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

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. "Dad, I'm sorry. I know I was wrong. It's not your fault, it's all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?" She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn't apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road, and the asphalt steams. She's forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, "Fifteen minutes, folks. That's all we have here." Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice. If they're there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of 40 brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They are all wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads "Welcome home!"

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She looks through tears and begins the memorized speech, "Dad, I'm sorry. I know … "

He interrupts her. "Hush, child. We've got no time for that. No time for apologies. You'll be late for the party. A banquet's waiting for you at home."

We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but in Jesus' stories of extravagant grace there is no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God's love. Each has at its core an ending too good to be true—or, so good that it must be true.

How different are these stories from my own childhood notions about God: a God who forgives, yes, but reluctantly, after making the penitent squirm. I imagined God as a stern taskmaster, a distant, thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune. There is no solemn lecture, "I hope you've learned your lesson!" Instead, Jesus emphasizes the father's exhilaration—"this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found"—and then adds, "they began to make merry."

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What blocks forgiveness is not God's reticence—"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him"—but ours. God's arms are always extended; we are the ones who turn away.

I have meditated enough on Jesus' stories of grace to let their meaning filter through. Still, each time I confront their astonishing message I realize how thickly the veil of ungrace obscures my view of God. A housewife jumping up and down in glee over the discovery of a lost coin is not what naturally comes to mind when I think of God. Yet that is the image Jesus insisted upon.

The story of the Prodigal Son, after all, appears in a string of three stories by Jesus—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son—all of which seem to make the same point. Each underscores the loser's sense of loss, tells of the thrill of rediscovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation. Jesus says, in effect, "Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those two-legged humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost." To God himself, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.

Strangely, rediscovery may strike a deeper chord than discovery. To lose, and then find, a Mont Blanc pen makes the owner happier than the day she got it in the first place. Once, in the days before computers, I lost four chapters of a book I had been writing when I left my only copy in a motel-room drawer. For two weeks the motel insisted that cleaning personnel had thrown the stack of papers away. I was inconsolable. How could I summon the energy to start all over when for months I had worked at polishing and improving those four chapters? I would never find the same words. Then one day a cleaning woman who spoke little English called to tell me she had not thrown the chapters away after all. Believe me, I felt far more joy over the chapters that were found than I had ever felt in the process of writing them.

That experience gives me a small foretaste of what it must feel like for a parent to get a phone call from the fbi reporting that the daughter abducted six months ago has been located at last, alive. Or for a wife to get a visit from the army with a spokesman apologizing about the mixup; her husband had not been aboard the wrecked helicopter after all. And those images give a mere glimpse of what it must feel like for the Maker of the Universe to get another member of his family back. In Jesus' words, "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

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Grace is shockingly personal. As Henri Nouwen points out, "God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found."

If I focus on the ethics of the individual characters in the parables—the vagrant of Fulton Street, the businessman who lost a million dollars, the motley crew at the Boston banquet, the teenage prostitute from Traverse City—I come up with a very strange message indeed. Obviously, Jesus did not give the parables to teach us how to live. He gave them, I believe, to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves.

In the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice there hangs a painting by Paolo Veronese, a painting that got him in trouble with the Inquisition. The painting depicts Jesus at a banquet with his disciples, complete with Roman soldiers playing in one corner, a man with a bloody nose on the other side, stray dogs roaming around, a few drunks, and also midgets, blackamoors, and anachronistic Huns. Called before the Inquisition to explain these irreverences, Veronese defended his painting by showing from the Gospels that these were the very kinds of people Jesus mingled with. Scandalized, the Inquisitors made him change the title of the painting and make the scene secular rather than religious.

We are accustomed to finding a catch in
every promise, but in Jesus' stories of
extravagant grace there is no catch, no
loophole disqualifying us from God's love.
Each has at its core an ending too good to
be true—or, so good that it must be true.

