Luke 15:26-32 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’”
This parable is generally known as the parable of the prodigal son, but it may also be called the parable of the running father, or again it could be referred to as the parable of the two lost brothers. There were, you remember, two groups listening to Jesus’ preaching. There was a crowd of immoral men, careless about the law of God, men like the traitorous tax collectors. The first son symbolically represented those men, morally loose and marginalized, the under-class of Galilee, the sexually promiscuous, the scandalous and the drunkards. Then there was the other group, who were righteous both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their neighbours. These were the religious leaders of the land, men such as the Pharisees, the leaders of the network of synagogues and legal experts concerning the meaning of rabbinic traditions, self-appointed guardians of public decency. I am saying that this second class of men is represented to us symbolically by the older brother. He is introduced to us at this juncture by our Lord. The only other reference even to his existence we find in the opening words of the parable, “There was a man who had two sons” (v.11), but subsequently there’s been no mention of this older boy until now in verse 26.
When we first meet him where is he to be found? Working in the fields, as he’d been toiling away all the time his younger brother was living it up in the distant city. The older brother represents the old morality of the nation, the religious folk who’ve been shocked at immoral people being drawn to the Lord Jesus, standing in their thousands to hear him preach. These righteous living people have taken offence because such sinners have been welcomed by Jesus and he has offered them rest, that is, grace and mercy from God. The religious group in the land couldn’t and wouldn’t rejoice at these conversions, at prodigals turning from their sin to God.
Do we have these two groups in society today? Of course we do. They were in school with me; there were the blaspheming, drinking, smoking readers of Playboy, boys with no interest at all in Christianity. Then there were others, the smartly dressed boys with good quality blazers who spoke nicely and always wore clean white shirts. Their trousers were creased and they worked diligently, passed their exams and became prefects and went to university. Yet they were as disinterested in the Christian gospel as the other group. Neither group had any interest in ourselves when some of us were saved and we made the journey home to our Father and we began a Christian Union and a Bible Study in school. There were few from either group who would stay behind for our meetings; they were off down the hill into the village and onto the school bus home, the rebels sitting in the back of the bus and the posh boys sitting in the front. Two groups of lost boys, all traveling to hell, some in a dirty way, trawling the gutters, whilst others were going to hell the posh way, but all on the broad way and all going to destruction every one hostile to Jesus’ gospel. Why weren’t the posh boys from good homes with hard working fathers and mothers drawn to us? Why were they just as hostile in their own way to the gospel as the foul-mouthed boys who cheated their way through school? This parable will tell us.
1. THE RESENTMENT ACKNOWLEDGED.
Let me point out that there’s nothing wrong with being a dutiful older brother. Imagine if both the boys had taken all their inheritance, and blown it together on wine, women and song in the distant city. It would have been doubly disgusting. That did not happen. We are thankful to God for hard-working responsible men and women, and that is what this older brother continued to be while his younger sibling was living it up with his fair-weather friends in the distant city. Then one day walking back from the fields after wearying work ploughing, sowing and weeding from dawn, this older boy – though only in his early twenties – thought he could hear something. As he got nearer the farm he heard unusual sounds . . . yes it was music, and soon the sight of dancing – maybe these were entertainers who had been brought in, and it was not long before he could smell a barbecue of roast veal. The farm workmen had changed their clothes into party suits and frocks. Then, “He called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’” (vv.26&27). The older brother’s response is not one of pleasure at the family being reunited, of a brother thought to be dead but alive and home again. He was outraged at this celebration; he objected so strongly that he wouldn’t enter the farm, or the room where all the eating and drinking and music came from. He refused to meet his long-lost brother.
