Once every few years a book comes along that questions everything we know about ourselves, God, reality, work and life. When we read these books we are confronted with the heady elixir of unchartered territory and the sweet familiarity that this rings true.
Michael Card's new book 'A Better Freedom' is truly Biblical orthodoxy, and is empirically verifiable in our lives. There is little that we could question in this volume, but it stirs the pot and gives us a breadth of perspective that either provokes old defenses to action or lays our contentions to rest.
For me this has been the latest in a series of epiphanies that have confronted old dragons and slayed them with the Truth. The marvelous aspect of this has been that the words of this book appeal not only to my desire for Biblical, logical, linguistic and historical accuracy, but it blunts the non-arguments that the 'St Paul versus Jesus' school of thought has been putting forward.
In contemporary American experience, prejudice is a dark, sinister motif to be avoided at all costs. When we hear about Michelle Obama's ancestry which includes a great great grandmother who was a former slave girl (even in her childhood) and gave birth to a mixed race boy, we cringe- rightly so- but we heave a sigh of relief and self-congratulation that it is the progeny of this former slave that now graces the White House as First Lady. Yes- that is indeed beautiful and we need to feel the pride of the moment. But the Bible's references to slavery often ring against our ears and hearts with annoying vagueness. Paul in his writings has pieces of advice for both slaves and masters, but we do not see a William Wilberforce in Paul rousing slaves to action against their masters, Christian or not- and we feel the irony. Didn't Christ come to set us free from the yoke of all bondage?
Michael Card's look at slavery is instantly sensitive and affirming of Jesus' call for us to be slaves of righteousness or slaves of Christ. His insistence that those of us who are in situations of slavery are indeed in a dark place but those who are not owned by Christ are in worse slavery is a transforming truth. This theme resonates through his illustrations of Christ's parables, over 60 percent of which have to do with the theme of slavehood, often translated "servant-hood" in English versions. It brings up people who identified themselves as slaves- Paul, Mary ("handmaiden" in the KJV actually makes the word milder than it should be), Stephen, John and others who also exemplified with their lives what it meant to be owned. He also illustrates through Jesus' life and specific actions that our Lord himself considered his life as a slave's life. He, the Master, came as a slave and died a slave's death, served us so that we who are in bondage might be freed to become his slaves. The Master becomes the slave to be the Master. The slaves die to be free to be slaves to the Master.
What struck me most was the parable of the prodigal son which Card talks about. Perhaps this should be called the parable of the Legalistic Son, as it is as much about the 'good son' as it is about the prodigal. Consider the setting. Jesus is talking to a motley group of sinners and lawyers. He tells three parables- the parable of the sheep that was lost and is found, the parable of the woman who searched for and found the lost silver coin, and finally the parable in question- that order. The first two end with a feast, a celebration because the lost has now been found. The final parable ends with a celebration to which the 'good son' is invited, but we are left with the father's invitation and no answer from the son. There is no closure. The explanation is clear enough. Card says, with Jesus nothing is as it seems. While the prodigal speaks to the wretch that was lost and now is found, the good son is the archetype of the Pharisees and lawyers who are invited and need to respond to Jesus' call. The prodigal prepares a lame speech that he will deliver to his dad on returning home, but he never gets a chance to say it all. He says, "'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But he also wanted to say, "make me like one of your hired men." He never gets the chance because the father showers him with kisses, covers him with the best robe, puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. He then throws a big party- and as Card points out parables with this extravagant celebration and kindness (and there are several that Jesus told) are clear indications of our Father's attitude towards repentant sinners. The prodigal hoped to be a slave to the father, but he becomes as a prince. The 'good son' says, "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends."
Card asks us, Who was the slave between the brothers? Those who would be slaves in humility and brokenness find that true freedom comes from slavery to Christ. Those that think they are free are in reality slaves.