In doing so, of course, the Inquisitors replicated the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus' day. They too were scandalized by the tax collectors, half-breeds, foreigners, and women of ill repute who hung out with Jesus. They too had trouble swallowing the notion that these are the people God loves. At the very moment Jesus was captivating the crowd with his parables of grace, Pharisees stood at the edges of the crowd muttering and grinding their teeth. In the story of the Prodigal Son, provocatively, Jesus brought in the older brother to voice proper outrage at his father for rewarding irresponsible behavior. What kind of "family values" would his father communicate by throwing a party for such a renegade? What kind of virtue would that encourage?

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The gospel is not at all what we would come up with on our own. I, for one, would expect to honor the virtuous over the profligate. I would expect to have to clean up my act before even applying for an audience with a Holy God. But Jesus told of God ignoring a fancy religious teacher and turning instead to an ordinary sinner who pleads, "God, have mercy." Throughout the Bible, in fact, God shows a marked preference for "real" people over "good" people. In Jesus' own words, "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."

In one of his last acts before death, Jesus forgave a thief dangling on a cross, knowing full well the thief had likely converted out of plain fear. That thief would never study the Bible, never attend synagogue or church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said "Jesus, remember me," and Jesus promised, "Today you will be with me in paradise." It was a shocking end to a shocking message of grace, a scandalous reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.

Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, "Be good." Jesus' stories contradict that answer. All we must do is cry, "Help!" God welcomes home anyone who will have him and, in fact, has made the first move already. Most experts—doctors, lawyers, marriage counselors—set a high value on themselves and wait for clients to come to them. Not so God. As Soren Kierkegaard put it,

When it is a question of a sinner He does not merely stand still, open His arms and say, "Come hither"; no, he stands there and waits, as the father of the lost son waited, rather He does not stand and wait, he goes forth to seek, as the shepherd sought the lost sheep, as the woman sought the lost coin. He goes—yet no, he has gone, but infinitely farther than any shepherd or any woman, He went, in sooth, the infinitely long way from being God to becoming man, and that way He went in search of sinners.
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Kierkegaard puts his finger on perhaps the most important aspect of Jesus' parables. They were not merely pleasant stories to hold listeners' attention, or literary vessels to hold theological truth. They were, in fact, the template of Jesus' life on earth. He was the shepherd who left the safety of the fold for the dark and dangerous night outside. To his banquets he welcomed tax collectors and reprobates and whores. He came for the sick and not the well, for the unrighteous and not the righteous. And to those who betrayed him—especially the disciples, his children who forsook him at his time of greatest need—he responded like a lovesick father.

Theologian Karl Barth, after writing thousands of pages in his Church Dogmatics, arrived at this simple definition of God: "the One who loves." Not long ago I heard from a pastor friend who was battling with his 15-year-old daughter. He knew she was using birth control, and several nights she had not bothered to come home at all. The parents had tried various forms of punishment, to no avail. The daughter lied to them, deceived them, and found a way to turn the tables on them: "It's your fault for being so strict!"

My friend told me, "I remember standing before the plate-glass window in my living room, staring out into the darkness, waiting for her to come home. I felt such rage. I wanted to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, yet I was furious with my daughter for the way she would manipulate us and twist the knife to hurt us. And of course, she was hurting herself more than anyone. I understood then the passages in the prophets expressing God's anger. The people knew how to wound him, and God cried out in pain.

"And yet, I must tell you, when my daughter came home that night, or rather the next morning, I wanted nothing in the world so much as to take her in my arms, to love her, to tell her I wanted the best for her. I was a helpless, lovesick father."

Now, when I think about God, I hold up that image of the lovesick father, which is miles away from the stern monarch I used to envision. I think of my friend standing in front of the plate-glass window gazing achingly into the darkness. I think of Jesus' depiction of the Waiting Father, heartsick, abused, yet wanting above all else to forgive and begin anew, to announce with joy, "this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."

Mozart's Requiem contains a wonderful line that has become my prayer, one I pray with increasing confidence: "Remember, merciful Jesu, That I am the cause of your journey." I think he remembers.

This article is an excerpt from What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan), now available at bookstores.

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