What happens when you don’t really believe that God is gracious or you don’t really like the grace of God? Let’s have a look at the response of the older son.
Read Luke 15:25-32
We see in the older son many of the common characteristics of not truly believing that grace of gracious. As we go through, see if any apply to you.
1. ‘I demand my rights’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in … (28)
God graciously forgives us without demanding that we sort ourselves out first. God himself makes us righteous. He declares us to be in the right – even though we are in the wrong.
But if we don’t believe that God is gracious then we will try to make ourselves righteous. We will want to prove that we are in the right. And when that’s questioned or threatened we become angry. That’s one of the characteristics of people who do not really trust the grace of God: self-righteous anger. You might blow your top with indignation at the way you’re being treated. Or you might brood, replaying conversations in your head. Or you might become bitter and resentful. They’re all signs that you may have forgotten that God is gracious.
The older brother is angry because the younger brother is being honoured. It seems as if the younger brother is in the right. All the older brother’s hard work seems to count for nothing. He worked hard for a reward and now the younger son gets a reward without the hard work. That’s the scandal of God’s grace. It means if you have been working hard to be right with God then you have been wasting your time because God welcomes everyone – righteous and unrighteous alike. God has no discrimination.
Here is an extract from brother’s response to a letter from his Christian sister: ‘I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that the prodigal son could do so much wrong, upset his family so much and squander his father’s wealth so effectively yet still return to a hero’s welcome. I feel sorry for the other brother who stayed at home doing nothing much wrong and yet lost out big time! My personal view would be that the latter would be a better lifestyle to aspire to.’
God’s grace makes people angry. They want sinners to get what they deserve. And they want moral people to get what they deserve. The problem is we don’t understand how deep our sin goes. The reality is we all deserve God’s judgment. Our only hope is Jesus taking the judgment deserve in our place on the cross. Our only hope is God’s grace.
Paul Tripp describes realising he needed to do something about an argument. He writes:
I knew I couldn’t back away from this little moment. I knew I had to own my sin. The minute I thought this, an inner struggle began. ‘I wasn’t the only one at fault. If he hadn’t said what he said, I wouldn’t have become angry. I was actually pretty patient for much of the conversation.’ These were some of the arguments I was giving myself.
Isn’t this interesting. Rather than appealing to the mercy of the Lord in the face of my sin, what I actually do instead is function as my own defence lawyer and present a list of arguments for my own righteousness. The theology behind the defence is that my greatest problem is outside of me, not inside of me. In so arguing, I’m telling myself that I don’t really need to be rescued by the Lord’s mercy. No, I’m telling myself that what I need to be rescued from is that sinner in the room who caused me to respond as I did.
Here’s the point. Before you can ever make a clean and unamended confession of your sin, you have to first begin by confessing your righteousness. It’s not just your sin that separates you from God, your righteousness does as well. Because, when you are convinced you are righteous, you don’t seek the forgiving, rescuing, and restoring mercy that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
2. ‘I do my duty’
But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you …’ (29)
Notice the older son does not say he has been serving his father or partnering his father or working with his father, but slaving for you: not serving, but slaving. ‘I feel like a slave.’ Another characteristic of people who do not really trust the grace of God is joyless duty.
Do you feel fed up with life? Do you feel unenthusiastic about serving God and serving others? Do you feel disillusioned, jaded, cynical, weary, miserable, gloomy, obliged? Are you over-busy – desperately trying to prove yourself? Do you do what you do out of duty, but without joy?
Imagine a woman who cooks for a family. They are ungrateful and unkind. They pay her a pittance of a salary. And they always threaten to sack her work is not up to standard. For her work is drudgery and duty.
Now imagine a young bride, full of love for her husband. Her husband is attentive, kind, loving. How does she cook him a meal? What’s her attitude? Drudgery and duty?
Joyless duty will characterise our attitude is we think of God as an uncaring boss. But if we think of him as a gracious Father then it will joyful service.
3. ‘I measure my performance’
‘… [I] never disobeyed your orders.’ (29)
The older brother is fixated on his performance. He is always measuring success. He keeps a record of what he has done. ‘I never disobeyed your orders.’ ‘I remember these things. I’ve made a mental note of it.’ He thinks of himself as being on show, as playing to the audience. He wants people to know. He carefully lets slip the good works he has done. He is concerned about what other’s think.
That’s because he is always trying to prove himself. So measuring and noting his performance matter. Reminding other people of what he has done is important. There are people trying to perform day after day – Christian leaders trying to preach a wonderful sermon every week, parents trying to produce lovely children, workers trying to excel at work – all in a desperate attempt to prove themselves. And some weeks they feel like they have pulled it off. And other weeks it seems so fragile – as if it might shatter. And so they live in a constant state of stress and busyness, always striving to pull off another great performance, always worried the charade might crumble around them.
We are desperate to prove ourselves. But we can’t do it. We can’t make yourself right with God. And we don’t have to! God is gracious. God forgives, he welcomes, he throws his arms around us.
