When you take a math test, getting it right is the objective. Whether you get the correct answer the first time or after the teacher allows some corrections, you are ultimately wrong if your final answer is not right. Faith is not a math test.
That said, when we live by power, we want to make faith a test with right and wrong answers. After all, power is all about perception and appearance. Power wants everything to look right. The only difference is how you define right.
Faith as a Math Test
For some, right is about morality. In more traditional and conservative circles this involves avoiding certain behaviors like taking drugs or having premarital sex. Not surprisingly, more liberal takes will focus less on individual behavior and set rules surrounding the collective good. So here the rules will involve things like the carbon footprint of the car you drive.
Some, feeling the weight of full abstention, will create artificial boundaries. Here the question becomes, “How far can you go?” This ultimately becomes a comparison game. You spend life pointing to someone who is less immoral than you or maybe how far you have come in recovery. After all, getting it more right than someone else, even if you are half wrong, at least counts for partial credit on the math test, right?
Other groups, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, will take a different bent on morality. Instead of focusing on moral behavior, they predominantly highlight ceremonial behavior. In our modern world, this translates to things like going to church every Sunday and putting 10% in the offering plate. The comparison game happens here as others might add in a midweek service or some other volunteer opportunity. It is just one more way of trying to turn faith into a math test.
Then again, faith is not a math test.
Getting It Right Is Wrong
That brings us to the text for today. Luke 15:11 tells us that the story of the Prodigal is a further example of a point Jesus is trying to make. This invites us back to Luke 15:1 where Jesus is responding to religious leaders who object to Jesus hanging out with notorious sinners, the people who are not getting it right. Jesus then tells a story about a lost sheep and a lost coin. The final story in the series is the story of two sons and a loving father.
While I previously offered thoughts on the loving father, today I want to highlight the sons. Essentially, they both see faith as a math test.
The younger son, for whatever reasons, butchers the test the first time around. As a result, he finds himself friendless in a foreign land eating pig slop. However, he assumes that his father will be gracious and hatches a plan to come home, retake the test, and this time, get it right.
In contrast, the older son sees himself as the perfect child. He stays home, does everything he is supposed to do around the house, and looks down on his rebellious little brother. By all external standards, he is getting it right.
The problem is that faith is not a math test and, in their efforts to get it right, both sons get it wrong.
A Faith Rooted In Love
While a faith rooted in power is all about getting it right externally, a faith rooted in love steps into a vulnerable authenticity and trusts the divine will compassionately meet us there. A faith rooted in love acknowledges that we impulsively focus on externals because they give us a sense of control. Power allows us to manage our image, whereas love insists on seeing us as we are. That is what makes the faith that Jesus invites us into so terrifying.
Of course, once we are seen and believe that we are still loved, it allows us to heal. Suddenly we realize that we do in fact belong. And that changes everything. That is when we finally start getting it right.