Prodigal Love for a Prodigal World


Nowhere do the different theological visions of Islam and Christianity appear more starkly than in the Muslim denunciation of the gospel as reflected in its assessment of John 3:16, which Christians often speak of as “the gospel in a nutshell”:

God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

In its rejection of this message, Islam declares instead:

  • God has no offspring, so Jesus cannot be His Son. One of the most famous Suras in the Qur’an declares of Allah, “He begets not, nor was He begotten” (112:3). As a corollary of this, the concept of the fatherhood of God in any sense is forbidden.
  • To believe in Jesus as God’s Son (and hence Savior of the world) is to inherit everlasting fire rather than everlasting life, for it is to commit the unforgivable sin of “shirk,” associating something from the created order with the inimitable Creator.
  • God has given prophets to the world for guidance and warning. Human beings must do their best to follow His threats and admonitions, for there is no Savior or Mediator between God and man to atone for our sins. In the end, our fate rests in Allah’s inscrutable will.
  • The “world” is not hopelessly lost apart from God’s sacrificial grace seen in the gift of His Son; rather it is misguided and forgetful and just needs to be reminded of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s proper response of submission.
  • God does not love the whole world, but only those who do what pleases Him.

From the point of view of an outsider seeking to assess the comparative theologies of Islam and Christianity, this last point is perhaps the most stunning. There can be no question in the New Testament that God’s nature is defined as love, and that His love is granted freely to the unworthy. God has sent His Son into the world to seek and save the lost. As we read in 1 John 4:10, “This is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” His desire is to draw human beings into a personal, eternal love relationship that transforms us from transitory, sinful creatures into eternal children of God, perfected in Christ. The gospel is God’s open-armed invitation to enjoy this divine love.

In Islam, on the other hand, Allah’s heart does not brim over with love for human beings. Instead, he seems strangely detached from the fate of individuals. “Salvation” is completely in his hands, yet he saves whom he wills and damns whom he wills. Six times the Qur’an declares, “Whomsoever Allah will, he leads astray, and whomsoever he will, he guides him rightly” (6:39; 13:27; 14:4; 16:93; 35:8; 74:31). This cold-hearted double predestinarianism is underlined twelve more times in the Qur’an with a statement that nothing can avail against God’s damnation: “Whom Allah leads astray, for him you will not find a way” (4:88, 143; 7:178, 186; 13:33; 17:97; 18:17; 39:23, 26; 40:33; 42:44, 46. I include all these references so that you may check them out for yourself!). All of this callous indifference to the eternal destinies of human beings is summed by Allah himself in 32:13 – “If we had willed, we would have given every soul its guidance; but now my word will come true: I will fill hell with jinn and men all together.

Where is the love of God in all of this? It’s hard to find. The Qur’an is roughly the length of the New Testament, and yet the principal Arabic word for love (hubb) is used in its verbal form with Allah as the subject/actor only 40 times. But even this number is misleading, because 22 of these occurrences are negative declarations, indicating the kind of people whom Allah does not love. For example:

Allah loves not those who transgress the limits of his will;

Allah loves not those who make corruption in the land;

Allah loves not those who reject Islam;

Allah loves not those who do wrong / the unjust;

Allah loves not the arrogant or proud;

Allah loves not those who rejoice in their wealth;

Allah loves not the treacherous, criminals, and those with evil tongues;

Allah loves not the prodigals (those who waste his resources).

On the other hand, there are 18 places in the Qur’an where Allah describes those whom he loves:

Allah loves those who do good;

Allah loves the pure and clean (i.e., those keeping the ritual purity laws);

Allah loves the righteous, the just, the persevering, the trusting;

Allah loves those who love him and follow his prophet;

Allah loves those who go to battle in his cause.

From all of this it seems pretty clear that the god of the Qur’an is very much like a fallen human being in his exercise of love. We by nature love those who please us and dislike those who displease us. But this is a pretty low bar of achievement. As Jesus says in Matt. 5: 46-47, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” But the God whom Jesus reveals loves even His enemies – those who have rebelled against Him. In the words of the apostle Paul, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), as Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18).

