Pastor Galen, March 31st, 2019
2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Have you ever had a classmate, coworker, friend, or family member who always seemed to do the wrong thing, but always seemed to get ahead?
Maybe in school they always cheated but never got caught. Maybe always came in late for work, or left early, while you were always there on time, but somehow they got promoted instead of you.
Or maybe you have a family member who eats whatever they want but never gains weight. They have the unhealthiest lifestyle or make the poorest life decisions, but they still look fit and fabulous, while you seem to gain weight just by looking at a piece of chocolate cake.
We probably all have someone in our life like this. It might be a sibling, classmate or coworker. Or it could be a “frenemy.” Have you heard this term? A “frenemy” is an enemy that you pretend to be friends with, or a friend that you secretly despite or are jealous of. It’s a person in your life that you love to hate.
It can be incredibly frustrating to be around people who seem to do whatever they want and get away with is. People who do everything wrong but never seem to reap the consequences, people who seem to get whatever they want, or people who always seem to get a pass in life, especially when you’ve had to work hard for everything that you have.
The Story of the Two Sons
The parable that Jesus told in Luke 15 has often been called “The Story of the Lost Son,” or “The Prodigal Son.” But in actuality, it’s the story of two sons. Two sons who live their lives very differently. One son who makes incredibly poor life decisions but seems to get a pass in life. And the other son who works hard all of his life, but who is jealous as he watches his brother get all of the love and attention from their father that he feels like he deserves.
Now, Jesus told his story to religious people who were frustrated by the fact that Jesus was spending his time eating with “sinners.” These religious people were probably wondering why Jesus wasn’t spending his time with them, debating theology and avoiding tax collectors and doing whatever else it was that religious people of that day did.
Jesus told this story to illustrate what he was doing and why he was doing it. And so even though we tend to focus on the younger son, the “prodigal” son, I want to argue that this story is just as much about the older son. In fact, the story was told for the benefit of people who probably could identify much more with the older son than with the younger.
So let’s dig in to this story.
First Instance of Grace
The story opens with the younger son making one of the most presumptuous, insolent, and disrespectful requests that a son could possibly make of his father. He asks his father for his inheritance.
Now, an inheritance is usually something that you get from your parents when they pass away. It’s not usually something you ask for when your parents are alive. This is probably an inappropriate request in any society, but in ancient middle eastern Jewish culture this would have been worse than spitting in your father’s face in public. It was sort of like saying “Father, I can’t wait until you die. Can I have your money now?” It was utterly inappropriate and disrespectful.
Now I can only imagine what the older son was thinking when he heard his younger brother ask his father for this. “Now he’s going to get it!” In a society based around shame and honor, for a son to make this sort of request of his father warranted at least a slap in the face, if not a public flogging. I imagine the older brother sitting back with a smirk on his face, just waiting to see what’s going to happen.
But surprisingly, the father responds with grace. He gives the son what he asked for, even though he probably knew that his son would waste it. In fact the father divided his property between both of his sons.
Now despite the fact that the older brother just became instantly wealthy, it had to be incredibly frustrating to see his younger brother get away with committing the most socially disrespectful act in the world and escape unscathed. I imagine the older brother seething with rage as he watched his younger brother set off into the world to blow through his father’s inheritance.
Second Instance of Grace
Of course the younger brother did go and waste it all, while the older son stayed home and continued working in the fields for his father. Maybe the older son invested his money in the bank, or bought property or real estate like a wise older son.
Meanwhile, the younger son spent it all and ended up penniless and destitute. Things got so bad that he had to take a job feeding pigs. In ancient Jewish society this was the lowest of the low. Pigs were despised and considered ritually unclean, and anyone who worked with pigs was also considered religiously and ritually unclean. The youngest son had reached rock bottom. He was as low as you can go.
Now, I have no idea if the father and older son were receiving reports about the youngest son or not. There was no facebook back then, no instagram or snapchat, but they probably heard rumours of his loose living, of how he was living like there was no tomorrow, of how he was practically giving away his father’s hard-earned cash.
The Youngest Son Returns
But eventually, the Bible says that he “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17 NIV). He had a moment of realization, an epiphany. In that moment when he was at rock bottom, it slowly dawned on him that his father’s servants had it better than he did at that point. His father’s servants had plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear and a warm place to sleep at night — while he was hungry, homeless, and feeding pigs.
Now, he knew that his father would be crazy to accept him back again as a son. But in a moment of desperation, he thought to himself that perhaps his father would accept him back, not as a son, but as a servant. Maybe if he pleaded and begged, his father might receive him back as a hired servant. Maybe, just maybe, his father would have enough pity on him. Then he could work to pay his father back, to make up for all that he had wasted.
