This morning again we consider a message appropriate for Lent as we look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
What intrigues me is that it is Christians who observe Lent. Lent is not for irreligious people, it is for us.
And so I wonder how appropriate it is to preach about the types of sins irreligious people commit, when we are preaching to the religious types.
Over time as Christians, we exchange “Sinner and Tax Collector” sins for “Pharisee sins”. We lose sight of the log in our own eyes, and we can only see the splinter in the eyes of others. This happens to us as individuals, but it also happens to us corporately as a congregation.
Over time, churches stagnate and a spiritual deadness creeps in like a fog under the pews or like dust on the lampshades. People become spiritually indifferent and full of selfishness and pride.
For that reason, the three parables in Luke 15 are very appropriate for Lent, and this morning we look at the parable of the Prodigal Son.
At the start of Luke 15, we see two groups of people around Jesus. There are the sinner types, the social outcasts, and then there are the religious types, the Pharisees and the Law Teachers. And the religious types are complaining that Jesus is hanging out with the sinner types.
In the parable, we also have three figures. We have the Father who represents God.
The younger brother is like the sinners who surround Jesus. He takes his money from the Father, runs off into a foreign country and there he squanders it all in wild living. Finally when he was in despair, he came to his senses and returned to his father, abandoning all his pride and self-righteousness and willing to be a servant. The younger son realised all he could rely on was the grace of his Father.
The third character is the older brother who stayed at home and obeyed his father. This is the Pharisees. When we take cognizance of the first two verses of Luke 15, and how the parable ends, we realise the parable is not about the younger brother, is all about the older brother. This parable ends with the Father addressing the older brother; it ends with the older brother standing outside.
The point of all three parables in Luke 15 is to address religious people like us, people in the church who are observing Lent, not sinners, not the prostitutes or the murderers.
So the main point to realise in this parable is that both sons are alienated from their father.
The Father went out to watch the road for the younger son, because he left the Father.
But the Father also had to leave the party and go looking for the older son who has left the Father, except he has left in a rage, he is angry with the father.
The younger brother came to his senses and returned home, but we don’t know what the older brother does.
The younger brother is very upfront in his rejection of the father. He asks for his portion of the estate, he packs up and he leaves for a foreign country where he does whatever he wants. It is clear that he cares more about himself than his father.
But by the end of the parable we see that the older brother doesn’t really love the father either. For however long the younger son was away, the older brother has watched his father pining for his son, standing watching, and waiting. When the younger brother came back, the father’s joy was complete. He threw a huge feast to welcome his son back. For the father this is the biggest thing in his life.
And yet the father’s joy makes the older brother resentful, because he feels the injustice to him is more important than the joy of his father. He refuses to go in to the feast. He would rather ruin the party than welcome his brother home and see his father happy.
He reveals that he doesn’t really love his father either.
What has upset him so much?
He is upset with how the father is using the money. He is angry that the father is giving away a robe and a calf and a ring. He is upset that his brother will now have access to the family wealth again.
The older brother’s focus is on the father’s possessions. He just goes about getting his hands on the money in a different way.
The younger brother got control of the money by being bad.
But older son aims to get the money by being good.
His complaint against his father is that he has been totally obedient, he has never disobeyed his father, and so he feels entitled to the inheritance. But his father is giving more to the unworthy son.
Sometimes we try to save ourselves by doing everything right. We make sure we keep the Ten Commandments, we clean up our language, we avoid all sin that might contaminate us and make us ineligible as heirs. We never miss a quiet time. Those aren’t bad things, unless they come with an attitude which says, “I have been totally obedient, and so the Father has to bless me. God has to answer my prayers; God has to let me into heaven. God has to respect me and treat me as special, because I have obeyed everything.”
Do you understand what that means?
It means that Jesus can be the older brother’s role model, Jesus can be his helper, his friend, his counsellor, but Jesus cannot be his saviour, because he has saved himself with his obedience and his good works.
The trouble is this, elder brothers believe they are with God, they think they are in right standing with Him, not because of the grace of Jesus but because of their own obedience. “Look, I have done everything you wanted from me.” Isaiah says our best works are like filthy rags before God, because we use them to hide our need for forgiveness.
And so the ending of this parable is shocking. The Father has to come out looking for both of them to invite them into the salvation feast.
At the end of the parable, where are the two brothers? The younger brother comes into the feast, the younger brother enters into salvation, but Luke leaves the story open ended, because the Pharisees Jesus is talking too need to decide whether they are going to join the sinners in the feast, to eat with them and Jesus, or stay outside. Jesus is going back in to the party.
We are the older brother and we decide whether we enter in, or whether we stay outside. We live out the end of the parable.
This may mean that the bad boy, the hooligan who lived wildly is saved, while the religious one, the good boy is lost.
The good boy is not lost in spite of his goodness, he is lost BECAUSE OF HIS GOODNESS. When we trust our goodness it blinds us to our need for grace. He refuses to enter into God’s salvation, because he thinks he has earned it. He is angry with God, because he thinks he has done everything right, and God should be acquiescing to what he wants. He is alienated from his father, he is furious because God should value him more than anyone else.
The brother should be obedient because he loves the father. Instead he is loves the father as an act of obedience. What if like Ruth, he said, “I will follow you whatever your choice dad.”
So how does this apply to us in the Church?
Religion works like this. “I obey, therefore I am accepted”.