Later on in Luke Jesus tells another parables. He describes the prayer of a self-righteous man: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, erers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (Luke 18:11-12) ‘I, I, I …’ It is all about what he does. Jesus says he ‘prayed about himself’. It is a record of his performance. And then Jesus tells of another man and another prayer. This is a notorious sinner. He stands away from the crowds. He does not even look up to heaven. He simply bows his head and prays: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ And then Jesus says: ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:14)
4. ‘I earn my reward’
‘Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.’ (29)
The older brother is ungrateful, self-obsessed and self-serving. You see, if you do what you do to prove yourself – whether to God or to other people or to yourself – then you are really serving yourself. If I do some act of kindness it might look like I’m serving you. But I’m only doing it so I can feel good about myself. I’m really serving myself. What I’m interested in is what I can get from it.
But imagine for a moment you’ve already got it! You have already been declared right in God’s sight, already declared righteous – as God’s gift. Imagine you are already a child of God and an heir of glory. You don’t need to earn it or win it. You’re not worried about what you get in return because you have everything already! You have identity and meaning and hope. Only if you really believe that God is gracious are you really free to serve others in love.
5. ‘I guard my status’
‘But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with s comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (30)
This is the first mention of pros titutes in the story. Maybe the younger son had used s; maybe he hadn’t. The older son does not know, but he takes the opportunity to paint his brother in the worst possible light. He even seems to look down on his father. Notice how he says not ‘my brother’, but ‘your son’: ‘this son of yours who has squandered your property with pros titutes.’ He wants other people to look bad so that he looks better. That is such a common characteristic of people who do not get God’s grace.
We are proud, conceited, superior, smug, arrogant. We look down on others. We enjoy the failure of others. We gossip about the short-comings of others. We exaggerate their faults and we exaggerate our own successes. Or we dress up our pride as kindness and be condescending or patronizing.
We want to prove ourselves. And the standard we set is the people around us. And so we want to look better that other people. Then proving ourselves means putting others down and pushing ourselves up. Other people’s goodness makes us feel bad; other people’s badness makes us fee good. It’s crazy, but we do it all the time.
We think of righteousness as a ladder and your position on the ladder is what matters. So you take every opportunity to push other people down a rung or two and every opportunity to pull yourself up. But God’s grace sweeps all that away. It makes it relevant. We stand together at the foot of the cross, equally ashamed and and exposed. And we stand together at the foot of the cross, equally accepted and welcome and forgiven.
Notice when this story is told. Look at verses 1-2. The marginalised people gather round Jesus. There is something about Jesus that attracts them to him. And Jesus welcomes them. He eats with them. Eating was a sign of acceptance, friendship and fellowship. Eating with someone was very symbolic. Jesus welcomes these tax-collectors and sinners into his community. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are scandalised. Morality doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.
And so Jesus tells these three parables to explain himself. God is not interested in our self-righteousness. He’s not interested who we think of as respectable or notorious. He is gracious. He welcomes everyone.
6. ‘I fear my future’
‘you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (30)
‘That’s my inheritance you’re eating in there,’ the older brother says in effect. How much is it costing? And who’s paying the bill?’ If you don’t really believe that God is gracious then you will worry about other people getting what you’ve got. Or you’ll worry about missing out, not getting the grade, not making the cut.
You’ll treat life as a race for approval and worry about other people over-taking you. You’ll treat life as a probationary period at work and worry about not proving up to the job. You’ll treat life as a big exam and worry about getting a big ‘F for Failure’.
I guess most of us confidently believe that we will be justified on the last day – acquitted before God through the death of Jesus. But what about justification today and tomorrow? Are you still trying to prove yourself?
- Do you ever get angry or brood because you’re desperate to prove that you’re in the right?
- Is your Christian service a case of joyless duty?
- Do you ever feel the pressure to perform?
- Do you serve others so you can feel good about yourself or impress people?
- Do you look down on other people or exaggerate their failings?
- Do you worry that you won’t make the grade in life?
This is what it comes down to. The older son doesn’t see himself as a son at all. He sees himself as a servant. The father has his son’s obedience, but he doesn’t have his love. He obeys his father, but he doesn’t love his father.
Is that true of you? Does God the Father have your obedience, but not your love?
All is not lost. What was the father’s attitude to the older brother? ‘His father went out and pleaded with him’ (v. 28). He speaks tenderly to him. ‘“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”’ (v. 31) Again this would be shocking to Jesus’ hearers: a father who goes out to his son would have been unheard of. The father is gracious to the younger son and he is gracious to the older brother. The father welcomes the prodigal home and he welcomes the older brother to the party.
But where is the older brother at the end of the story? He is outside; he is on the outside of the party. He is still choosing whether to go in or not. And perhaps Jesus leaves it undecided. We are left wondering what he will do. We put ourselves in his shoes and that forces us to wonder what we would do. It forces us to decide what we will do. Will we live believing that God is gracious?
A Chinese couple who were converted through the Crowded House are now planting a church in China in their home. They wrote recently about their new flat: ‘The room is small, but still big enough for the party.’ They spoke of church as a party because they cannot communicate openly. But what a wonderful image for the church. The church is a party. The church is the place where we enjoy God’s abundant grace. The church the place where we have to celebrate. Did you notice that in verse 32? ‘We had to celebrate and be glad.’ When you grasp that God is gracious, when you really ‘get it’, you have to be glad. Church is a perpetual party in which we rejoice that ‘we were dead and are alive again; we were lost and are found’ (v. 32 paraphrased)
Don’t be left on the outside.