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I lead worship at Salem Lutheran Church in the Houston area. Recently, like many of you, we began singing the song “Reckless Love.” It’s a provocative image – calling God’s love “reckless” – that comes out of the parables Jesus tells in Luke 15, most specifically the Parable of the Lost Sheep. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen:
The word “reckless” is a challenging one. It’s a word we rarely – if ever – use in a positive context. I’ve heard from a number of other worship pastors who either can’t get past this word personally or have members of their congregations who have trouble with the word. I wrestled with this before introducing it to our worshiping community, and eventually decided that there are some compelling reasons to sing this song.
Here are four reasons we sing this song in our church.
The Artistic Merit
The word “reckless” is important because it is the artistic lynchpin of the song.
There are deeper issues than artistic merit at play here, but let’s get this one out of the way first. The word “reckless” is important because it is the artistic lynchpin of the song. Quite simply, the song falls apart without it. The verse sets it up, the chorus drives it home, and the bridge expounds upon it.
The songwriter is using an artistic device – quite expertly, in fact – where a concept that is negative in ordinary usage is applied positively. Paul uses this approach when he refers to the message of the Cross as “foolishness,” going so far as to say that “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). It’s the same technique he uses when he writes of boasting in “weakness” (2 Cor. 12:5-10).
Perhaps what seems to be weakness is actually strength. Perhaps what seems to be foolish is actually wisdom.
The point is to shake up our view of the world by introducing a radically different perspective. Perhaps what seems to be weakness is actually strength. Perhaps what seems to be foolish is actually wisdom. Perhaps what seems to be reckless is actually thoughtfully considered and intentional.
The Nature of Language
Look at the first sentence of this blog post. (Scrolling up…scrolling down…and you’re back.) Did you need a dictionary to tell you to read the word as “lead” (that is, what a leader does) or “lead” (the dense metal that is toxic when ingested)? Did you need to consult Webster to eliminate the possibility that I was talking about “having more points than the other team” or “being at the front of a line?”
Meaning is found in context.
Of course not. Meaning is found in context. This enables us to use linguistic devices like similes, metaphors and figures of speech. It’s what powers poetry and song. Many times, when I hear discussions about a challenging word like this one, someone will say, “Well, I know what he means, but…” If you know what he means, then you have successfully accomplished the task of interpreting the context and discarding word meanings that are not applicable!
How many people in our congregations have negative associations with the word “father” because of their experience?
Consider for a moment a commonly used concept in worship music, the image of God as “father.” This seems to be pretty innocuous on the surface, but how many people in our congregations have negative associations with that word because of their experience? Of course, we mean to say positive things about God when we refer to him as “father,” and so we’re asking people for whom that word has negative connotations to discard those and understand only the positive meanings we intend.
The same holds true for other commonly used images in worship songs: love that is “fierce” or “furious,” all sorts of water related catastrophes like “hurricanes” and “floods,” and don’t get me started on all the potentially hazardous uses of the word “fire.” The nature of language enables us to discard non-applicable meaning, and we can do the same with the word “reckless.” (In fact, I’m sure you’ve already done it!)
The Words of Jesus
Worship songs are likely to stick in people’s heads longer than any sermon they will ever hear.
One phrase I hear often in discussions like this goes something like, “Words are important. We get so much of theology from songs.” This is a true and valuable statement. We should be careful about our song choices. Worship songs are likely to stick in people’s heads longer than any sermon they will ever hear.
But does that mean we should shy away from anything that might be provocative or challenging, or could be misinterpreted?
Certainly, caution is warranted, and discernment is crucial. But if we take Jesus as our example, we might find that he said some pretty outrageous stuff, much of it delivered – as far as we can tell – without additional explanation. Take a look at some of the things Jesus said:
- “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
- “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
- “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:54)
We would do well to remember that most of us have more in common with the Pharisees than we care to admit.
Without interpretation and context, these quotes are not just strange, they’re downright evil. And the Gospels are full of many more like them. Often, Jesus said these types of outrageous things to challenge the Pharisees. These were the religious elite – the churchgoers, the rule followers, the ones who had it figured out. We would do well to remember that most of us have more in common with the Pharisees than we care to admit. Which is an excellent segue to…
The Scriptural Context
The song “Reckless Love” is rooted in the stories Jesus tells in Luke 15. These stories were told in sequence, not in separate sermons with extensive exegesis and explanation. And they had a purpose, which is revealed in the first words of Luke 15:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3)
The purpose of these parables is to show the Pharisees just how God feels about sinners.
The purpose of these parables is to show the Pharisees just how God feels about sinners. The first two are challenging without being scandalous, particularly the story of the lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them,” Jesus begins. “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”
This was probably a head-scratcher to people well acquainted with the risks of shepherding. Leave ninety-nine sheep in the open country? That’s just asking for trouble! They could get attacked by predators or wander themselves off a cliff or into a crevasse. There are all sorts of terrible things that could happen to ninety-nine sheep left by themselves in the open country.
Seems a bit reckless.
In the Parable of the Lost Son, Jesus presents the Pharisees with an “unlovable” person.
But the final parable is the coup de grâce. In the Parable of the Lost Son, Jesus presents the Pharisees with an “unlovable” person, one who dishonored his father, broke every rule in the book through “wild living,” and made himself ceremonially unclean. Yet when this son returns, not only does the father disgrace himself by running, which was frowned upon in their culture, he celebrates his return with a lavish feast and restores him to sonship and inheritance.
Not only that, but the Pharisees make an appearance in the story this time, personified by the older, rule-following, judgmental brother. “Look,” he says (and they say), “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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
I’ve done everything right. Loving me makes sense. But loving that sinner makes no sense at all.
Translation: I’ve done everything right. Loving me makes sense. But loving that sinner makes no sense at all.
And this is why the song “Reckless Love” is so important to us.
It’s easy for church-going, rule-following, by-the-book types – myself included – to gradually believe the lie that it makes sense for God to love us. We grow accustomed to our own personal, societally acceptable sins, and forget how outrageous it is that a holy God would even want to save us, much less sacrifice his son to do so.
It’s easy for church-going, rule-following, by-the-book types – myself included – to gradually believe the lie that it makes sense for God to love us.
We need to be reminded that the story of the Gospel is foolishness – dare I say, recklessness.
And we need to know that we are so valuable to God that he would pursue us relentlessly, like a person who casts caution to the wind, disregarding the personal consequences because of his outrageous, all-consuming, reckless love.
Now it’s your turn. Have you wrestled with this question? Share your thoughts below.
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