But the Gospel operates on the exact opposite principal, “I am accepted because of what Jesus did for us, and therefore I obey.”
We could have two people coming to church who are operating on totally different paradigms. They can be offering their time and their talents and their money but they are doing it for two completely different reasons. They will do it with two totally different spirits and with utterly different results.
Elder brothers are obeying God to get things. They surrender to God, but their motive is to use God to inherit from God.
But people who believe and live the gospel are totally different. People who live the gospel don’t come to God saying, “This is what I have done so you owe me”.
They say, “God, through Jesus Christ, has given me everything I have when I deserved nothing, and so everything I do I do for Him in gratitude for His mercy.”
When we realise that, we realise that everything we want has already been given to us. The father said to the older brother, “Didn’t you realise everything I have is yours”. We don’t earn it, it is a gift given because of the goodness of the Father.
So here is the reason we as Christians lose our vitality. Here is the reason spiritual fog creeps into our lives and deadens our relationship with God. Spiritual parties are thrown when lost sons come home. The longer we stay in the church, the better Christians we become, the more we are tempted to believe we have leverage over God, and He needs to listen to us and prefer us. When we start to believe that, we become self righteous towards anyone who we think is not living as holy as we are, and on the other hand we have this fear that we are not being good enough.
Churches get into trouble, because over time they are filled with older brothers who know all the right answers, but at a functional level are trying to save themselves. Older brothers don’t show the Fruit of the Spirit, we don’t see love, joy peace, patience, kindness. Instead we see self centeredness and anxiety and pride and a lack of concern for the lost.
What do you think would happen if the older brother met the younger brother at the gate? Would he have welcomed him home? Or would he have chased him off to protect his little kingdom?
What happens when older brother types meet younger brother types coming to church? What happens when a person in need tries to enter the congregation?
Older brothers get incredibly angry when things don’t go their way, when their world is disrupted, because they believe they are entitled. When things don’t go our way, we can be sad, we can be disappointed. But elder brothers get furious when they don’t get their way. They even get angry with the Father, because they believe God is reneging on His debt to them.
For older brothers, our salvation depends on what we do, and so when younger brother types come in and mess things up, when they interfere with what we do, we get angry, and here is why. It’s because they make a mockery of our means of salvation, because we are saved by what we do, rather than by Jesus. We can’t handle interference, because it breaks down the very foundation of our salvation. So we either withdraw or we attack like our life is at risk.
When we consider the message of the parable of the prodigal son, we need to ask, “What did it cost to bring home the younger brother, and who paid the price?”
We know like the Father, Jesus paid the price. The Father has given the kingdom to his two sons, He has given it all, He has paid it all out. But the Father has nothing more to give.
So when the younger son comes home, everything belongs to the older brother. Every ring, every robe, every fattened calf belongs to him, and the Father can only welcome the younger son back in at the expense of the older brother. The party the Father is throwing is paid out of the older brother’s inheritance.
And that is what made him so angry.
If we are going to be a church which welcomes younger brother types, we can only do that at the expense of the older brother types. There is no alternative. We have to surrender our holy cows, our private rituals, our sacred spaces, and create a world which says, “WELCOME HOME”. But the problem is the older brother types are likely to react just like the prodigal’s older brother.
In Jewish culture, it was the older brother’s responsibility to keep the family together. It was the older brother’s responsibility to go to the foreign country and find his brother among the pigs and bring him home at his own expense, because he loved his father and did not want to see his father suffer the pain of losing a son.
But the prodigal son did not have a true older brother, he had a Pharisee.
When we were sinners, we needed a true older brother who would find us. While we were sinners, Jesus came looking for us. He did not just go to a foreign country, He stepped down from heaven to become a human, He became the servant to lift us out of the pig sty. That is how older brothers are meant to behave.
Jesus didn’t save us at the cost of His money, He saved us at the cost of His life.
The only reason we can be clothed in the father’s robe is because Jesus was stripped naked on the cross.
The only reason we can drink from the cup of salvation is because Jesus drank from the cup of judgement and suffering.
When we realise what our older brother did for us, it humbles us to follow His example. And yet at the same time it takes away our insecurity, because we realise our salvation is not dependent on how well we can behave, how well we can obey the Father. Our salvation is based on God’s love for us, on Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and not on us.
When we mutate into older brothers, we are overtaken by spiritual deadness. We lose intimacy with God, we lose concern for the lost, we loathe people who don’t want to do it our way, and we get angry.
The problem is, churches are full of older brother types.
So how do we fix this?
We have to get to a new level of repentance.
When we think of repentance, we usually think that means being sorry for our sins, and of course that is included.
But for older brothers, that type of repentance is not the key to spiritual renewal and vitality. Pharisees repented, Pharisees repented more and better than anyone else, until they made their repentance another way to save themselves.
We won’t achieve spiritual renewal by just repenting for our wrongdoings; we have to repent for our ungodly motives for doing the right things.
Sometimes the thing which separates us from God is not our sins, but our good works. We fail to see that self-righteousness is a sin itself. And the litmus test for self-righteousness is that we fail to see that rejecting our younger brothers is a sin itself.
As long as we are older brothers, we don’t see our own need to fall upon the grace of God, and we act as if we are doing God a favour by following Him, and so we fail to see that we actually aren’t in relationship with God at all.
And so the older brother waits outside, deciding whether to go in and embrace his brother, or to stay outside and continue to trust in his own righteousness. As older brothers, what will we choose to do?