I continue to be caught by the story of the prodigal son. Let’s begin by reading from Luke 15:11-31
11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. 13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. 17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ 20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him.
Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ 31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”
In this story we have three characters. We have the son, the father, and the older brother. We are most familiar with the son. He is the one who insults his father, takes his inheritance too soon, and then squanders it completely. We know the son as he comes back to the Father, hoping for a few things. He hopes to have a place to stay and food to eat. He hopes to pay back his father for the offence, (notice in verses 17-19 how he is rationalizing with himself a plan to present to his father once he is home).
And we are familiar with the father. This man has been watching and waiting. Notice how in verse 20 we find that the father began running to meet the son while he was still a long way off. There are a few things about this story that I have been learning these last years. I’ve come to understand that the father, in his running, threw off his importance. Important men do not run in the middle east. The father would have also thrown off all propriety, as in his running he would have had to lift his skirts to run with his ankles being exposed.
Another taboo in middle eastern culture of the time. Furthermore, we find that culturally speaking it would have been ‘proper’ and ‘right’ for the villagers, the townspeople, to intercept the son as he comes home and to avenge the insult to the father by stoning the son to death. Yet we find the father running to intercept this attack and to take the stones onto himself. The father runs to take the punishment in place of his son. The story goes on. The father embraces his son and rejects all notions for him to become any kind of hired servant, calling out instead for a lavish banquet to be served and for fresh clothes.
In steps the older brother.Now, the older brother was the one who had been doing everything right. He had been faithful. He had been keeping to his work and his responsibilities. He had been making right choices and proving himself worthy. And he was keenly aware of his sacrifice in service to his father. So, when the older brother hears about the banquet and the lavish welcome the Father is giving the son, the older brother becomes angry. He cannot abide the injustice of this. The son who has done everything wrong is welcomed without reservation.
What I want to point out today, is that all too often within our christian cultures, within our churches, as pastors and leaders and ‘good’ christians, we have become the older brother. We are doing all the right things. We are working hard. We are remaining faithful. We are making good choices. We are sacrificing. And then, all of a sudden, there are those who have been doing everything wrong. They have made wrong choices. They have not worked as they should. They have made big mistakes and have hurt many people. They have failed in so many ways. They have offended God so many times. Yet, one day, they choose the Lord. They come back to the Father. And The Father welcomes them whole-heartedly!
The Father breaks out a celebration for them. The Father bestows honour and blessings upon these ones. He advances them forward. The son is accepted, the son is celebrated, the son is received, the son is embraced, the son is welcomed, the son is reestablished in all things. And we, those who are the older brother, become angry, jealous, incensed, in disbelief. We wonder, “Where is the justice? Where is the fairness? Where is right and wrong and good and bad and all that comes of these things?!” Out of our anger, out of our jealousy, out of our self-righteousness, out of our sacrifice, we cannot celebrate this one who has come to the Lord. We cannot embrace his or her newness in Christ.
All we want is for the old to be remembered and made right. We want punishment, not forgiveness. We want recompense, not grace. We want retribution, not celebration. And we refuse to enter into the celebration. We refuse the feast.
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began… (but) the older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in.” Luke 15:22-24, 28
“Jesus also told them other parables. He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come!” Matthew 22:1-2
It must be noted that in the spirit of the older brother we will have a feeling of rightness and of conscientious goodness about ourselves. We are upholding righteousness after all! We are maintaining standards of good and bad! We are ensuring that people understand the way it is to be! Yet, in the spirit of the older brother our attitude stinks and our manner is offensive. In our ‘rightness’ we are wrong. In our ‘goodness’ we have missed the point. In our ‘sacrifice’ we miss the heart of the Father. And we miss the feast. We are not prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb because we have not clothed ourselves in the right clothes.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23
We’ve not put on compassion, empathy, humility, kindness, graciousness, or generosity of soul. We are not welcoming, we do not embrace. We maintain exacting measures and the letter of the law. We do not understand the kingdom of the Father from his perspective but only from our own. We miss out on his spirit. We miss out on love. We miss out on forgiveness. We miss out on the feast. We miss the celebration.
The enemy, and our own self importance, our service, and our sacrifice, will whisper to our hearts that we deserve honour and that we deserve to be the ones at the head of the line, first in place, recognized, validated for our rightness and our goodness. But in this attitude, in our self-righteousness – that has no room for those who haven’t been so perfect – we will find ourselves at the back of the line. And perhaps, rejecting the feast.
Living by the letter of the law we miss out on the spirit of the law. Live by exacting measures and we lose out on life. Contrast this with living by The Spirit where a generosity of heart and soul marks our days.
“… I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God.” Galatians 2:18-19
“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:38
The celebration of the Father is happening all around us all the time. Certainly there will be a future feast and celebration in all it’s fullness, yet the banquet is already beginning, the celebration has already been introduced in the work and person of Jesus Christ. The moment that Jesus became our sacrifice the wedding began. Now, everyone can come to him. Anyone who wants can receive entrance into the Father’s home, to the celebration, to the feast.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isaiah 55:1
I cannot say this strongly enough – we want to ensure that we go forward in ministry and life with the spirit of the Father and not of the older son. Do not go through life with the spirit of the older brother. Rather, base your life on the spirit of the Father. Clothe yourselves in Christ so that you can be ready for the feast.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
2 Corinthians 5:17 “Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honour to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself.” Revelation 19:7