Terry Johnson’s observations are helpful: “You can understand why the older brother felt this way. The prodigal brother had been living scandalously. His return, as his brother saw it, was no occasion for celebration but for shame. Where the Prodigal had been, and what he’d been doing would become the gossip of the town all over again. ‘We’ve been trying to move on,’ he might have been thinking. ‘For months all that our neighbours have been talking about has been this lad’s departure and his journey to the ‘far country.’ They’ve never stopped asking me questions about him, have we heard from him and how was he doing. Just when everything was finally quietening down he’s turned up and stirs it all up again. It just brings further disgrace on the family. Pack up the band! Put the musical instruments in their boxes. Let everyone go home. Pull the curtains. Hide the boy in the back bedroom” (Terry Johnson, The Parables of Jesus, Christian Focus, 2007, pp. 290-291).
The entry of the older brother into the narrative, at just a mundane level, is a stroke of literary genius. In this parable we’ve been presented by the Son of God with an extraordinary portrait of Almighty God, the Father of every returning repentant Prodigal and his welcome of them, uninhibited and exuberant. There is his complete acceptance and his free pardon. We see that God immediately produces all the insignia of sonship, and freely bestows them on his son, the most glorious gifts, free pardon, union with Christ, even giving the boy God the Holy Spirit. His own father, whom he has disgraced and offended and abandoned, and in many ways deluded, rejoices at the Prodigal’s return. But here is the older brother, the moralist, and he can’t make head or tail of his father’s response. He can’t understand how this boy ever got past the door! He can’t imagine why his father didn’t send him straight back saying to him, “Go off to your prostitutes. Get back to your swine!” He can’t understand a free forgiveness. He can’t understand how such a man could be taken back into the family and loved, his full sonship restored, with no precautions and no probation.
The father was taking the most appaling risks because this boy might renege. He might bring new disgrace; he might return to the far country when he’d saved a bit of money. There was no guarantee of that not happening. So the older brother sat outside and he moralized. He’d definitely not have him back, or he’d have kept him at least in the servants’ quarters. He’d have given him work to do. He’d have said, “Earn your spurs!” He’d have watched him, and tested him, and judged him. That is how the world acts; it is cynical about conversion; it mocks the new birth.
It was put to a speaker recently in a university Christian Union meeting. “Is it fair,” he was asked by a student, “when a man and woman have lived a faithful and respectable life of honesty and goodness for 50 years, though they are not Christians, that when they die unsaved without God, that they should be condemned? Then there’s a profligate; he might have been a serial killer, and he is converted in a prison from which he’ll never be let out, and that murderer goes to glory when he dies, is that fair?” If the student asking the question were in charge of eternity he’d never allow that. There is this Prodigal, and he’s been a real rotter, and all the world says, “You can’t welcome a sinner without safeguards. You can’t receive a sinner back home without spelling out the conditions. You can’t let him sit at the family table. You can’t leave that man alone with his father. It can’t happen. It is indecent.”
That is how the human heart thinks and works. It doesn’t see that all have sinned and that the essence of sin is to defy and ignore God. It invents purgatory where it dumps all sinners, where men and women have to spend hundreds if not thousands of years in its purging fires before they’ve earned by their sufferings the right to enter heaven. It is unthinkable for them that when repentant thieves died they could go that very day to be with Jesus in paradise. Are you aware that when Saul of Tarsus was converted that God was the only one who believed that he’d been changed permanently. It was impossible, the church felt, that this conversion was a fixed divine change; “We have heard from many about this man of the damage he’s done to the church in Jerusalem. Now we’re being asked to accept him as a disciple and a brother and a preacher?” At the very least Ananias thinks that Saul ought to be put on probation. “Let’s wait and see how it goes with him, but we daren’t bring him into the inner circle.”
We’ve all seen such cases and the same response. We ourselves have said when someone from a bad background professes to become a Christian, “We’ll see . . . let’s see how long it lasts.” I’ve said in my own heart, “Let’s see how long I last; let’s see how long you last,” because both you and me are at least equally probable candidates for apostasy. You are watching someone saved from the world, and even as you rejoice in the change you are preparing yourself for news of his fall. Yet frequently he’s the one who keeps going and it’s someone else, an elder or a deacon, the last one you’d expect, who falls. We are not prepared to have a feast yet, but God who knows everything is there and he is extending his own welcome. He is gifting that man and owning him by sonship insignia. So the older brother did not share in the father’s joy and very publically expressed his resentment.
