This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.
I will never forget a meeting I had with unhappy parishioners a few years ago. We had made deliberate changes in our church in order to better focus on evangelism. As a result, God was doing an amazing thing. But some folks were really struggling with the changes, so we got together to talk it through. They were unhappy because they couldn't find a parking space. People were sitting where they had sat for years. The pastors were giving the new members all the attention and weren't paying enough attention to the ones who paid the bills around there.
The music was too loud. The air conditioner was too cold. The sermons were too soft. The toilet paper in the bathroom wasn't soft enough. Pretty soon it escalated into the biggest gripe session you've ever heard.
In an effort to turn away from the negativism, the staff went back to the reason for change. We brought up the fact that our church was seeing an unusual number of people come to faith in Christ. I told the story of two adult sisters I had recently seen come to faith, and what a radical change God was bringing about in their lives. Surely, I said, we could put aside our own preferences and rejoice over lost brothers and sisters being embraced by a loving Father.
One guy got to his feet and, with his face burning bright red with anger, shouted at me: "See, that's the whole problem right there. I am sick and tired of these damned seekers coming in here and messing up the way we like church."
It was as if all the oxygen was suddenly sucked out of the room. I thought to myself: I cannot believe he just said that. Surely someone will speak up about how selfish he was, how that remark was so unlike the spirit of Christ. But that's not what happened. Instead the room broke out in applause. Talk about a low point in life.
When I tell that story, I know that many of you will think, Well that's just awful. But if God chose to use this church as a rescue operation for the lost and broken of northern El Paso County, what would your real reaction be?
This morning we look at one of the most familiar of Jesus' parables. It's found in Luke 15:11-32. It's often called the "Parable of the Prodigal Son". The word prodigal means "wasteful"; it refers to the way the younger son wasted his portion of his father's inheritance.
Jesus focused on the older brother.
But that prodigal son is actually not the son Jesus is really highlighting. If we look in verses 1 and 2, we see why Jesus told this story: "Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"
When the Pharisees saw Jesus loving, receiving, and forgiving those they hated and deemed unworthy, they rebelled against it. Worse, they failed to see their own need for grace and forgiveness. So, as he did so often, Jesus responded to their accusations, not with a theological hammer, but with a story. We've already heard the most familiar part of this story.
In the first part of the parable, we're introduced to two of the three main characters—the rebellious son and the forgiving father. The son had disgraced the father by daring to ask for his share of the inheritance—which would have been 1/3 of his father's estate—while his Father was still living. It was as good as saying aloud, "I wish you were dead." The father granted his request and the son headed for Las Vegas in a new convertible.
It was all fun and games until the money ran out. He sold the car, but that money ran out as well. Then the friends left, the girls left, and the party was over. Desperate times called for desperate measures. He got so desperate that he found a job on a hog farm—not exactly kosher for a young Jewish boy. The job was so bad, the conditions so horrible, that he began to reminisce about his home. And you know, all of a sudden, home didn't seem so bad after all. In fact, his father's servants had it far better than he did. So he began to contemplate going home—but not as a son. He knew that would never happen. Not after the disgrace and shame he had inflicted on his father.
But maybe, he thought, just maybe he could work for his father as a servant. At least he'd have a dry place to sleep and decent food to eat. So he went down to the Greyhound station, used his last pocket full of change to buy a ticket, and started home. As they rolled along the highway, he rehearsed his speech: I know I've treated you poorly and disgraced you in front of our community. But if you would just let me be one of your servants, I'll work harder than any servant you've ever had.
He got off at the bus stop in town and began walking down the country lane to the family farm. The closer he got, the slower he walked, uncertain as to how he'd be received. He was nervous, too, because if he was spotted by the neighbors first, there was a good chance that he could be attacked, even killed, for what he had done to dishonor his father (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
But you know the rest of the story. The father had spent countless afternoons gazing down the lane, anticipating his son's return. One afternoon, he saw someone coming. At first it was just a speck, but soon he noticed that distinctive walk of his son! He came running out of the house toward the returning prodigal. (In that culture, mature men did not run. It was a disgraceful thing to do.) He was running for two reasons—one he was overjoyed at his son's return. Second, he wanted to reach him before the neighbors did, who would take up an offense on his behalf.
