Life, as we have come to make sense of it, seems to be a tag-team of ‘rules’ and ‘relationships’ in which both tag each other multiple times very swiftly during the day.
When I say ‘rules,’ I do not simply mean laws or rules in a playbook for a game. We have rules for when, where and how we find our way through the day. A set of rules for a westerner could be something like this: get up 06:00, have breakfast at 07:00, get out of the house by 08:00 to avoid traffic queues. Now those are a set of rules the individual has more or less control over. But once the westerner is in traffic, he or she is now expected to move according to another set of rules, one that the individual has little to no control over. There will be traffic rules determined by the government; streets and terraces where you may or may not freely stand; and shops and institutional buildings you may or may not enter at will. These are but a (very) limited grasp of rules we go by from day to day. How dull life would be if there were only rules to obey and go by!
Luckily, we have another team player by the name of ‘relationship.’ As well as rules, we also go through life with people of whom we have some kind of relationship with. When I wake up, I may or may not do so with a partner, going to a room with my children in order to make them ready for school. In this case, those that I encounter are family. I have a family connection or relationship with them. But even if I were to be single, I have a neighbour with whom I also have a relationship with: that of a neighbouring relation. Or the colleagues at work, with whom I have a professional relationship. Or church members with whom I have a church relationship with. So, in short, life’s tag-team through which we move during the day could be described as a continual switch between two big “R’s:” Rule and Relationship.
But more often than not they are in competition; many times we are forced to choose between the two. For example, what do we do if one of our children breaks the rules at school, let’s say because he or she was caught smoking marijuana in the toilet? If the rule was for him or her to kicked out of school, what do you as a parent do? In most cases, because you have a relationship with your child, you will plead with the headmaster, trying to convince her to give your child a second or last chance and in all fairness, asking the headmaster to ignore the rule. Relationship wins over Rule for such a parent.
This is what I see happening in the parable about the prodigal son, written in Luke 15.11-32. Chapter 15 opens up with two types of people: those that abide by the rules, which finds their personification in the ‘elder son;’ and the other group that consists of the most gruesome sinners imaginable, which finds their personification in the ‘prodigal, younger son.’ Both these sons try to get hold of the property of the father. The eldest son through absolute obedience (Luke 15.29), and the younger through considering him to be dead (Luke 15.12), for that was the only way to gain your share as a heir in the times of antiquity (Hebrews 9.16,17). But the story has an amazing twist! The youngest son returns and the father, not even interested in his wrongdoings, arranges a huge party for him. However, the elder brother, mister ‘obedience to rules,’ is not at the party. He misses the banquet, the banquet that awaits all of us when this world is put to rights, and evil has been defeated. The elder brother is not at the banquet of eternity. So why is the sinner type there, and rule type absent? Certainly not because sinning is a virtue. He’s there, because he KNEW the father! The way to the father’s heart does not go through absolute obedience to rules. The father is not a robot, nor a judge. He is exactly what he is said to be: a father, whose love for his children will have him make a plea to step over a death sentence, and grant his sons and daughters a second, third, hundredth, thousandth chance.
And my… I’m extremely grateful that in the battle between the two “R’s,” the “R” of relationship will always over-rule the “R” of rule. By the law, the rule, I have earned a death sentence, but I am saved by the relationship I have with Him; I receive a million chances to be at the banquet. Would you join me in allowing the “R” of relationship prevail in our church?