JUST AS LOST
Today we are going to continue to look at the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, in particular the elder brother.
Last week, we heard about the reckless-living younger brother, and now this week, I am preaching on the elder brother, who turns out was “just as lost,” but in a different way–a more subtle and even more dangerous way, according to Jesus.
To remind you where we are within Luke 15, we need to look at verse 1, where the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus.
Jesus is beginning to attract a crowd, and the Pharisees and scribes (the religious teachers of their day) grumble against Jesus saying that this man eats with sinners, receives them, and hangs out with them. This has been the case all throughout Luke.
In response, Jesus then tells them three parables. The first one is about the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go find the one. The second is about a woman who searches all over to find a lost coin. The third is about a son who leaves his Father’s, house but then comes back and is found.
So you see the pattern: lost then found, followed by joy; lost then found, followed by joy; lost then found, followed by joy. What a powerful picture this third parable gives us. And if you missed last week’s sermon, I highly recommend you read or listen to it at this link, called “Welcome Home.”
A verse that I thought of last week as I was listening to the sermon was Luke 10:22:
“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
I rejoiced, that of all they ways God could relate to us, of all the different voices in the world telling us what God is like, no one knows God the Father like God the Son, and here Jesus is telling us that He is like a Father who goes running to son when he returns home. He is telling us here that the Father receives sinners and all of heaven celebrates. It’s a celebration of extravagant, over-the-top unprecendented grace. Grace beyond what any of us can imagine. Grace that shocked the prodigal, the father’s servants, and the tax collectors and sinners who were listening.
But that grace also infuriated others because it violated their sense of justice. For some who were listening in the crowd, the Pharisees couldn’t imagine how such a holy God would show such grace to wretches. Law-breakers. That is what we are going to see today in the elder brother.
Let’s read verses 25-32:
“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.’ ”
Now this story shifts all of a sudden, and the pattern of “lost then found, followed by joy” stops. The older son comes in from the field and hears music playing, people are busting out their best moves, and they bring out the finest meat in all the land. I imagine there is probably some nice wine flowing, and one of the servants tells the older brother that his little brother is back safe and sound. This infuriates him. It’s the first time there is anger in this chapter, except for the Pharisees in the beginning.
Many of you here have been in this situation as the father, maybe at a birthday party or a Christmas celebration. Friends and family are gathering and you are at the dinner table and a seat is visibly empty. Everyone knows who it is. It’s one of your children. He is upstairs in his room and refuses to come down. What do you do? Do you go up to his room and say, “What do you think you are doing? You get downstairs right now.” Do you grab his arm and pull him into the party, saying, “You better change your attitude right now.” Do you send a messenger up there to tell him that if he doesn’t come downstairs there is going to be a consequence that he won’t like or do you just leave him up there and say, “I don’t care”?
Look at verse 28. His father came out and entreated him. It means the father pleaded, begged, and appealed to him. Again, what a picture that Jesus is giving us here of God the Father. Again, at great expense to himself the father is the one who is being humiliated, who is leaving the party, and who is going to his other son. He pursues him. This is one of the most wonderful truths in all the Bible. We see it after the very first sin in Genesis 3. Did Adam seek out God? No, God came and sought Adam. In the Old Testament we see it over and over that God continually pursued his people, as in Malachi 3:7:
“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.”
And then finally, at just the right time, God sends His very own Son to invite us to come back home to God. Our God is a pursuing God. Hence, why we as a church body and as individuals should imitate God in this way and pursue those who refuse to come into the Father’s party.
Now what does the elder bother say in response to the father’s gracious request (verses 29 and 30)? There are three characteristics that I want to point out in the elder brother.
1) His first characteristic is that he has a distorted view of the father-son relationship. Even though he shared the last name and lived in the same house as the father, he viewed himself as a slave. He didn’t view his father as the provider, protector, nurturer, mentor, and friend that his father was. No, he saw himself as more of a employee and his dad as the boss. It was a work relationship and that’s it. He says it there in the beginning. “Look, here I have slaved, I have served you all these years. I have never disobeyed you. I have worked and worked and worked.”
In the church it can be very easy for elder-brother types to appear like they are flourishing. Elder brothers thrive on the fact that the homework is always done, they’ve never gotten a detention, they always have work projects done, they show up to meetings 5 minutes early; they are accomplishers, do it yourselfers, go getters, hard workers; they have good reputations in the community, they serve on every team in the church, and they have only missed a few Sundays in the past 20 years. They are, by all outward appearances, in the faith. But to be a Christian is more than just following the laws of God and keeping your nose out of the dirt. The Christian faith is one of being a son or daughter of God and having that father-child relationship with Him.
J.I. Packer asks the question in his book Knowing God: “What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who knows God as Father… If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. “
Amen. It’s possible to have your life put together and do many spiritual disciplines and fool everyone in the church and the community for years and still not know God as Father. That is exactly what this parable is teaching us, but we also have testimonies throughout church history of this exact situation.