And before his son can choke out an apology, the father embraces him in joyful celebration. The young man's confession came only after the kiss of reconciliation. In spite of the stench of his body and the filthy rags of his clothing, the father held him tight. He then gave him gifts that were signs of his restored position and authority—not as a servant, but as a full-fledged son. And the returning son found at home everything he had longed to discover in the world he had fled to—jewelry, clothing, food, friends, and celebration. He traded misery for mercy. He found acceptance, not from the fickle friends who deserted him when the money ran out, but from the father who had given him life.
Remember why Jesus was telling this story in the first place? He was criticized for spending too much time with tax collectors and "sinners." So far, the story of the Prodigal Son was warm and sentimental. After all, who wouldn't be joyful over the restoration of a relationship between a father and a son?
I wonder if, at this point, the Pharisees were starting to relax. Maybe this time Jesus wasn't going to make them the brunt of his story after all. Unfortunately for them, Jesus wasn't through with the story. Now he introduces the third character: an older son. Look at verses 24-32.
Now this older brother had some outstanding virtues. He was hard-working. Obedient. He had never brought disgrace on his family. But in Luke 10:25-26, Jesus has told the Pharisees that the real test of virtue is how one relates to God and how one relates to other people. The older brother shows in both his words and his actions that he did not love his father or his brother.
His response to this beautiful family reunion? Jealousy and resentment. He can't even bring himself to say "my brother." He refers to the returning sibling as "that son of yours." He is bitterly resentful of the attention his brother received, and jealous that the love of the father extended to one whom had initially rejected him.
It's important to note in this story that the father treated both sons with the same compassion. The father pleaded with the older son to join the feast. The father is too joyful to be angry at the son's insult. But the older brother refused, just like the Pharisees refused Jesus' offer to join the kingdom of God.
Listen to the older brother's complaint: "All these years I've been slaving for you, I've 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!"
What the older brother was saying to the Father revealed his expectation for justice, not mercy. He was saying that their relationship was one based on reciprocity. "I've done this, and you should have done that." It was not based on love, but on work and reward.
The characteristics of the Pharisees
Let me remind you that we're spending these six weeks learning more about the Pharisees because we see ourselves in them. In their own adventures in missing the point, we see our own tendencies to miss the point of grace. Let's look at the evidence of the older brother's character that reveal characteristics of the Pharisees.
First, he had defined his own righteousness. In other words, he had excelled at keeping the rules that he had defined as important. "I've never disobeyed you," he said. It was obviously an exaggeration. But it reveals a tendency. Pharisees are masters at recognizing the sins of others, but are blind to their own.
Second, he showed a total lack of concern for his brother. His attitude stands in stark contrast to the spirit of celebration he had walked into. He had obviously not missed his brother or worried about him. He also didn't care about his father's happiness. His only thought was for his own recognition.
Third, he was full of righteous anger. He refused to share the celebration. In some ways, he was like the prophet Jonah. Jonah eventually did God's bidding, but he did it with resentment because he hated the Ninevites. The older brother had served his father, but obviously not from the heart.
Finally, he had an unforgiving heart. He wouldn't forgive his brother for his licentiousness, nor his father for his graciousness.
What was Jesus' point in telling the parable? What did he have to say to those who resented the fact that he preferred the company of so-called sinners to that of religious leaders? The story reveals the great sin of the Pharisees. They had a flawed sense of expectation. God owed them because they had been obedient and dutiful. And he owed judgment and condemnation to those who had not been obedient and dutiful. Theirs was a world of duty and justice. The older brother stands as a model of all those who have no room in their life whatsoever for grace.
The father's response to this son reveals God's heart toward even those who miss the point. Listen to verses 31-32: "'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.'"
It's hard to get people who have been in church a long time to be honest about the way they feel about people who are far from God. For too many churches, the reality of ever seeing lost brothers and sisters return is more theory than reality. Because we've been told that the church is supposed to proclaim the message of Christ, we sometimes pretend that we'd be glad, but we usually aren't. People who have been far from God are like that prodigal—messy and dirty, they still have the scent of their old lifestyle on their clothes. And we turn up our nose in disgust.
