I read a remarkable statistic in a New York Times opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof today. In 2013, 71 percent of black children in America were born to an unwed mother, as were 53 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of white children. A singe parent family is the new norm. At some point before they are 18 a majority of all American children will likely live with a single mom or dad.
Of course, children can do well in single parent families but the odds are against them. One household in which children do well are those in which they are being raised by same-sex couples. Most gay couples do not have unwanted children whom they neglect, Kristof notes.
Interesting, that when many Christians want to fight the battle for traditional family values there are fewer and fewer traditional families. If Christians emerged from their bubble wrapped churches more often they might have noticed. One way to deal with the changes in our culture is to cluck our tongues and shake our heads and say, well if they never took the prayer out of the public schools... Another way is to keep searching for ways to reach our culture with the love of Christ.
First we have to love our culture and the people who make it up. As surveys show this isn't happening. Most of the unchurched perceive the church as uncaring and judgmental toward non-traditional Christian lifestyles. We are in our bubble wrap and whats happening outside is because they are outside and not in the church with us.
One of the popular readings of the parable of the prodigal son is the one where the prodigal "comes to his senses" in a far off country and makes his way back to his father. In this reading, the prodigal realized his sins and repented and returned to his father hoping for the best. In the end his repentance is rewarded and he rejoins the family. God does what you expect - he responds with forgiveness to our repentance. That's what we call grace. Except it is not. Grace does not respond to what we do. Grace is in place before we do anything. God loves us first. Our response is always second.
Kenneth Bailey in his studies of the gospels from a Middle Eastern point of view understands the parable of the prodigal in a different way. The Middle Eastern idiom for "coming to one's senses" means something more like he comes up with a plan. Plan A has failed. He lost his inheritance and is penniless. Plan B is to find some work in the far country. When that fails he comes up with Plan C which is to go back home and work for his father. He does not expect to be greeted warmly by his father. He has insulted his father and offended his community. He knows he faces a rough homecoming. His community will probably ostracize him and may even shun him. His father does the unexpected, gathering his robe and running to welcome his son when he was still far off. No one in the community would have expected to see what the father did. That is grace. That is God's love in action.
In the story we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus was answering the question, who is the neighbor we are called to love. Jesus made the hated Samaritan the hero of the story. He was showing us to love our neighbors, with no exceptions. That is grace. Love comes first.