Thursday, September 10, 2009


Barter, it seems, is having a resurgence in popularity in these tough economic times. People exchange goods and services. It’s a great way of getting something you want without a great outlay of cash and without being taxed. I have heard of sites on the internet that promote barter. It’s a good thing.

But it can also be a bad thing. The barter spirit or principle can have a destructive effect on our relationships – with God and with each other. Yet much of our relationships and religion is just that, or at least something like that.

For example, take marriage.

When I have taught or counseled couples, using Paul’s instructions on marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33, I find that the barter principle is interjected often unconsciously.

The passage says, “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord … Husbands love your wives just as Christ also loved the Church …” (verses 22 and 25). Seems pretty clear, but often it’s understood to mean, “Wives submit to your husbands if they act in love toward you; husbands love your wives if they submit.” But the text doesn’t say that. The commands are unconditional.

And of course, it goes beyond this, even into the smaller details of marriage. Each spouse has his or her specific role assigned and if one fails, the other is free from obligation. Of course, sex is often used as a bartering means by some women – and men.

Or take religion.

Televangelists proclaim to us that God wants to make us rich, or to “give us a blessing.” However, there’s a catch: God wants us to make the televangelist rich by sending in some money (“seed faith”). It’s not grace, it’s an exchange!

Then there are those who preach a “gospel” that tells me that in order to have eternal life, I must “give my heart to Jesus” or “make Jesus Lord of my life.” Again, that’s not grace, that’s an exchange!

Most of us are familiar with the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in Luke 15:11-35. We’ve heard it in Sunday school lessons and sermons. Actually, the title really doesn’t fit. It’s really the story of a father who had two sons (verse 11).

We all know the first half of the story: the younger son asks his father to divide the inheritance. The younger son then liquidates his share of the property (probably 1/3), then goes off to a “far country” and blows it all on “loose living.” When he has sunk as low as he can, he decides to return to the father and simply ask for a job. The father receives him and welcomes him back into the family with a party. For many the story ends here. If it’s part of a sermon, it’s often followed by an invitation to those who are “sunk down in the pigpen of sin” to repent and turn to Jesus.

But the story doesn’t end here! There’s another brother – the older brother, the dutiful brother who has never gone astray. In fact, if we examine the context, it is this brother, as a representative of the nice religious folks that the story is aimed at. See verses 1-3.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Him (Jesus) to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling saying, ‘This man is receiving sinners and eating with them.’ And He told them this parable …”

Anyway, the older brother comes in from working in the field, hears a party going on. He inquires and finds out that his kid brother has finally come home and that his father has welcomed him with a party and killed “the fattened calf” for him.

Big brother throws a fit. The father comes out to plead with him. His reply to his father shows his complete misunderstanding of love and grace. “Look! I’ve been serving you like a slave (douleuo) all these years and I’ve never disobeyed a command of yours but you’ve never given me even a kid so I could party with my friends! But when this son of yours came home, who has eaten up your wealth with whores, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

This poor guy, like many people, like those Pharisees and scribes, seems to have no concept of love. He has been serving his father in a sort of barter or exchange system. This is what I believe he’s saying: “I serve you for years and you don’t reward me with even a little goat. That’s slavery! This guy blows it all and you reward his bad behavior with the fattened calf.”

The older brother’s thinking matches the thinking of many religious people – perhaps all of us at least some of the time. God wants to shower us with grace – freely. But we want to do something to earn it. Or we “serve” in some way – by church work or giving or clean living, and then expect Him to bless us. And if He doesn’t keep what we feel is His end of the bargain, we think He’s unfair.

But God doesn’t work that way. He gives His grace freely. He blesses freely because He loves us. And He expects us to give back freely out of love for Him.

There is an old hymn with the lines: “Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.” I’ve been told that Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, refused to sing the verse with those words in it. He said that if we owed anything, it wouldn’t be grace.

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).


Bill Ball

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