The contrast that stands out most to me today has to do with prodigals. Twice Allah declares in the Qur’an that he does not love prodigals (6:141; 7:31), those who waste what he has provided them. On the other hand, Jesus tells a parable of an irresponsible son who demands his portion of the inheritance from his father, and then goes off to a far country to spend it in “riotous living.” This son represents rebel human beings, willing to live off God’s generosity but not under His roof so to speak. The father represents God. The natural ending to the story should be that when the prodigal son returns to his father with his tail between his legs, the father should refuse to see him or help him out – “You made your bed; now you can lie in it.” The son has dishonored his father; it is justice for him now to live in dishonor. Were Allah to be the God represented in this parable, such would be the result (of course, the son would be recast as a slave): “I don’t love prodigals. Depart from my presence!” But the true God, whom Jesus reveals, has such a heart for sinners that even though He has been so shamelessly treated by prodigals like us,  His love compels Him to search the horizons for us, and to run to embrace and welcome us into His love before we can even express our rehearsed repentance.

Such is one of the gaping differences between Allah and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Which vision of God would you rather have your life informed by? That’s not a hard choice. Unfortunately, some 1.5 billion Muslims know nothing of this gracious, unconditional love of God, laboring instead under the crushing burden of trying to please a god whose love they can never quite merit, whose heart remains impassive toward them.

If we who have experienced the reality of God’s love nevertheless refuse to share it with those drowning in the despair of Islam, what does that say about our own hearts?

Perhaps that they reflect more the callousness of Allah than the compassion of the Father?

What a travesty that would be! May the Lord fill us with the same love that led to His Incarnation, that we may bear His love and message to all the world, especially to downcast Muslims.

 

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11 Responses to Prodigal Love for a Prodigal World

  1. rexespiritu says:

    Thank you, Mateen Elass –

    I found this piece thoughtfully provoking in contrast(s) for deeper theological reflection upon the sovereign Lord’s unmitigated compassion and extravagant generosity.

    Along with further consideration of our/humanity’s response in gratitude, reverence and awe toward transforming praxis in bearing witness to the praise of God’s glorious grace….
    “If we who have experienced the reality of God’s love nevertheless refuse to share it with those drowning in the despair of Islam, what does that say about our own hearts?”

    in humility and conviction of spirit, for the new year’s renewed and renewing opportunities, giving thanks with grateful hearts anew, may we continue being and becoming reformed, only by grace

    in Christ’s peace, and under the mercy

    שָׁלוֹם
    السلام عليكم

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  2. Viola Larson says:

    Beautifully stated–praise God for his love and grace.

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  3. Jodie Gallo says:

    Hello Mateen,

    This is an interesting post. I have invited Imams to come speak to our adult education class on occasion, the theory being that when you get to know someone, and enter into dialog with them, you are less likely to start shooting each other. But we rarely get past the apologetic of the Five Pillars of Islam, and questions about the differences between radical and moderate Muslims, Muslims who say they want to live in peace with everyone else. We have not yet developed a relationship where we can stand in front of a room full of adults and have a civil discussion on why we each think the other is mistaken about the nature of the God, and why the message of the Gospel should be more compelling to them than the message of Mohamed should be compelling to us.

    Truth be told, the entire Reformation is in crisis today because it can’t seem to make a compelling case for the Gospel even to its own constituency.

    Your musing on the Prodigal Son is interesting. Did not know that Islam has a problem with Prodigals. The traditional interpretation you used of the parable works in a conversation with Islam, but another interpretation could be even more intriguing, and that is that if the Father is God, then the Son is Jesus. He is the one who was dead but now lives. He is the one who went to a far off land (our world) and squandered his inheritance of his Father’s wealth and then returned to the Father crucified and defeated (what is the currency of the Kingdom of Heaven? There are several parables about money that only make sense when one imagines the currency of the Kingdom of Heaven – It’s not gold). And the son who stayed home, who protected his Father’s wealth, who lived according to the Law, this is the one who is startled and confused and even angry and feels left out. It could possibly be a pre-Johanian parable, that interprets the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same tone as all the other parables in the Gospel of Luke.

