Over these past weeks we've been looking together at some conditions of the human heart that obviously need help. When we meet somebody whose life is as tormented as the Gerasene demoniac we studied a few weeks ago, we say: "That guy clearly has a heart problem." When we encounter someone as dry and hard-baked as the woman at the well, we declare: "Now, that gal has some deep heart issues." When we run into a person as ruthlessly selfish as the prodigal son we met last week, it's a no-brainer to conclude: "That Toby needs a turnaround."
But not all heart conditions are this easy to spot. There is a condition so remarkably pervasive and accepted, especially in religious circles, that many of its sufferers don't realize they have a problem requiring treatment. It is this illness that we meet in the second part of the parable of the prodigal son.
You may recall from our study last week that Jesus has just told the story of a "man who had two sons." The younger son, whom I nicknamed "Toby," is a study in an almost sociopathic kind of selfishness. When this son finally comes to his senses and returns home, he is greeted by his father, not with the crushing judgment his appalling behavior deserves, but with an almost unimaginable outpouring of grace.
For the "tax-collectors and [other] sinners" who were listening in to this teaching, this story obviously elicits a huge sigh of relief. The message of Jesus is that even if we've been appallingly selfish, we can still come home. We can do so because the heart of our Father is good in a way that no one else's is. He doesn't just take us back and then consign us to some place of perpetual penance. No, the Father restores us to a place of honor and influence right by his side. He shows us that, in the end, grace wins out for those who know they need it. For "the Son of Man," Jesus says of himself, came for this purpose: "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
What many people miss when they read Luke 15, however, is that this story of the selfish younger son is actually only a set-up for the true target of Jesus' teaching that day. In the crowd are not only the obviously sin-sick folks we typically associate with the phrase "lost people," but also a group of "Pharisees and teachers of the law." It is toward these ostensibly healthy, religious people that the Great Physician points his sharpest scalpel that day, and does so with a parable. Having just described the lavish party that the father in the story is throwing for his recovered son, the story goes on. It is here that the tale gets really interesting.
The true target of the Surgeon's scalpel
"'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'" (Luke 15:25-27).
Now, let's stop right there and take the measure of this scene. According to Jewish custom, the older brother is the one who is going to get the biggest inheritance once the father has passed on. He is the one who stands the most to gain from having this brother back, because it means he'll have a freshly humbled and whole partner with whom to run the household when Dad is gone. Most importantly, the older brother is the one who has spent the most time with the father in this story. He is the figure in the tale who has had the most opportunity to absorb what his father's heart is like. I will nickname this son "Tony."
Tony is overjoyed to learn that his brother has finally come to his senses and come home, right? He rushes in with arms open wide and shouts, "Toby, thank God you're back!" right? No. The Bible says this: "The older brother became angry and refused to go in." In other words, both figuratively and physically, he refuses to enter into the father's home or heart.
Keep in mind that in the ancient Middle East, to refuse to attend a feast thrown by your father is the equivalent of flipping the bird at him. It's like refusing to go to a wedding or refusing to attend your parent's anniversary party. Tony is dangerously close to the same line of contemptuous disrespect that Toby crossed when he left home in the first place. And if the father here is like normal fathers of that period, Tony is now in a heap of trouble.
But this father is not like ordinary people. This father has the heart of God. And so, instead of reacting against his son's disrespect, the Bible says the father "went out and pleaded with him." It is the very same act of closing the distance that we witnessed last week when we saw the father running out to meet his younger son. The father loves both of his sons with a prodigal—literally, "extravagant" or even "wasteful"—kind of love. "'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.'"
But Tony answers: "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!"
Now, think with me for a moment about all of this. What we are hearing here is the heart-cry of a person who for years has been "the good child" in his family. Tony hasn't colored outside any of the limits his father has laid down for him. He hasn't rebelled in any of the visible ways that his wayward sibling has. He has appeared to be working faithfully, even heroically, for his father's interests, never asking for anything. It is for this reason that many of us, when we read this parable, feel some genuine empathy for this elder brother. We can understand his outrage and hurt, his sense of the utter injustice of his loser brother suddenly getting all kinds of blessings when Toby has done nothing to earn them, while Tony has done so much.
