Finding salvation in the newspaper

Published 10:24 am Monday, April 3, 2017

by Andrew Book

In the church, we have a collection of words we love. These “church-words” are words people in the church think we understand (we usually don’t) and people outside the church think are worthless (they may be right.) One of our favorite church-words is the word “salvation” or “saved.” We constantly talk about “being saved” or “getting saved” and often see salvation as the goal of Christian faith, but as much as we use the word we rarely stop to figure out just what we are “getting saved” from or what we are getting saved for! As with most church-words, we think we know what we are talking about, but we need to dig a little deeper.

Scripture talks about all kinds of salvation: salvation from enemies, salvation from illness, salvation from our brokenness or “sin,” salvation from death and more. When we think there is only one kind of “getting saved” in the Bible, we show that we are not really paying much attention to God’s Word. I am hoping to “get you saved” today as you read this column. I want to save you from yourself.

My goal is not to save you from your lusts or desires, but instead to save you from your own “righteousness” (another good church-word.) Righteousness is being convinced that we are right, and our world today has an overabundance of righteous people. We need saving from the idea that we are the people who have the right answers and make the right choices as much as we need saving from the “bad things” that we have done in life. Jesus’ famous story of the lost or prodigal son shows us our need clearly.

The story Jesus tells is about a young man who takes his inheritance and spends it in wild living (you can read the entire story in Luke 15.) The son uses up his money, finds himself destitute and eventually decides to return home and ask to be a servant in his father’s household.

When the father sees the son returning, he runs to meet him and throws a huge party as he welcomes the lost son back home. Often, our reading of the story ends there. The son has been “saved” from his sin, he has returned to the father, and we too are invited to turn away from our own sin and come back to God. It all ties up nicely at that point in the story. The problem is, that is not where Jesus’ story ends.

Jesus goes on to tell about the second brother — the “righteous” one. That brother is horrified his father would welcome his good-for-nothing brother back into the family. That brother is scandalized his father would throw a party for someone so undeserving. When the father goes out to talk with the righteous brother, this is his response: “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (Luke 15:29-30)

This brother thinks he has earned his place in the father’s family and sees no need for someone like his sinful brother to be included, but he has it backwards. He is the one who needs salvation because his own righteousness is getting in the way of celebrating with God.

Unfortunately, his salvation is nowhere to be found. The story ends with the older brother staunchly holding onto his righteousness. Our neat little story that was tied up with a bow has been ruined because there is still a son who needs salvation — and it is not clear whether he is willing to accept it. The father wants to save him from himself, but he is hanging onto his self-righteousness because it makes him feel like he is an important, special person.

Jesus makes no assumption that the older brother is ever “saved” from himself. That brother must decide what is more important to him: his own view that the right choice is being the good, hard working one or being with the Father who embraces those who will come.

When you look at life, “prodigals” (those who embrace wild living) usually come back to the Father. They don’t come back the way us older brothers want them to and tell us that we were right, but the younger brother didn’t do that in Jesus’ story either! They come to God in their own honest ways. But when they don’t embrace our self-righteousness we struggle to admit they have returned at all, and that is exactly the problem in the story. They may be right with God, but we are more concerned with simply being “right.” Those of us who are caught up in ourselves have a hard road. We need to get saved from ourselves if we want to live life with God.

Over the past few weeks I have been reflecting on a short passage in Mark that tells a similar story. Mark records that “when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?’” When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (2:16-17)

If we think we are righteous, there is nothing Jesus can do for us other than offer to save us from ourselves. We need to accept God’s invitation to the party and find that salvation sometimes means admitting that doing the “right” thing isn’t always right!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or