It is to the prodigals … that the memory of their Father's house comes back. If the son had lived economically he would never have thought of returning.
—Simone Weil

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world were discussing whether any one belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. In his forthright manner Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace."

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eightfold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional.

Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God's grace: where the sun shines and rain falls on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into life on the hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and he almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables—which I will take the liberty of transposing into a modern setting.

A vagrant lives near the Fulton Fish Market on the lower east side of Manhattan. The slimy smell of fish carcasses and entrails nearly overpowers him, and he hates the trucks that noisily arrive before sunrise. But midtown gets crowded, and the cops harass him there. Down by the wharves nobody bothers with a grizzled man who keeps to himself and sleeps behind a Dumpster.

Early one morning when the workers are slinging eel and halibut off the trucks, yelling to each other in Italian, the vagrant rouses himself and pokes through the Dumpsters behind the tourist restaurants. An early start guarantees good pickings: last night's uneaten garlic bread and french fries, nibbled pizza, a wedge of cheesecake. He eats what he can stomach and stuffs the rest in a brown paper sack. The bottles and cans he stashes in plastic bags in his rusty shopping cart.

The morning sun, pale through harbor fog, finally makes it over the buildings by the wharf. When he sees the ticket from last week's lottery lying in a pile of wilted lettuce, he almost lets it go. But by force of habit he picks it up and jams it in his pocket. In the old days, when luck was better, he used to buy one ticket a week, never more. It's past noon when he remembers the ticket stub and holds it up to the newspaper box to compare the numbers. Three numbers match, the fourth, the fifth—all seven! It can't be true. Things like that don't happen to him. Bums don't win the New York Lottery.

But it is true. Later that day he is blinking in the bright lights as television crews present the newest media darling, the unshaven, baggy-pants vagrant who will receive $243,000 per year for the next 20 years. A chic-looking woman wearing a leather miniskirt shoves a microphone in his face and asks, "How do you feel?" He stares back dazed and catches a whiff of her perfume. It has been a long time, a very long time, since anyone has asked him that question. He feels like a man who has been to the edge of starvation and back, and is beginning to fathom that he'll never feel hunger again.

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An entrepreneur in Los Angeles decides to cash in on the boom in adventure travel. Not all Americans sleep in Holiday Inns and eat at McDonald's when traveling overseas; some prefer to stray from the beaten path. He gets the idea of touring the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Most of the ancient wonders, he finds, have left no trace. But there is a move under way to restore the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and after a lot of legwork, the entrepreneur lines up a charter plane, a bus, accommodations, and a guide who promises to let tourists work alongside the professional archaeologists. Just the kind of thing adventure-tourists love. He orders up an expensive series of television ads and schedules them during golf tournaments, when well-heeled tourists might be watching.

To finance his dream, the entrepreneur has arranged a million-dollar loan from a venture capitalist, calculating that after the fourth trip he can cover operating expenses and start paying back the loan.

One thing he has not calculated, however: two weeks before his inaugural trip, Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait and the State Department bans all travel to Iraq, which happens to be the site of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

He agonizes for three weeks over how to break the news to the venture capitalist. He visits banks and gets nowhere. He investigates a home equity loan, which would net him only $200,000, one-fifth of what he needs. Finally, he puts together a plan that commits him to repay $5,000 a month the rest of his life. He draws up a contract, and even as he does so, the folly sinks in. Five thousand a month will not even cover the interest on a million-dollar loan. Besides, where will he get the $5,000 a month? But the alternative, bankruptcy, would ruin his credit. He visits his backer's office on Sunset Boulevard, nervously fumbles through an apology, and then pulls out the paperwork for his ridiculous repayment plan. He breaks out in sweat in the air-conditioned office.

Suddenly the venture capitalist holds up a hand to interrupt him. "Wait. What nonsense are you talking about? Repayment?" He laughs. "Don't be silly. I'm a speculator. I win some, I lose some. I knew your plan had risks. It was a good idea, though, and it's hardly your fault that a war broke out. Just forget it." He takes the contract, rips it in two and tosses it in the paper shredder.

One of Jesus' stories about grace made it into three different Gospels, in slightly different versions. My favorite version, though, appeared in another source entirely: the Boston Globe's account in June 1990 of a most unusual wedding banquet.

Accompanied by her fiance, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal for her reception. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. "I'm just not sure," he said. "It's a big commitment. Let's think about this a little longer."

When his angry fiancee returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the events manager could not have been more understanding. "The same thing happened to me, Honey," she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. "The contract is binding. You're only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment or go ahead with the banquet. I'm sorry. Really, I am."

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The notion of God's love
coming to us free of charge,
no strings attatched,
seems to go against
every instinct of humanity.

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party—not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—"in honor of the groom," she said—and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d'oeuvres to senior citizens leaning on aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. "I hate you!" she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, drugs, and violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she's ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she's ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him "Boss"—teaches her a few things that men like. Since she's underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there. She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline, "Have you seen this child?" But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. "These days, we can't mess around," he growls, and before she knows it she's out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don't pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. "Sleeping" is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.

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One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she's hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she's piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She's sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, "Dad, Mom, it's me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I'm catching a bus up your way, and it'll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you're not there, well, I guess I'll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada."

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn't she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Part one of two parts; click here to read part two

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