Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Of Mongrels And Prodigals

"...your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.' " (Luke 15:32)

We have all heard of the story of the Prodigal son in Luke's Gospel account.
 The younger brother who:
  • shamed his father by demanding his inheritance there and then;
  • flittered away this inheritance through sinful lust;
  • came to repentance while wallowing in a pig sty;
  • was restored by his father on his return home.
And - while the Pharisees listened to the story told by Jesus with grinding teeth, and murderous intentions - we all marvel at the unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy poured out by the father.

But lurking all the while in the background was another prodigal... 

This prodigal did not demand his inheritance. 
He did not neglect his family duties.
He did not throw away his future on gluttonous treasures.

He was a picture of the perfect son: he did everything he was supposed to do in the traditions of that time. People would point to him as an example of a godly man... 

...but was he?

Luke 15:11-32 (NKJV) 

11  Then He said: "A certain man had two sons.
12  And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood.
13  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
14  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.
15  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
17  But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,
19  and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants." '
20  And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
21  And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
22  But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.
23  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry;
24  for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry.
25  Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
26  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
27  And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.'
28  But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. 

29  So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
30  But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.'
31  And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
32  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.' "

Now, I've lived a pretty sheltered life. 
I had the privilege of growing up with parents who sent me to Sunday School at an early age; I placed my faith in Christ while still in Primary School. I practically lived at the Baptist Church around the corner. Nearly every Sunday I would attend Sunday School or Bible Class, as well as the morning and evening services. 

I was baptised by my dad and the Pastor at age 14, and was accepted into church membership a month later.

Every Saturday night I was out with the Youth Group (YG) - bowling, skating, movies, fun nights - it didn't really matter what we were doing, as long as we were fellowshipping together. 
When I went out on weeknights, it was usually with my YG friends.

Quite a few of the YG friends also attended the same High School, so we all kept an eye out for each other. I never went off the rails. I never got into any bad trouble. I never smoked. I never drank. I never chased girls.

I didn't bring shame to my parents - never dragged the family name through the mud.

In saying all this, I'm not drawing a comparison to my siblings - we were just that sort of family. There were no bad eggs. No black sheep. No bony skeletons lurking in the corner of anyone's' closet that I knew of - I was quite naive in the ways of the world, so probably wouldn't have noticed anyway. 
We all had our shortcomings, but by the world's standards, we were just your normal suburban Kiwi family.

I used to hear lots of testimonies of drug addicts that came to Christ. Of gang leaders, prostitutes, drug dealers, and time-serving murderers.

I used to look at those people and thought they made the best Christians. They could hold you captive with exploits of how Christ dramatically changed their lives. I would be spellbound by their stories of how they were headed down a road of certain destruction, before Christ intervened and saved them, at what seemed just in the nick of time.

I listened to them. 
And then I did something that a Christian should never do...
I looked at their testimonies, then looked at mine, and compared the two.  

Two things happened. 

Firstly, my confidence took a huge hit. I thought that when people heard their testimonies, why on earth would they want to hear mine
I lost my evangelistic drive - not that it was huge in the first place - but my motivation to share the Gospel with anyone took a huge nosedive.

Secondly, I became bitter towards God. 
Bitter that I didn't have a salvation story that Hollywood could script a blockbuster from.
Bitter that I was dealt a paltry, mediocre life, which would impress no one come testimony time.

So in my self-pity, I retreated into myself. I became the prodigal who stayed home.

Looking back now, I see the futility of it all. Evangelism isn't about sharing your story, it's about sharing Christ's story.

On Saturday, a week before Easter, our church did an Outreach at Hilary Court (Naenae Mall, pronounced nyenye), just down the road from me.
We were there to pass out Gospel tracts with free Hot Cross Buns, in an attempt to strike up conversations that would eventually lead to sharing the Gospel with them.

I can remember pulling up around the back of the mall. When I got out of the car, I noticed a man fossicking around in the boot of his old car. I said "Good morning". He gave me the chin-up and eyebrow raise - a typical non-verbal Kiwi way of saying "Hello".

The Mongrel Mob gang patch
(courtesy pinterest.com)

Then, right in front of me he pulled his t-shirt off, revealing a black singlet, and heavily tattooed arms. He then replaced his t-shirt with a black waistcoat. This was no ordinary waistcoat. It was one of the most intimidating ones you could adorn - with the huge circular bulldog insignia of the fearsome Mongrel Mob - probably the most dangerous gang in the country.