2. THE RESENTMENT ANALYZED.
i] He resents his life having been a life of service. “‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you” (v.) He looks at the years of farming with his farmer on the farm that he is soon to inherit. “It’s been work, work, work! It’s been virtual bondage.” So he whines and exaggerates. What else would he rather have been doing? He’s never really understood what being a son means. His outlook is typical of religious sinners. How do they view the Christian life? As some grim sacrifice they’d have to make, all they’d have to give up, the fun they wouldn’t have; it’s been a burden. They are the people who tell you that they’d had to go to church “twice on a Sunday” and Sunday School, and that they’d given money to the church. It’s all been a grim duty to them, not a delight, not an extraordinary privilege to hear of the living God in all his beauty, truth and grace
Serving God, I say, is a privilege. When we serve God we think – “What an honour! To glorify and enjoy God! To love my neighbour as myself! I do it all out of gratitude, not for reward. I’d do it all over again and my regret is that I didn’t give him more.” Rewards there are in this life, and rewards there shall be in eternity, but they don’t provide the big motive for serving God and serving our neighbours. Grace does that. Love so amazing so divine as the death of Christ for my sins demands my soul, my life, my all. It should have been enough for the older brother that he could live in the presence of this wonderful father. Many have never had fathers; many have had rotten fathers while this boy has had a man of wonderful affection and kindness – his own beloved Dad. He has enjoyed his father’s provision of food, clothing, shelter, and love. It should be enough for us – whatever the cost of discipleship – that the Creator of the universe has become our Father, that our sins are forgiven, that we have been promised eternity in heaven with him, and that he loves us and supplies all our needs in this life richly.
Haven’t we all noticed over the years that among those who are real Christians, whether ministers, missionaries, church officers or members, there’s a complete absence in their conversations of any mention of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘work’ or the ‘cost’ of serving God? Ask them what they’ve given up to do camp work or beach missions or teach Sunday School or run a book shop, they’ll say, “No sacrifice. We enjoyed it. We gave up what we couldn’t keep and we’ve gained what we can never lose.” They’ve received so much that their sacrifice has been as nothing. They just want to contribute. They’ve wanted to serve the Lord any way. They’ve been ready to give and work and go and do anything in any way that they could, 24/7, and they’ve counted it their highest privilege.
One problem with the older brother is that he views service as a quid pro quo. ‘I’ve been slaving,’ he says to Dad, ‘yet what have I had from you in return for all I’ve done for you, not even a kid.’ He’s been working in order to be paid. He sees work not as grateful service for a darling father but as contract labour. He thinks he is earning his inheritance through hard labour whereas his prodigal brother has failed. He doesn’t see the rich rewards of health and work and being this man’s son as a gift, and he is resentful. The older brother is a lost man just like every religious sinner. He is outside the feast because of his righteousness. It’s not his sins that have created a barrier between him and his father, it is his moral record. Religious sinners are legalists. They imagine that their religion has merited their forgiveness. They think they’ve earned any blessing they’ve received. They fail to understand that they could never do enough or do it well enough to earn a place in heaven with God, to merit their inheritance, to gain a place in the Father’s household. The sin of their father Adam and their own many sins that have touched everything they’ve ever done have dirtied any offering they could make to God. We can never be good enough, or work hard enough. Christ by his life and death has earned it all for us. He has merited it all for us. He has paid for the whole status and inheritance that God has given us. So the older son resents his life of service.
ii] He resents his life of obeying his father. The older brother continues his rant in verse 29, “I never disobeyed your orders.” True, and the question would be, “What orders? Extreme orders, harsh orders, and unpleasant orders?” Not at all. Good, acceptable and wise orders. “You’ve not been rewarded? You got no occasional ‘kid’? Is that what obeying your father was all about? Getting a kid now and then to kill and eat with your friends? No pay off has come from obeying Dad, and so your obedience has been wasted? Your obedience has made you a loser? It seems to me from this remark that the older brother envies his younger brother’s time in the distant city. He secretly wishes that he’d had the guts to have gone off.