So the younger son set off towards home. And all the way home he rehearsed in his mind what he was going to say to his father. He would grovel, plead and beg. He would say “”Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands”‘ (Luke 15:18b-19)
But he never got the chance to deliver his speech. Because, while he was still a long way from home, far off in the distance he could see his father coming towards him. Not walking, but full-out sprinting, running towards the son. This was a grown man in Middle Eastern culture, where grown men typically didn’t go for jogs around the park. This was a man whose son had disrespected him publicly, had practically spit in his face. But he runs towards his son, his long robes flying out behind him. And when the father reaches the son, he meets him not with a stern rebuke or a slap in the face, but with a kiss and a loving embrace.
The son begins his rehearsed speech, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (Luke 15:21).
But the father doesn’t even let him finish his speech. The son never gets to ask if he can be a hired servant. Even before he can blurt out the words the father turns, tells his servants to bring the best robe, to bring a ring (the emblems that would prove that this is his son) and to kill the fattened calf and to have a feast to celebrate the son’s return. The father forgives and restores his son.
This is the kind of love that God has for us. A lot that embraces us, that forgives us no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we’ve messed up. A love that pursues us, no matter how far we’ve strayed away from God. This is God’s amazing grace.
The Older Son
But the older son had no clue this was all happening. He was out in the field, slaving away for his father. He didn’t know his younger brother had returned home until he came in from the fields and heard the sound of music and dancing.
I can only imagine the thoughts running through the older sons mind. “Who planned a party and didn’t invite me? How did I not know we were having a feast?”
I imagine him at first standing there bewildered and confused. Then he slowly begins to suspect what has just happened. It couldn’t be, could it? There’s no way! After all that his brother had done. There’s no way his father would receive him back again, right? He begins to seethe with rage at the thought. But he has to know. He calls one of the servants over to ask, and his suspicions are confirmed. It is indeed what he thought. His younger son had returned home, and his father was throwing him a party.
He had done everything right. He had worked for his father his whole life. He never made outlandishly disrespectful requests of his father. He never gone and wasted away his father’s inheritance. He never even left home — he was right here working for his father to this very day. But his father had never killed the fattened calf for him. He had never even given him a goat so he could celebrate with his friends.
He spins on his heels and walks the other direction. He doesn’t even want to see his younger brother, let alone celebrate his return. He is so filled with rage and jealousy that he can’t even see straight.
But then he hears his father’s voice and he feels the soft touch of his father’s hand on his shoulder, which he quickly shrugs off.
He turns and gives his father the works. All of the pent up rage and anger and frustration he has been feeling all of these years. He unleashes it on his father. He tells him that’s he’s done everything right. Why is his younger brother getting all of the love and attention that he deserves? His younger brother has done everything wrong, why does he keep getting away with it? Why is his father celebrating that he’s home?
The father stands there and lets him unleash his anger. He waits for him to finish. And then he says “son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31-32).
“You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Such a profound statement. The older son had been working all of his life to gain his father’s approval. But his father already loved him. He didn’t need to do anything to gain his father’s attention. He could have it whenever he wanted it. He had been out in the fields, striving away to please his father, when his father had already given him his inheritance. He didn’t need to keep working to make his father happy. His father already adored him.
The love that his father showed to his younger brother was not unfair, it was a testament to the father’s unconditional love that he had for both of his sons. The unfathomable grace and mercy the father extended to the younger son was available to the older son as well. He just hadn’t ever realized it, because he was so busy working to try to please his father. But his father loved him unconditionally as well. He had been loving him all of his life, he had already given him everything he needed.
Friends, when we see other people receiving unmerited grace, When we see people getting a pass in life and we wonder why it doesn’t happen for us, let’s remember what we already have. Let’s remember what we’ve already been given. We’ve been given grace, and mercy. We’ve been promised salvation and redemption, an inheritance.
And let’s remember what we have access to. We have access to the love of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have a community of brothers and sisters in Christ who are there for us when we need them. We have hope through Christ’s death and resurrection.
And like Christ, we’ve been given a mission and purpose in life, to go and seek out the lost, to point others towards Christ, to extend God’s love to the outcast, the marginalized, to help others experience the joy that we have in Christ.
And so rather than stand back and judge and criticize those who are making poor decisions, rather than lamenting the fact that they keep doing the wrong thing and landing on their feet, let’s be grateful that God has given them one more chance, that’s we serve a God who is loving and merciful, and let’s keep loving them and pointing them towards Christ. And let’s pray that they will wake up and come to their senses before it’s too late, so that they too would experience the warm and loving embrace of a Father who is waiting to welcome them back home.