    In this view, not only does God accept prodigal sons with open loving arms, he actually wants his Children to waste his wealth. We should all be Prodigal children of God. Because in the Kingdom of God, there is an infinite supply of riches and wealth to be wasted.

    While that may not be considered an orthodox interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I think it is plausible, and it is certainly one that would be jarring to Islam. Maybe, in an iron sharpens iron sort of way, we should be engaging Islam theologically to the best of our ability, and in so doing abandon the squabbles that divide the followers of Christ, and re-discover the wonder and compelling essence of the Gospel we seem to have lost touch with.

    Jodie Gallo
    Los Angeles, CA

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    • mateenelass says:

      Jodie, I think you are right that the interpretation of the parable which you offer would fall outside of orthodox perspectives for a number of reasons. Perhaps most important is the fact that the parable starts with the egregious affront of the younger son to his father, asking for his inheritance while the father is still alive — equivalent to publicly wishing his father was already dead. Far from being sent into the world on a mission by his father, he determines to leave on his own in order to “sow his oats.” Even a liberal, progressive view of the gospel would hardly consider these to be an accurate portrayal of the relationship between the first and second members of the Trinity. Secondly, the parable emphasizes that the son “comes to his senses” and recognizes the wrong he has done, subsequently determining to confess his sins to his father and seek his mercy. But in the Incarnation, Jesus never commits any offenses against his Father; in fact, he says that he has always done what the Father has commanded him. It seems to me the point of the parable is not to encourage human beings to be prodigal in their sinful lifestyles, but to demonstrate that the merciful love of God is extravagant in its outpouring to even the most reprehensible of sinners. That message is certainly jarring to Islam, as it is to all works-salvation religious systems.

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      • Twist Cow says:

        I don’t like the name “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” because if you look closely both sons are prodigal. I think the main point is the generosity and graciousness of the Father. It contrasts fatherhood’s (Godhead’s) attitude with that of two abstractions of man’s attitude. (One being the man who tries to follow the law, but can do no better than failure. The other being rebellion played out to the worst possible earthly conclusion until the younger rebel sees that rebellion is not an option and relents.) I know I’m not the best wordsmith but I would propose, “The Parable of the Gracious and Generous Father”.

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      • mateenelass says:

        Yes, many have used the title, “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”, since the word ‘prodigal’ can mean “extravagant/wasteful” and applied well to the extent of the father’s gracious forgiveness.

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  4. Pingback: Prodigal Love for a Prodigal World - The Layman Online

  5. Carolyn D. says:

    I went to Mona’s house last night and heard her homecoming story! What a powerful and delightful testimony of the Good Shepherd going after his lost sheep! I was especially moved by two parts of her story.
    1. The Spirit ‘s consistent nudging of her to “go to church.”
    2. The boldness of a few key people that resulted in her visiting First Presbyterian Church: the lady that invited her to enroll her kids in VBS that FIRST summer and then another lady at the church during that VBS week that insisted Mona meet the pastor even when she’d said she didn’t want to!!

    I was encouraged to believe that God may be acting and speaking in different ways that I’m not aware of to my dear Muslim friends …but then I was also convicted to become bolder in my witness by finding opportunities to invite them to consider Christ and his teachings. Please pray for Cemil and Selma and their two daughters (aged 4 and 10).

    I’m wondering…would there be value in me reading parts of the Quran in order to engage them in conversations about some of its teachings? Or are there other books/methods that would be more helpful? Would giving them a book like “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” be beneficial? I’d be appreciative of any advice you might have. Thank you.

    A friend in OKC,
    Carolyn

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    • mateenelass says:

      Carolyn, I would recommend you read Nabeel Jabbour’s book “The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross”. “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” would be a good book for your Muslim friends if they are in a seeking mode. Best of all is your own example of love for them and devotion to Christ, which will speak volumes.

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  6. Pingback: When No Means Yes? | the personal blog of Mateen Elass

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