John Wesley, an influential preacher in the 18th century, was probably most well known for starting a movement that ended up becoming the Methodist denomination. He grew up in Christian home, was an honor graduate at Oxford University, an ordained pastor, visited prisoners, gave generously to orphans, fasted for up to 40 days at a time, went to multiple worship services on Sunday and throughout the week, and even served as a missionary to the colony of Georgia to the native Americans there.
Yet on his way home from the trip, he wrote in his journal:
“I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God. I had, even then, the faith of a servant, though not of a son.”
I don’t want to ask if you are connected in the church or what fruit have can you show in your life, but do you have a real relationship with God? Is He your Father where it’s a joy to be able to serve Dad?
You want people to see and know how great your Father is. Does the thought of being a son or daughter make you want to worship? Does it affect your prayer life and Bible reading, or are all those disciplines just something you have to do? To a son, those disciplines are something that, yes, we may not always feel like doing, but we know this is how we learn about our Father more than the one who has a slave’s faith and thinks, “This is what I have to do to be good in the faith.” Do you find in your heart crying out to God saying, “Abba Father”? This elder brother doesn’t understand the father-son relationship, and it’s the first clue that he is just as lost as the younger brother was.
2) The second characteristic with this elder brother is that he has an “I” problem. Look at verse 29 with me.
“I have always done everything right. I have never disobeyed you.” You can just hear the self-righteous prideful arrogance coming out of this brother’s mouth. Throughout the book of Luke, Luke has shown us how the Pharisees are continually grumbling against Jesus for being around younger brother types. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to hang out with these sinners when they were the ones who followed God’s law. Blamelessly. In Luke, chapter 7, we read that they rejected John the Baptist’s baptism. Why? Because it was a baptism of repentance. They believed that they had nothing to repent of. They are good. They meticulously followed the law. They dotted the I’s and crossed the t’s. The only problem was that they misspelled the word. They didn’t understand grace.
Pride is absolutely one of the most dangerous and deadly sins out there. It’s in a class by itself. It makes God oppose you. James 4:6 says that God opposes the proud. It blinds us and causes us to see a distorted reality and is particularly disgusting to the Lord. Because pride contends for supremacy with God. While the prodigal’s sins may have led him farther away from the father, pride elevates the elder brother over the father. You can see it in his response. It is accusatory that the father doesn’t know what he is doing. On the surface, we would just say that it is a sin of the mouth, but it comes from pride of the heart. Pride is a mother sin, and it gives birth to other sins. Pride is what’s at the root of so many of our sins.
Pride gives us the amazing ability to find faults in everyone else, but is often blind to our own faults. We may never go as far as the elder brother and say, “I have never disobeyed,” but when we can more easily find other’s faults than our own, then you know that pride is blinding you somewhat. How often do you confess and repent after hearing a sermon compared to how often you think that so and so really needs to hear this sermon?
Pride will give us a harsh spirit and a feeling of superiority. The elder brother even refuses to acknowledge that his younger brother is his brother. In Luke 18, Jesus tells another parable very similar to the prodigal son. It says that He told it to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Of course, it’s the parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. They go up to the temple and pray and the Pharisee says, “God I thank you, that I am not like those sinners. I tithe, I fast” and yada yada. His prayer is all about what he does. What kind of maniac goes to the Lord in prayer and just recites how awesome he is? Then the tax collector doesn’t even look up, but says, “God, be merciful to me.”
Elder brothers will base their image on being hardworking, or moral, or members of the elite, or smart, which inevitably leads to feeling superior over those who don’t possess those qualities. The elder brother liked it that his younger brother struggled because it made him look better. It made him feel superior. How many of you like it when someone tries to do something you do, but just doesn’t do it quite as well or you get somewhat adjitated when they do it better? Here is one for you: what about when your child does better than other people’s kids and so you think, “I am such a good parent. If only other parents would work with their kids like I have.” Or how many of you parents get defensive when other kids perform better than your child and the thoughts just start coming into your head, “Well, of course their child is better at volleyball. They devote their lives to it. Our family keeps it in its proper place.” We get defensive when our pride is hurt. I am willing to bet that the elder brother thought to himself, “Pffff! I bet you he’ll go and pawn that ring that dad just gave him and run off again.” Would people describe you as a compassionate person? You should probably ask someone else if you are compassionate, because of course you will say, “I am a compassionate person.”
Or would people say that you have an unforgiving and judgmental spirit? Elder brothers lack compassion because they would NEVER do such a thing as that younger brother. Elder brothers lack the ability to forgive because they think that they have never been forgiven of that much. Even though I personally resonate with the younger brother, I think that if we are all being honest, it seems like the older you get, the easier it is to say, “You need to lie in the bed you made. You reap what you sow,” and just have a crusty, hard heart towards people and not have any compassion. Remember verse 20. The father felt compassion.
