Our scripture today tells the story of the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As this sermon makes clear, we Christians—who are justified by faith alone through grace alone—can easily slip into the “religious” mindset all over again: we believe that we have to earn our place in God’s family.
Sermon Text: Luke 15:(11-24) 25-32
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We got heartbreaking news last week about the University of Virginia student, Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor last year in North Korea for allegedly stealing some political artwork from a hotel. He died last week of some kind of brain injury, which he received while in North Korean custody.
After his death, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware posted on Facebook that Warmbier “got exactly what he deserved… He went to North Korea for [heaven’s] sake and then acted like a spoiled, naive, arrogant, US college student who had never had to face the consequences of his actions. I see him crying at his sentencing hearing and think ‘What did you expect?’”
As you might expect, she received a lot of criticism for her comments. People on social media were outraged. The university apologized on her behalf. And as tempted as I am to pile on, I remember the uncharitable thoughts that crossed my mind when the news broke last year that Warmbier had been arrested: “Why the heck was he in North Korea anyway? And if he did do something to that artwork—oh my goodness—what was he thinking?”
I felt morally superior to him—and obviously this professor did, too.
But why do we feel morally superior? We’ve all made plenty of foolish decisions. We’ve all sinned spectacularly. The difference is, unlike this poor college student, none of us has received a death sentence for it!
So what’s our problem? Why aren’t we more compassionate?
It’s because you and I aren’t so different from the older brother in the second half of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In other words, we aren’t so different from the Pharisees—because the older son represents the Pharisees.
Jesus, throughout the gospels, often speaks harsh words against the Pharisees: He calls them hypocrites, “whitewashed tombs,” “blind guides,” “children of the devil.” But we are reminded in this parable that as much as Jesus hates their sins—and as emphatic as he is that they need to repent or face judgment—he also loves them. He has great compassion on them. As much as he loves the tax collectors and sinners, Jesus also loves the Pharisees.
We’re not like Jesus. We often say “hate the sin and love the sinner”—but we find that a very difficult balancing act to pull off: We usually end up loving the sinner and being O.K. with the sin, or hating the sin and not liking the sinner very much, either. Jesus doesn’t have that problem. Jesus believes that sin is ugly… awful… deadly serious… and unless we repent of it, it will lead us to hell. But Jesus loves us sinners so much that he does everything he can to prevent that from happening—giving his very life on the cross.
My point is, Jesus has great compassion on sinners like the older son in this parable. So we should, too. So let’s take a moment to sympathize with the older son. Because Jesus certainly does.
After all, the younger son caused his family great harm. As we talked about last week, the younger son’s actions were deeply shameful, deeply humiliating. They would have dishonored the family name. They would have made the family an object of scorn—a laughingstock—in that community. So that hurt the older son; he’d have to live with that shame.
Not to mention the great financial cost associated with the younger brother’s actions. The older son would bear the brunt of that cost.
Think about it: When the father tells his older son in verse 31 that “all that is mine is yours,” he’s speaking the literal truth: The father no longer owns anything—remember, he already gave everything to his two sons. And now that the younger son has squandered his share, the older son owns everything that’s left of his father’s estate. So the father’s extravagant generosity to younger son, and compassion on the younger son, and forgiveness of the younger son, was now costing the older son something. At least if the father had made the younger son work as a servant, the way the younger son wanted to, he could have paid his older brother back at least a portion of what he owed. But his father’s actions made the thought of “paying it back” out of the question.
When the father orders his servants to kill the fattened calf, that costs the older son, too—literally, that fattened calf belongs to the older son, not the father!
Forgiveness, as always, is costly. The older son understands that. And what has the younger son done to prove that he’s worth the cost?
And this is the heart of the problem for the older son and for the Pharisees: Sinners like the younger son don’t deserve forgiveness! They don’t deserve mercy! They don’t deserve God’s love! Like the professor that I mentioned in the introduction, there’s something deeply satisfying in saying, “He got what he deserved!”