He isn’t thinking, let alone saying, that obedience is its own reward. Keeping your marriage vows is its own reward. Our parents never said to us, “Very well done, son, for keeping your marriage vows.” Keeping them was happiness enough without some pat on the back. We didn’t need their murmurs of approval for that. That wasn’t the second mile! This older son has failed to see how ‘good’ and ‘righteous’ and ‘holy’ and ‘spiritual’ is the law of God, and he’s not blessing God for ever enabling him to hear and keep God’s commandments. The Psalmist delighted in God’s law, and he meditated on it day and night. He found it more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. He said, “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day.” What blessings had come into his life from keeping God’s law! Remember what the apostle John said to New Testament Christians, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Christ’s yoke has been an easy yoke; his burden has been light, but this was not how the older brother saw it. The real need of a religious sinner is a new heart. He needs to be born again. He needs to become a new creature in Christ, and then he’ll love to obey his Father. So he also resented the life of obedience.
iii] He resents the amazing grace his father had displayed. “When this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him” (v.30). Notice he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” He cannot bring himself to speak of him as his own ‘brother.’ He is seething with resentment. He complains that his brother has consumed the family wealth, devouring the portion of the estate that had been given to him with morally degrading choices – prostitutes! Think of it! So how could his father celebrate at the defiling return of such a man into the family circle? He thinks his father is a weakling to treat the prodigal like this. He knows better; he knows more; he is wiser and more just than the old man. He thought he should be telling the father how to deploy the best robe and the ring and the slippers.
At this point, you realise, the older brother hasn’t seen his brother or heard anything he’s said. Is his brother a repentant man? Is there contrition? Is there conviction of his folly and much regret? Is he returning as a servant and not a son? None of this seems to matter to him. Wouldn’t the father have told him these things, and then did the older brother scoff? “I don’t believe it.” You remember that the prodigal son had sinned one great sin. It was not that there had been a pattern of such sins in his life, that he was frequently going off for a dirty week-end to another town. No. It was one odious sin, and one grace of repentance commensurate with it, and the father had responded to that in loving kindness, and that is what the older brother could not accept. The older boy had no room in his theological world or in his religious experience for grace, for mercy, or for forgiveness. As far as he was concerned, his younger brother was a guilty dog, he’d committed terrible sins, and he was forever disqualified from restoration. He certainly shouldn’t be given a celebration immediately upon his return. No mercy now for one like him. How different God is and aren’t we mighty glad? The Psalmist asks, “If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). God doesn’t stand watching us and marking a cross on some heavenly clip board for every sin of ours. We couldn’t stand before him if he did. He has marked our every iniquity against his Son on Golgotha once and for all. The handwriting of ordinances against our sins was marked against Christ, and thus there can be no condemnation to us. We can stand and live today because Jesus lay dead in the tomb; he was dead for our sins.
I am not saying that we’re to shrug at one another’s sins. We don’t accept each other’s sins. There is not one person here who has not done something in his past for which he is deeply ashamed. We don’t ask anyone to accept our sins, but we all must accept each other’s repentance! There’s an enormous distinction between sin that is condoned (“Well, we are all sinners . . .”) and the same sin renounced and hated and wept over and abandoned. We may not say, “Ah well, we all have our hang-ups” and then affirm each other in our gossip, pride, hypocrisy, promiscuity, or drunkenness. No, what we affirm in one another is our faith in Jesus Christ and our sorrow for our sins. “I too am a sinner” I tell you; “Mine are of a different stripe from yours. Maybe mine are worst than yours. Maybe mine are worst than King David’s. But we are all in equal need of mercy, so where is there room for censorious complaints at the goodness of God to terrible sinners?” Sin isn’t just going off and breaking the rules. Sin is also putting yourself in the place of God and passing judgment on others.
