January 31, 2009
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (The Message)
1-3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." Their grumbling triggered this story. ……
11-12Then he said, "There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'
12-16"So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.
17-20"That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' He got right up and went home to his father.
20-21"When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'
22-24"But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time.
25-27"All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day's work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, 'Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.'
28-30"The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. The son said, 'Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!'
31-32"His father said, 'Son, you don't understand. You're with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he's found!'"
The Elder Brother & The True Elder Brother
This morning I need to be brutally honest, for as followers of Christ we are all called to proclaim truth; truth defined by God’s Word; truth which can be very convicting. And the first of two message I offer today, as we focus our attention upon the “rule-keeping” elder son of Jesus’ parable, is a message about the outfalls of legalism, a pitfall summarized well by the Apostle Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome:
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law;
rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
The brutal nature of the first truth we encounter morning is that we may in fact see ourselves in this character.
When we began looking at this teaching of our Lord's four weeks ago I asked a simple question;
" To whom can you best relate;
[ ] the younger son or
[ ] the older son?"
I hope we can all relate to the “prodigal” younger son; remembering times in our lives when we have "come to our senses", realizing that we have sinned by living in the ways that were just not pleasing to God. Then, like the younger son we too have come running home to God with repentant hearts, forgiven and joyfully welcomed back into his love.
But it is also likely, is it not, as we assess the makeup of our congregation, that many of us here today may also relate to the Elder Brother; you know, the ones who have kept the rules most of their life; the ones who have lived in the father's house most of their lives and obeyed what the father asked them to do. Community Covenant Church has a lot of faithful members who have served God through the Church most of their lives. We also have many who have become faithful church members over the past decade, who yearn to know and do God’s will.
Am I right? So while such faithful Christians may remember times of rebelliousness, repentance and forgiveness, can't they also relate to this elder brother who has come to believe that life is to be found through obedience to God?
But here's the catch:
Not only was the younger son wrong in looking for life through freedom and irresponsible actions, but the older son was wrong in looking for life through self-righteous obedience. As I said to the girls at Pelletier yesterday, rules are not bad, and obedience is not wrong. But life is not to be found by living free and irresponsibly, and life is not to be found by simply obeying rules.
Life is only found when we live in response to God's love.
The younger son discovered this only after he came to the end of his rope;
-Only after he had taken all that the father had given him
and went off to a foreign country.
-Only after he squandered away all he had on wasteful living.
-Only after he had lowered himself just about as low as he could go,
yearning to satisfy his hunger by eating pig slop.
Only after he had "come to his senses" and repentantly ran home did he discover that life was experienced in response to his father's love; God's love.
Did you ever think about the fact that this son who came home so repentantly could have refused his father's love? He could have felt so guilty that he refused the new clothes and the family ring and the party with the BBQ beef. But he didn't refuse it did he?
In fact he embraced the father's love and the party began; life began when he chose to live in response to his father's love.
But what about the older son; you know, the one who had always done what his father asked him. But not now, right!
Though the father pleaded with him to come into the party and to celebrate, this self righteous son who had defined life in terms of his obedience to the father, did not get why his father was celebrating the return of a disobedient son. This older son was disoriented, confused; he had no clue as to the extent of his father's love, though he had lived in his father’s house all his life. This older brothers didn’t realize the magnitude of the father’s love for this younger brother, nor the father’s love for him that was not contingent upon his life-long obedience.
Consider again the response of the older brother to the father's plea to come into the party and celebrate; to come and live life in his love:
…, 'Look! 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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
For the older brother, life was defined by his obedience to the father, and not by the father's love; a love that could not deny a welcome home celebration, and a love that cause the father to come out and search or his older son.
So let me ask you the tough question:
"How do you find life?”
[ ] Is "life" found when you have freedom to live as you want to live? Or
[ ] Is "life" found by keeping the rules?
You realize, don't you, that this is a trick question; that neither definition will lead you the kind of life that God intends for you? You realize, don't you, that true and abundant life can only be found when we live in response to God's love?
In Jesus’ parable the younger son, who represented all the sinners and tax collectors, discovered that and went into the party,
But the older son, who represented the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, remained outside the party still trying to figure it all out.
Jesus doesn't tell us what the final decision was, for in fact this parable was aimed at the Pharisees and teachers of the law so that they might consider their answer.
Will those who have defined life according to "rule keeping" come to their senses and repent from their self-righteousness, and come into the life define by God's love, a love which declares us righteous?
Perhaps you remember another parable Jesus offered to other religious leaders; the chief priests and elders in the Temple of Jerusalem;
The Parable of the Two Sons
28"What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'
29" 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30"Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go.
31"Which of the two did what his father wanted?"
"The first," they answered.
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
This issue of the “way of righteousness” was a very difficult truth for the Jews of the early church to accept, and I expect is a very difficult truth for many lifelong obedient Christians to accept today. In his letter to Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul lays out this very issue as it relates to Israel's disbelief:
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone."
And, of course, Jesus is that "stumbling stone"; he is the cornerstone of our faith in God, the very love of God lifted high upon the cross for all the world to see, a love which declares us righteous by faith in Him.