And yet, God’s grace means we don’t get what we deserve! In fact, in order to receive God’s grace to begin with, we have to acknowledge that we don’t deserve it!
This is why, elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Why? Because tax collectors and prostitutes already know they’re sinners who can’t earn forgiveness; they know they’re helpless; they know that if they make it to heaven it’s going to be an act of sheer mercy on God’s part and nothing else!
That’s why I love Alcoholics Anonymous. People in AA know that they have nothing to hide: they confess at every meeting that they’re alcoholics, and that they’re completely helpless over their sin—and without God they are hopeless! Church should be more like that! We come in every week, “Hi, I’m Pastor Brent, and I’m a sinner. And apart from God’s grace made possible by the death of his Son Jesus on the cross, I’m helpless.” That would be a step in the right direction!
I know a pastor—a pastor—who, when he talks about going to heaven, will say, “If I should be so fortunate to make it to heaven…” I never told him this, but I hate when he says “if”—if I make it to heaven. Because I want to ask him, “On what basis do you think that anyone makes it to heaven? No one deserves it! You know that, right?” I think he does… In his own way, I think he’s just being humble. But I don’t like it. Because, friends, I need you to hear me say this: If you understand the gospel of Jesus Christ—and you understand what Christ accomplished on the cross—and you believe it—there is no “if” about going to heaven.
Once you’ve accepted Christ as your Savior, God is not waiting around to see how you do, how you perform, how you live the rest of your life. When you accept Christ, the question is settled. Your sins are forgiven; you’re born again. And so you can say with the apostle Paul, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”
Why? What gives us this confidence?
Is it what we do? Is it our good works? No! It’s the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, on the cross, Christ took all our sins—past, present, and future—onto himself and suffered the penalty for them. There are no additional sins that need to be accounted for—paid for—wiped away. “It is finished,” Jesus said from the cross, and he meant it!
So, if we have sincerely trusted in Christ for our salvation, yet we still wonder about if… we still worry about if… we struggle to believe that God has truly forgiven us… It’s because we have some of that “older brother” inside of us.
Why do I say that? Look what he says to his father in verse 29: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”
These many years I have served you… I’m sure these words broke his father’s heart. The father wouldn’t have been wrong to say, “But I never asked you to serve me! I don’t need you to serve me—I don’t need anything from you. Your brother had that same misguided idea when he came home. He wanted to tell me, ‘Father, let me be your servant’—and I didn’t even let him get the words out of his mouth. That’s not what this relationship is about. I’m sorry you had that idea. You’re not my servant. You’re my son! What I want from you is not ‘service’; I want your love. You’ve been waiting all these years for me to pay you in some way. You have me. Am I not enough for you? Why do you want anything else?”
Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We don’t need to serve the Lord; the Lord needs to serve us—because we are sinners who need his grace at every moment! And thank God he does serve us! One pastor said the gospel is not a “Help Wanted” sign; it’s a “Help Available” sign. Do you see the difference? Jesus came to give us the kind of help that we need for eternity—it’s available if we’ll only receive it!
And of course, I know I talk about “serving Jesus,” too. But I need to be careful with that language: Because it’s hard to think of “service” without thinking of duty and payment and obligation and compensation—getting paid for our work. And what does Paul say in Romans? “To the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” God gives his children nothing but free gifts; that was clear in the case of the younger son, who obviously did nothing to earn the “best robe” or his father’s precious signet ring—those were gifts.
See, the older son and the younger son—before he returns home—have the exact same problem: The younger son says, “I don’t deserve this, therefore I need to work hard to earn it.” The older son says, “I’ve worked hard to earn it, therefore I deserve it.” Either way, they believed that their father’s loved was conditional: it depended on what they did.
This parable says—emphatically—no! It’s all grace.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is actually one of three parables in Luke 15, which Jesus directs to the Pharisees. First, the parable of the Lost Sheep, about a shepherd who loses one out of hundred of his sheep, and searches high and low until he finds it; then when he finds the sheep he invites his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him. Then he tells the parable of the Lost Coin: about a woman who loses one out of ten silver coins—and she turns the house upside down looking for it—and when she finds it, she throws a party and invites her friends and neighbors to it.
