How God calls us is not in our power. One of the great mysteries of our faith is its existence in some and its absence in others; for that I have no explanation. I don’t find the explanation that those of us who have the gift are the ‘elect’ and those who do not are not, a convincing one, but then I don’t have any other to offer; I accept it, as I do so much else, as a mystery – as Newman suggests one ought.
There are those who will claim to know who is ‘saved’ and who is not; since Scripture tells us that is a matter known to God alone, one can only tell them this and when they persist, do so seventy times seven – after that – indeed before it – silence descends.
The great mystery of our faith is explained to us in heart-rending manner in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Father loves the son. He gives him what he wants, he lets him go his own way, but when the son comes back, the Father is there and runs toward him and welcomes him back. The elder brother may be right royally displeased. Perhaps he was the perfect son and had done nothing wrong his entire life, but in his niggardly attitude toward his brother’s redemption, he showed a want of charity. There is, in all of us, something of the elder brother, so we can understand and even empathise, but the message from Jesus is clear – there is more rejoicing in heaven over the one lost sheep who is now found, than over the sheep safe in the fold. That does not mean the Father loves one sheep more than the others – just that he had lost one of his loved ones, and has now found him. Which of the fathers (or indeed the mothers, sons and daighters) among us cannot sympathise?
We do not know anything more than we are given in the parable. We cannot know why one son is good, straight, honourable and hard-working, and the other is a bit of a brat; but we see it often enough. The fault lies in ourselves, we err like lost sheep, we go astray; we sin. Often enough we do not really mean to, and we know that the road to sin is a broad one with many openings, down which we can be easily drawn. The Prodigal is attracted to the things his wealth can buy him, but he finds, as do all who take that route, that when the money runs out, the ‘friends’ are the next thing to depart. Not one of his new-found companions cares what happens to him. This occasions sadness but no surprise – like him they are worshippers of hedonism, and they have moved on to the next rich man with money to spend. So the Prodigal goes back home, chastened, knowing he has lost any claim on his father. But thinking he still knows everything, he is ignorant of what will save him – his father’s love.
Yes, to those labouring in the vineyard all day, and to those elder sons who work streadily, there is something galling about the spectacle of the later-comers being rewarded, or the Prodigal forgiven, but they should also take something away from the stories. The Father’s love is not partial, it is not the case that if it goes to the Prodigal there is less for them. The Father’s love offers them a lesson too. It is not by works we are saved; it is by Grace and Mercy. If the faith which God’s love for us calls from us is real, the works will be there.
We are loved in a way which commands only awe and gratitude. He hung and suffered there for me. Amazing Grace indeed!