To be labelled a Mongrel is not offensive to them. It is a badge of honour.

I kept smiling, but immediately averted eye contact, to remove any doubt of intimidating him. I gulped, and continued into the mall, thinking "this is going to be an interesting day!".

If you saw a picture of Naenae Mall, you would think "that's not a mall!". 
It is a small open-air mall, with shops around the outside and a big wide, uncovered thoroughfare through the middle.

Naenae Post Office
(courtesy stuff.co.nz)

We set up 2 stations - one outside the Post Office, and one outside the Indoor Swimming Pool across the street. I stayed at the Post Office site. Out the corner of my eye, about 20 metres away, I could see that the Mongrel Mob member was seated with about 6 of his mob brothers. One of our church Elders believed they were being issued their orders for the day. They seemed to be taking them from an older Kaumatua (Maori tribal Elder).
They were watching us closely. 

Forward in Faith Church, in the middle of the Naenae Mall
(courtesy stuff.co.nz) 

I laughed at the irony of where they were seated - right outside the closed and locked doors of the 'Forward in Faith' Church - a Zimbabwe Pentecostal Church plant, full of 'Apostles' and 'Prophets', but sadly no Biblical Evangelists.

I engaged in many conversations that morning - a lot of whom flicked me off - apart from a certain Roman Catholic man. He would not give me his name, but he left with numerous tracts, and with no doubt as to what the real Gospel was, and it was nothing to do with praying to Mary. 
I thanked God that if that was the only conversation I had that day, it was well worth it!

All this time I had the Mongrel Mob guys at the back of my mind. Surely I should not approach them as well? Doesn't the same Gospel apply to them?

And that's when it hit me. 

I had been all along talking to this Roman Catholic man, speaking of hating being murder of the heart, when seated across from me were people who could have possibly committed the actual physical act of murder itself.

I was talking about lusting being adultery of the heart, when at a stones throw there were men who could have committed the heinous act of rape.
All the scenarios went through my mind - lying, stealing, blasphemy - all of the 10 Commandments.

Then I again compared them to my own sheltered life. But this time was different. This time I started with myself.

Was I a murderer? Yes.

Was I a thief? Yes.

Was I an adulterer? Yes.
And so it goes... In God's eyes, there was no difference between me and a gang member.

Romans 3:10-18 (NKJV)
10  As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one;
11  There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.
12  They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one."
13  "Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit"; "The poison of asps is under their lips";
14  "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness."
15  "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16  Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17  And the way of peace they have not known."
18  "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

Therefore, had I not repented all those years ago, I would be facing the same punishment. 
There would have been a special place in hell reserved for me, right alongside those Mongrel Mob members who have committed similar atrocities against the Creator.

My atrocities aren't measured against theirs. 
They are measured against the perfect, sinless Son of God, and just like those gang members, I came up infinitely short in comparison.

So no longer can I lay claim to being a lesser sinner than Mother Theresa, a gang member, or even Adolf Hitler for that matter. We have all fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and all deserve the same punishment.

But this same perfect, sinless Son of God, surrendered His life in order to pardon me from the punishment I deserved. The chastisement for my peace was on Him, and by His stripes, I am healed (Isaiah 53).

Over the couple of hours witnessing, the gang members seemed less and less of a threat. They could see that we were giving things away for free - we had no money. Part of me thought they may have been running protection in the mall.

The gang Kaumatua stood up, and strolled past with his staff. I swallowed hard, then offered him a Hot Cross Bun with a Gospel tract. He saw me coming, held up his hand and said "No, no, you're right, mate. Keep it up, though, you're doing a good job".

The younger wayward brother in our story was off breaking the commandments in a very public way. 
The gang members were doing the same thing.

But the older brother was staying home, propping up his prideful good-boy image.
I was doing the same thing.

Both deserve to be punished by the father. Both deserve his wrath.

But in the same way, the mercy of the father is available to both, through repentance and faith. He waits with outstretched arms ready to receive the broken and repentant.

The converted gang members' story is no more or no less dramatic or powerful than the boring stay home, goody two-shoes, ...but not because it is their story...

...but because it is God's story.


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