The other kind of lost
But look closer at what Tony is saying here. He considers the work he's been doing in his Father's household an act of slaving, rather than the natural act of son-ing. He stresses the fact that he "never disobeyed" his father's orders, rather than describing how he's sought to live after the father's heart. He is upset that his father "never gave [him] even a goat" so that he could party with "[his] friends," apparently unconscious that he has had all along the greatest reward of all—the gift of his father's presence with him. Rather than viewing Toby as "this brother of mine," he distances himself from his brother by referring to him as "this son of yours," feeling that his brother was getting the blessing he himself deserved.
Do you see the irony in this tirade? Up to this point, the elder brother has appeared to be the exact opposite of the younger one. But how different is Tony, really? Does he really care for his father's heart more than Toby? Does he desire to know and serve his father's will any more than his younger brother? The answer is "no." Both of them are primarily interested in Dad for what he can be manipulated into giving them. The only difference is their strategy for getting it. Toby tries to get Dad's stuff by being very bad and Tony tries to get Dad's stuff by being very good. Each wants Dad's blessings on their own terms, and each gets resentful that it takes so much effort to get Dad to shell out.
Toby's heart burns with an obvious selfishness. Tony's heart, however, is afflicted with something much harder to detect and much tougher to root out. It's the worm of self-righteousness. Tony thinks he is good. He secretly congratulates himself on how good he is. He stews on how much he deserves for being so good. He boils at all the people who get breaks and blessings despite the fact that they are not very good. And this very self-righteousness blinds him to seeing that when it comes to taking in the true grace and goodness of his father's heart and reflecting it to others, he is every bit as abysmally lost as Toby.
In his profoundly important book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller contends that the primary problem facing the church of Jesus Christ today is that we are blind to this second kind of lostness. Many churches, Keller bluntly contends, are congregations of elder brothers. In spite of the fact that we have been surrounded by the gospel of God's grace, many of us have refused to enter into the Father's house and heart.
For example, we don't really believe that in the household of God, acceptance precedes obedience. Even though Jesus repeatedly declares that God's love and grace comes to people before they are cleaned up—and that obedience to his way comes as a response of gratitude for this acceptance—we don't buy it. We're convinced in our hearts that obedience has to come first. We must do good things in order to gain God's acceptance. On one level, that can look like humility. But on another level it is a very dangerous kind of arrogance. We think that God can be won over by our good deeds or, even worse, that he can be compelled to give us what we want—happiness, prosperity, love, or eternal life—if we just follow the rules. Keller writes: "If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving as your own Savior."
The result of this is many Christians whose lives are marked by a joyless sense of slavery to trying to do good and a simmering frustration that these good deeds aren't bringing more blessings from God. Alongside of this is an often judgmental attitude toward those who aren't following the rules anywhere near as strenuously as we are and some real irritation that the Father isn't holding these non-religious, rebellious people anywhere near accountable enough for it.
But "the gospel of Jesus," declares Keller,
is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism, nor is it something halfway along the spectrum between two poles—it is something else altogether …. In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change …. Elder brothers divide the world in two: "The good people (like us) are in and the bad people, who are the real problem with the world, are out." Younger brothers, even if they don't believe in God at all, do the same thing, saying: "No, the open-minded and tolerant people are in and the bigoted, narrow-minded people, who are the real problem with the world, are out." But Jesus says, "the humble are in and the proud are out" (Luke 18:14). The people who confess they aren't particularly good or open-minded are moving toward God, because the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it.
Do you know how much you need the grace of God? Do you really know? For some reason, it is easier for the Toby's of this world to say "yes" to that question, than those of us Tony's in whom the worm of self-righteousness has burrowed deep. That's why the story of the younger son ends in celebration and the story of the elder son ends in a dot, dot, dot. Only Nicodemus and a few other of the Pharisees and teachers of the law were ever able to finally say: "Yes, Jesus, I really need grace." But to anyone who says that—Toby or Tony—the words of the Father still ring clear: "Come on in, my son, my daughter. I've saved a place for you. The feast is waiting. All that I have is already yours."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.