This is a very difficult word for some to hear, for while sinners and tax collectors know they are lost, self-righteous people do not. Sinners and tax collectors were flocking to Jesus celebrating the good news of his gospel, but self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law could not see that they too needed to redefine life in terms of God's love for them.
This is the essence of the gospel. The Christian faith is not about rules and regulations; it is about God's love, and a new orientation we have to God through the cross of Jesus:
14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Do you accept today your need to repent; to repent either from free and irresponsible living or to repent from self-righteous? Are you ready to discover life by living life in response to God's love for you in Christ? The party has begun; will you go inside to celebrate God's love, or will you stay outside counting your good deeds and protesting God's love and grace?
There is a second message I bring to you today, a message about what Timothy Keller refers to as "the true older brother".
This is a message that is very easy to miss in the 21st century. This is one of those messages which require us to again put on our first century Jewish hats and to listen as Jesus’ audience first heard this teaching.
First of all we need to remember the context.
Jesus told the parable of the lost son in the context of two other parables; the parable of the lost sheep in the parable of the lost coin.
In both of those earlier parables Jesus describes something that is lost.
In both those parables Jesus describes a celebration when those lost things were found.
But also in those two parables Jesus describes someone who goes in search of that which was lost.
By following up these earlier parables with the story of a lost son, again we as listeners recognize that something is lost; again we recognize that there is a celebration when he who was lost is found. But what is lacking in this third parable? What would the listeners of Jesus day be listening for in his parable of the lost son, but did not hear? Would they not have been wondering who is going to go and search for this lost son?
In fact, they would have known who was supposed to look for this younger son and bring him home.
Remember how the elder of two sons in Jesus day would have received a double portion of the inheritance. That's a great deal if you are the older son, but it comes with strings attached, for the older son was also given greater responsibility regarding the family; the older son was responsible for keeping the family together, for upholding the family name, the family traditions, and for carrying on the very essence of his father’s nature.
And as Jesus so clearly defined the loving and caring nature of this father, those who heard Jesus tell this parable, especially in the context of the earlier two parables, would have been looking for the older son to go after his prodigal brother and bring him home at any cost.
But that does not happen, does it.
Perhaps you even wonder why the father doesn't go after his lost son. Remember, while the younger son initiated the father’s distribution of his estate, receiving his one third, Jesus’ story also notes that this father gave his remaining two thirds to his older son. In other words, he passed on the responsibility to that older son. Later, when talking to his older son about coming into the party, the father says to this son:
“everything I have is yours"
And that was a literal truth. And though earlier, this older brother wants to distance himself from his prodigal brother by referring to him as "a son of his father", the father goes on to rephrase that younger son's identity in light of the responsibility the older son has taken on:
32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead
and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
What would have been very obvious to Jesus listeners was that the elder brother in his parable failed to act as an elder brother. He failed in his responsibility, and was therefore not a true elder brother.
Edmund Clowney, a 20th-century theologian, educator and pastor who served God faithfully through the Presbyterian Church once recounted the true story of a young man; a US soldier missing in action during the Vietnam War. When his family could get no word of him from any official channels his older brother flew to Vietnam and, risking his life, searched the jungles and the battlefields for his lost brother.
It is said that despite the danger, this elder brother was never hurt, because those on both sides of the war had heard of his dedication and they respected his quest. Some of them called him, simply, "the brother."
(Citation: Keller, Timothy, The Prodigal God, 2008, p. 81)
This is what he elder brother in the parable should have done; it is what a true elder brother would have been. But unfortunately, the lost brother in Jesus’ parable had a pharisaic older brother who was too busy mulling over the letter of the law and failing to act according to the love in his father's heart.
The listeners of Jesus day would have heard this parable and left, baffled about the extreme love the father, but also wondering where the true elder brother was, the one who would be willing to go off to a distant land and to bring back his brother at whatever cost.
Let me ask you something; “Who is the the true elder brother, not only in this story, but in real life?” Is it not Jesus? Is it not Jesus who told the story; the One who was willing to come all the way from Heaven to earth in search of the lost sons and daughters of God. And is it not Jesus who, by living in response to the love of His Father, obediently suffered and died so that we would find our way back home?
Today I ask you to do two things:
First of all, recognize that you are lost. Recognize that either by willful disobedience to God's will for, by an attitude of self righteousness, you join with the entire human race in being lost to God. But also recognize that our elder brother Jesus came to search for you and has paid the price necessary for you to come home and discover life lived in God's love. Will you seek life lived in the love of God today?
Secondly, because of Jesus Spirit living in those who have trusted in him, recognize that you are now an elder brother for those who are still lost. And, you have to choose whether you want to waste your time mulling over the letter of the law, or serve God by finding those who are lost and joining them in the party God has planned for all who come to him in faith. Are you willing to go and find those who are still lost and celebrate with them?
This is the truth proclaimed in God's word.
And this is the work of those who wish to serve God's kingdom. Amen.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (r).
Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.