And in the first half of today’s parable, Jesus makes a similar point: Except the father loses something far more precious than livestock or silver: he loses the most precious thing that he has—a son! And when he finds his son again, well, naturally he throws a party!
See the theme: you find something valuable that you lost, and it’s worth so much to you that you want to celebrate. Why didn’t the Pharisees want to celebrate? Unlike Jesus, they obviously didn’t believe that these sinners who were being saved were worth all that much to begin with. Why? Because they believed that their worth was determined by what they did or failed to do.
And I’m just like these Pharisees: Except I don’t usually look with disgust at “tax collectors and sinners” over there who are being received into God’s kingdom. More often than not, I look with disgust at one particular tax collector or sinner—and he’s right here. [point to myself] “Yes, Jesus is saving this person, but why should anyone celebrate? He’s not worth anything.” Because like the older son, like the Pharisees, I believe my worth is based on what I do, on what I achieve, and how successful I am, and who loves me, and what people think about me, and whether or not I’m physically fit.
Let me tell myself this embarrassing story about myself. Every year at Annual Conference in Athens there is a 5K road race, and I run it. And I even won it one year! And I always do pretty well. And people know me as a pretty good runner. And this year I got an injury—tendinitis in my Achilles tendon in my left heel. And I couldn’t run. And I was so angry about it. Why? Because let’s face it: I’m getting old. That’s part of it. And also because I derive a lot of value out of being faster than many of my colleagues. One year Mark Richt ran the race, when he was coaching at Georgia. And it wasn’t like Georgia Tech was ever beating him. So I beat Mark Richt, and that was exciting!
So I get a lot of value and self-esteem out of the fact that I can run this race, and be competitive, and even win! Not that I can win anymore—for one thing, my son Townshend runs it, and he’s faster than me now!
But why do I care? Why do I care about these external benchmarks and standards by which I measure myself and try to find value for myself. What does that matter? The only thing that matters is what my heavenly Father thinks about me?
And you know what he thinks about me? He thinks this: “Brent, when I rescued you, I thought you were worth a big party! I thought you were worth celebrating!” When God rescued Martha, you know what he thought? He thought, “Martha, when I rescued you, I thought you were worth throwing a big party!” Ashley, do you know what you’re worth to our Father? When our Father rescued you, he thought, “Ashley, you’re worth so much to me that I’m going to throw a big party!”
And that’s how God feels about each one of us! Hasn’t he proven it through his Son Jesus—by paying an infinite price to rescue us?
Don’t listen to that “older brother” inside you who’s telling you’re not worth it. You listen to your Father!
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The reason our church has put up these flags is to express gratitude to God for the love that so many men in uniform have shown us through their sacrifice.
A movie that has told this story of sacrifice as well or better than any other over the past 25 years is Saving Private Ryan.
If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller says to Ryan, “Earn this… Earn it!” And next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?
And his family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”
And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen men sacrificed their lives to save his. How can he possibly “earn” that. What a cruel thing for Capt. Miller to tell him with his dying breath! What an impossible burden to have live up to! What guilt to have to live with for your entire life!
That’s the kind of burden, the kind of guilt, that makes “older sons” out of us all.
By contrast, when Jesus—the world’s one and only true Savior—willingly sacrificed his life on the cross to save ours, he didn’t say “earn this”—as if any one of us could earn God-in-the-flesh suffering death and hell for us, in our place… No, our Savior didn’t say, earn this—“earn this forgiveness,” “earn this salvation,” “earn this eternal life,”—instead he said, receive this—“Receive this gift. Receive it! Take it for free! It yours! There’s no guilt. Not anymore! I did it for you. Out of love! Because I love you that much—and you couldn’t do it for yourself!
“Receive this gift.” Amen.