonement.
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold;
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender shepherd’s care.
Lord Thou hast here thy ninety and nine
Are they not enough for Thee?
But the shepherd made answer – This of mine
Has wandered away from me.
And although the road be rough and steep
I go to the desert to find my sheep.
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed,
Not how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
E’re he found the sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert he heard its cry
Sick and helpless and ready to die.
Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
That mark out the mountain’s track?
They were shed for one that had gone astray
E’re the Shepherd could bring him back.
Lord, whence are Thy hands so rent and torn?
They are pierced tonight by many a thorn.
And all through the mountains thunder riven
And up from the rocky steep,
There rose a cry to the gate of heaven
Rejoice, I have found my sheep.
And the angels echoed around the throne.
“Rejoice for the Lord brings back His own.”
Finding that sheep has taken its toll on the shepherd. He has put his own life on the line to find a lost one. As he went looking he could be heard to mutter, “Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. I’ll find that sheep.” And he searches until, until, until he has found it. Self-imposed suffering on the shepherd’s part led to the redemption of the lost sheep.
The second story is about a woman who has lost a coin. There is pain and suffering in this story too. It is the loss that is felt, that moves her to a thorough cleaning of that place, leaving nothing untouched. She says to herself, “Whatever it takes, I’ll find that coin.” And she searches until, until, until she has found it, and then exhausted but exhilarated, she rushes to the neighbours, saying. “I’ve found it.” Suffering on her part led to the redemption of a lost coin. A price has been paid.
In this third panel of the story, in the story of the lost sons, suffering also has taken place. While the father waited, he suffered. He felt the loss of the wandering son. He suffered in his absence. He felt a great anxiety for a son who went away, and stayed away. But when the son returned he then suffered in the seeing of his bedraggled and debauched son. He saw the toll that vice had taken. A sword pierced his heart.
Henri Nouwen has drawn our attention to Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal”.[iii] To see his painting of the father is to understand the pain that has been experienced. The father in the painting is stooped not only with age, but with weariness and prolonged pain.
There is pain, however, not just in the loss, but there is pain in the very act of forgiveness, for forgiveness is always costly. It is one of the hardest things we ever do. The taking upon oneself the very act of forgiving the unforgivable, is taking up a cross of heaviest dimension. To forgive another is to crucify oneself of all selfishness.
Listen to Harry Emerson Fosdick[iv] speaking of two mothers: “Here lies a familiar difference between two kinds of mothers. Some mothers have no moral depth, no moral seriousness. A superficial affection… distinguishes their motherhood. They have an instinctive maternity for their offspring, such as bears have for their cubs or birds for their fledglings. When the son of such a mother becomes a prodigal, and wallows in vice, she will receive him again, condoning his sin, making light of it, saying it does not matter, making up more excuses for it than he ever could find to concoct. BUT some of us had mothers who never could have forgiven us that way. They would have forgiven us, but alike for them and for us, it would have been serious. They would have borne upon their hearts the outrage of our sin as though they had committed it themselves. They would have gone with vicarious steps to the gateway of any hell we turned our feet towards, and stood grief stricken at the door until we came out. They would have put themselves in our places, lived in our stead, felt upon their own innocence the burden of our guilt. They would have forgiven us but it would have turned their hair gray. That is forgiveness. It always means self substitution. He who forgives gives himself. And it is not easy.”
It is said that there is no sacrifice in this story. Yet it is interesting to note that an animal does lay down its life. The fatted calf is to be prepared. The fatted calf is identified three times. Its sacrifice has been mentioned by the father, by the servants, and by the older brother.
We are not told that it is a sacrificial animal. But in Jewish practice, only a priest could serve as a butcher, and part of every animal slain for food was given in sacrifice, whether as a sacrifice for sin, or a sacrifice of thanksgiving. But THE fatted calf was always an animal intended to be sacrificed to God by its very nature. It was fattened for the very purpose of giving to God our very best.
In Genesis chapter 3 when Adam & Eve sinned, they discovered the shame of their nakedness. They fastened fig leaves on themselves as covering. These were obviously inadequate, and God appears with clothing or a covering made from the skin of an animal. Something has happened “off stage” as in a Shakespearean play. An animal has lost its life. The very first creature, apparently to die in the entire created world. But, it has happened only in the back ground of the story. Nothing is made of it. But a life has been taken, as one of the consequences of sin.
It is interesting that the word used in Genesis, the word “covering”, is the Hebrew word for atonement. The death of one of the creatures of God has taken place to provide a covering from their shame. In like manner when the profligate son returns, an animal’s life is taken. It is, on the surface, for a celebration. But it also may be a note that tells us, that we do not sin without pain being done to another.
But we need to understand something about perspective. The story is told from our perspective, not God’s. This story is not about the father bearing his wounds in open display. There is no pity party going on here, where we are made to feel sorry for the father. There is no advertising how high a price he has already paid. The price is paid, and is known only to the father Himself, and there’s an end to it. When a sinner in his guilt cries out, “Oh Lord help me”, he only understands his own need. He does not need to understand God’s ways and means before he can be saved. God knows the ways. God provided the means. All we wanderers need to know, is that when we come home, the Father’s arms are around us in wonderful embrace.
Lon Woodrum[v] writes about the joy of the runaway’s return:
He came back from the gray dust
Of alien streets and the smell
of the swinecote, back to love.
Two things he would never understand;
Why he had fled love for the dark streets
and the black wine, or why
When he quit the swinecote, love
ran to meet him on the road.
But he did not need to understand.
It was enough that music from the house
washed over him, and that he was kissed,
and that the words fell on his spirit,
This my son, was dead, and is alive again;
He was lost, and is found.
He never would understand the high cost of the free gift! Neither will we.
[i] Warfield, B.B. “The Prodigal Son”, Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel C. Craig, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), p. 523-542.
[ii] Elisabeth C. Clephane, The Ninety and Nine, (Boston: D.Lothrop, 1877).
[iii] Henri, J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (N.Y. Doubleday, 1992)
[iv] Fosdick, Harry Emerson, “Forgiveness of Sins”, The Secret of Victorious Living (New York: Harper & Bros, 1934)
[v] Lon Woodrum. http://www.bethanyipc.org.sg/poems/bulletin040314.htm. (Bethany Independent Presbyterian Church, Singapore).