The elder brother knows nothing of this. He cannot show mercy to his brother. So has he ever received mercy from God? He is harsh. He is censorious at his father’s kindness to his wayward brother. Is a man who cannot forgive a forgiven man? Is a man who cannot show mercy a recipient of mercy? Has he ever understood the grace of God? Has he ever received it? Would such a man ever sing of the amazing grace of God? The older brother is the Pharisee. He doesn’t think that he will ever need the divine pity, and he thinks that worse people should not receive grace. They need justice. I want to say this, that the heart sins of religious men are far worse than the ‘worldly’ sins of the irreligious men. Jesus reserves his harshest words not for the tax-gatherers and sinners, but for scribes and Pharisees. The older brother fails to see himself and his brother as different kinds of sinners. They are both sinners, but the older brother can’t see it while the prodigal is deep in shame.
I have often told you the story of the religious man who had not missed his morning devotions for 40 years. Then one morning he chanced to oversleep and in a dream the devil came to him to wake him up. “Come on! Wake up sleepy head! It is time for you to wake up and pray.” “Pray? You want me to pray?” he said in astonishment. “Why should you want me to pray?” “Ah well,” the devil said, “I have been in the presence of God and it was wonderful and I want you to enjoy this too.” The man now was more afraid than ever and scorned the devil; “I cannot believe that you’d want anything good for me,” he said, and he woke up in a cold sweat. Then he thought about himself more and more deeply, about his sense of self-righteousness and his pride at his time-keeping and discipline and that he had never missed a day’s Bible reading for forty years, and what a grip that self-confidence had got of his life. Then he came to realize as never before that God loves our sins when they are mixed with repentance more than he loves our virtues when they are mixed with pride.
3 THE RESENTMENT ANSWERED.
The father goes out again. He had already gone out earlier this day and ran along the lane to bring his prodigal son home, but now he goes out again to the other son and he justifies to him what had been done to welcome his erring brother. He is not intolerant or scornful to his older son. He doesn’t disdain him or tell him to shape up and not be silly. He doesn’t ask him, “Why didn’t you go off to that city and find him, and help him, and bring him home?” The shepherd had gone searching for the sheep until he’d found him and carried him back.
The father is taking his son’s resentment and pain seriously. He wants love and fellowship between himself and this boy, his dear firstborn child. He speaks to him tenderly. Do we do this? Did I do this to the church members who used to be on the church role of membership but who didn’t appreciate the gospel of the blood of Jesus Christ? They didn’t like being told that all their righteousnesses were as filthy rags. They didn’t want to be told that our only hope of eternal life was through the merits of the Redeemer whom God had sent. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. Was I patient enough with them, and did I love them, and did I patiently explain again and again the gospel of free grace? For years before I arrived in the pulpit they had gone on doing what the modernists had told them to do especially in their formative years, “Do your best, and live a good life, and follow the example of Christ.” It wasn’t surprising that they found the historic Christian faith as I preached it revolutionary, its appaling analysis of the human condition, dead in trespasses and sins; the sacrifice of Golgotha the only means of reconciliation; only by personal faith in the Redeemer could the divine mercy be ours. Was I patient with them as they looked blankly back at me? This father was patient with his self-righteous critic; “Let me just say two or three things . . .” he said to his son:
i] Everything belongs to you. Because the father had been so generous and merciful to the Prodigal it was not at all detrimental to the older boy and his expectations. He still would get the farm. It was in the will. Nothing was to be changed in the arrangements. The older son was to have everything. The father assured him, “Everything I have is yours,” (v.31). Do you appreciate the immeasurable fulness that there is in the grace of God that’s been given to you? There is a super-abundance of every single grace, mercy, pardon, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. If God gives his grace to a wretched wicked sinner who repents it doesn’t mean that there is an atom less for you. There is no less at all! If God welcomes him into his heaven it doesn’t mean there is less space for you in heaven. There is no east or west; no north or south in heaven. It is vast, unmeasured and boundless; plenty of room for sinners. It is like a tadpole in the river Thames complaining that “ . . . another egg has spawned and yet another tadpole has been born and soon the river will be overcrowded.” Plenty of room for you little tadpole. It is like the sea worrying that the sun is shining on it all day, and that soon the sun will burn itself out. “Be more restrained O great sun. Shine just for three days each week and reserve your supplies of warmth and light so that you can shine longer!” Don’t worry Father Neptune there is illimitable warmth and light in the sun to shine on you for another million years.”