It's not always the way we treat individuals face to face. It's the attitude we have towards them in general. The Pharisees didn't necessarily know these so-called sinners that Jesus was spending time with, they simply made judgments based on their perception of them. They spent their time only with other Pharisees—people who shared their beliefs, practices, behaviors, and prejudices. They were never with people who were far from God.
When I read this passage, it reminds me again of the tremendous devotion that Jesus had for those who were far from God. This makes it discouraging to contrast the way the church of Jesus responds to those who are far from God. Again, we know the right answer. So if asked, most people will say, "Oh yes, we should reach the lost." It's nice to acknowledge in theory, but when we deliberately begin to touch lives, people often feel inconvenienced and their true feelings come out.
Most of the time, we're like that older brother before the homecoming. We give no thought whatsoever to where our prodigal brothers and sisters are. We don't worry about them; we have no compassion for them; we have no thought whatsoever about them. Because we are home being good, being dutiful, being nice—completely ignoring the father who stands at the window looking longingly for the return of his children—we figure they are getting what they deserve, as will we if we just continue to work hard for the Father.
It pains me to admit how often our attitude toward those who are far from God is exactly like that of the older brother in this story. I've lost a hundred night's sleep wondering how to build a church where followers of Jesus would have the same concern for the lost that Jesus has. When's the last time you looked out over our community and felt concern for those far from God?
What's our response to the prodigal brother who is being destroyed by his homosexuality? Compassion? No. Disgust. Condemnation. Name-calling. Fag. Queer. Let's stage a protest; let's pass some legislation. What about the prodigal sister who finds herself trapped in an unwanted pregnancy and sees no alternative but abortion. Again, we respond with name calling. Slut. Murderer. More condemnation. More rejection.
The welfare mom with three kids, no husband, and no job skills. We have no concept of the effect that the vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance have had on her. She's lazy, a leech on society. The homeless? Lazy bums. Get a job for cryin' out loud!
And if one of those lost souls should happen to find his or her way into this church as they seek to find the Father—what would be our reaction? Honestly? Oh, we'd be fine with it if they cleaned up their act first and tried to look and act like us. Otherwise, many of us would reject them. Because we don't like their language. We don't like their smell. We don't like their values. We criticize their sinful past and refuse to accept them as family.
Sometimes I'm ashamed that so many of us who claim to follow Jesus fail to have his compassion for the lost and broken. But we fool ourselves with our righteous acts and believe the evidence says we really are compassionate. If you remember last week, the Pharisee we looked at felt proud of himself that his offerings went to help to poor.
Reality is, when we do reach out, it's usually more about us than about them. At Christmas time, nursing homes and homeless shelters are overwhelmed with requests from people who want to come down and sing some songs for the old folks or dish up turkey and dressing for the bums. It makes us feel good about ourselves, it reinforces the image we have of ourselves that we are generous, kind, and good. But if that were true, why aren't we there the other 364 days a year?
Why is it that we can be so enthusiastic about helping the economically poor and lost in some other part of the globe, but never lose a night's sleep about the spiritually poor and lost in our own community? Part of it is that when they are in Russia or Africa, we don't have to worry about them coming into our churches and messing things up.
A heart like the Father's is one that is willing to be inconvenienced so that others might be brought back to God. A heart like the Father's feels sorrow when it sees someone crippled and broken by sin—not disgust. A heart like the Father's will go looking for the lost and will do whatever it takes to help them find the love of God.
And if you've seen The Passion of the Christ, then maybe you have a better idea of the lengths to which God was willing to go to see prodigal sons and daughters be reconciled to himself. Which attitude do you want to have when the lost start coming home? Will we have the heart of the father, looking out the window watching for them to come down the road, running to greet them and welcome the home?
Or will we be resentful of his grace toward them? Will our hearts be untouched by seeing someone find their place at God's table? One attitude reflects Christ's intent for the church. The other is just one more adventure in missing the point.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).