So let the older brother know that all that the Father has he will give to each one of his sons, that of his fulness they will all receive and grace for grace. There is plenty of wealth to go around. If God is merciful and blessed to king David, and to the blasphemer Peter, and to John Newton and to terrible criminals then he has immeasurable mercy to give to you too. You will not suffer if prodigals are welcomed to the same heavenly home. You will lose nothing of all that you deserve for your faithful work. God says to every Christian, “Everything I have is yours because my Son, Jesus Christ has purchased it all for you.”
ii] You always will have me. The father was there for his son, please let him appreciate Abba Father, and erect no barriers between him and his Dad. What a father! One in a million, loving and pardoning his erring brother like this. If he should fall the same mercy would be shown to him. Hasn’t he much to learn from his father? He will always be there to turn to, to obtain advice from, to receive comfort, to get wisdom, to hear him speak of how providence dealt with him as a young man and throughout his life, how he learned of God’s mercy and was empowered to show mercy himself. This man is his father and he’s not living in Egypt or Greece but on the same compound, sitting at the same table, sharing in the same work, and loving him and working all things together for the good of the boy. What a privilege! The younger son has now discovered the stature of his father – but at what cost! Now the older boy must find it too.
You will not have your dear family with you for ever. There will come a time when your closest friends will be taken from you, but you will always have our heavenly Father to bless and keep you, to make the light of his countenance shine upon you and be gracious until you, to give you peace. What a blessing, an involved and loving Father for all the years of time and for eternity. Appropriate God each day of your life. Be thankful for God always. He loves you as he loves his own Son. Not one degree less, and he plans to complete the work he has begun in you and present you faultless in the great final day. You always have God! This pathetic older brother wanted the father’s goods such as his young goats for a feast with his friends – more than he desired the father himself. Neither boy has loved his father for what he is in himself, but each one of them had loved him for his own self-serving ends. If this older brother had properly thought that one of his chief ends in life was to give pleasure to his great father then he would have immediately joined the feast.
iii] You must always rejoice in repenting sinners coming home. “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’”(v.32). We do not dwell on what a certain person once did, how wretchedly he behaved. We’re to forget the things that are past. He has repented; he has left that place with all its shame and he’s not going back. He’s been a wicked fool, yes, but he’s changed, and the change in him is as great as the change from being dead to being alive, as being lost to being found. What is preferable? Being alive! Being found! Then are these not great changes for which we should celebrate? If God rejoices in heaven, and if all the angels dance for joy at a sinner coming home then we would be ungodly to be sulking and suspicious, saying, “Yes, but . . . these are early days, what if . . . what if . . .” We have to celebrate and be glad at the credible profession of trust in the Saviour and the hatred of the old sinful way of life.
“My son,” the father is saying, “I still want you in this feast though you have publically rejected my welcome and shown your rebellion in separating yourself from us. I want you to come in. I am not going to disown your brother, and I am not going to disown you. Come! Pour contempt on all your pride and come!” The boy would shame himself if he rejected the father’s invitation. Let this boy see that he is just as self-centred and just as much a grief to his father as his brother has been, that he has no right to feel superior. Let him cast himself on the arms of grace that would embrace him too.
12th June 2011 GEOFF THOMAS