I love what Jonathan Edwards says about the way we should treat each other:
“Christians who are but fellow-worms ought at least to treat one another with as much humility and gentleness as Christ treats them.”
3) The third and final characteristic of the elder brother is that there is no love for the father. Why does he want a young goat? To celebrate with his friends. He doesn’t care if his father is there. He doesn’t care about his father’s joy of a lost son returning home. He doesn’t care that he has been able to work alongside his father for all these years. That’s no reward to him.
In 2007, there was a movie that came out called American Gangster. It was about a guy by the name of Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington in the movie). He was a drug lord who ruled the streets of Harlem. He would brag that he was making a million dollars a day and this was in the 1970’s. They could never catch him, but one day, when they raided his apartment, they couldn’t find anything. But his wife panicked and started dumping cash out the window–over 500,000 dollars. After he got arrested, he then gave up the names of all the people that he paid off and worked with to get his sentencing reduced. Which resulted in three quarters of the New York drug enforcement agency that he had paid off. Now isn’t that an interesting picture, that on the outside, you have two completely different people: one is a drug lord and the other is a police officer. One says he is going to live however he wants and the other says he will uphold the law, and yet greed corrupted both of them. Their hearts were exactly the same.
BOTH of these sons were lost, and both wanted the same thing: the father’s inheritance. One decides he is just going to ask for it and live however he wants, and the other decides that he is going to follow all the rules so that the father owes him. Both of them are forgetting the most obvious command to LOVE their father. Jesus says something interesting about the Pharisees’ hearts in Luke 11:29. He says that their hearts were full of greed. They were filled with worldliness. They wanted the fattened calves and parties and glory and power and wealth.
Let me ask you this: if you could go to heaven and there was no sickness, no death, all sin would be gone and you would live with friends and family for all of eternity, but God would not be there, would you be ok with that? What gets you excited about heaven? An eternity of pleasure or finally seeing the One who suffered and died in your place so that you could be cleansed from your sin and live with God for all of eternity?
Just this past Tuesday, I was reading Exodus 33 and Moses was asked a similar question by God. God was upset:
“Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
And Moses said to Him:
“If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses doesn’t want anything to do with the promised land if God is not going to be with them. It’s easy for us to fall into a state where we just want the good life, the American dream, an enjoyable retirement of just travelling and good health, or maybe it’s just good friends, or that significant other, more than a relationship with the Father. Even in the church world, I wonder how many would prefer growing numbers or success in our ministry over the presence of God.
Jesus is teaching us here that there is a more subtle and even more dangerous way to be lost than the prodigal younger brother. All throughout the gospels we see that there are people whose lives are externally put together, and yet they are lost. This is one of the ways that the Christian faith is distinct from all other faiths. Everyone in the world who has any kind of moral fiber would say that the younger brother is living in sin and is lost. But Jesus is saying, no, even those who live a good moral life and have all the appearances of being a good person need to repent and accept the grace of God. That is offensive to elder brothers to have to say, “God I am just like my younger brother. I am in need of your saving grace.” How many, though, will refuse to repent of their pride and all of their good works and refuse to accept the grace that is found in Jesus Christ.
You see at the end of this parable again the tender heart of the father. Even after this other son has spoken so disrespectfully to him, he says to him, “Son.” I imagine Jesus is looking at the Pharisees at this point. “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours. We had to celebrate for your brother was dead and is now alive.” Then the story just ends. Jesus stops the parable. We don’t know whether the elder brother came to himself and went in to the party of grace and celebrated his brother’s repentance or if he continued to stay outside in his bitterness refusing to embrace his brother. Jesus is leaving the door open to the elder brother to come and join the party.
The offer still stands for us today. If you are in here and the Lord has convicted you and you are thinking, “I am that elder brother,” then remember that God is entreating you to come on in. To repent of your pride, of your righteousness that you find in yourself. Humble yourself and say to God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner in need of grace.” If you have done that, come talk to one of the elders after the worship service. God can do miraculous transformations with elder brothers, for the apostle Paul an author of most of the New Testament was a typical elder brother.
This parable also leaves us wanting and wishing for an elder brother who embraces his younger brother.
It’s in our hearts. We yearn for stories where families are reconciled, forgiveness is given, and in the end, they live happily ever after. But in reality, we are part of a story that is far greater than if the elder brother goes into this party.
Which leads us to Jesus. In Romans 8, it says that Jesus is the firstborn among many brothers. Jesus is our true Elder Brother who cares for us. Jesus is not just the brother who will travel to the far country to come and find us, but He travels all the way from heaven to earth to bring us home.
Jesus doesn’t just pay for a fattened calf and an expensive party, so that we would be welcomed into the family. Our debt is greater. He is the Elder Brother who is willing to be stripped naked on the cross so that we would be clothed in His robe of righteousness.
Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we would be welcomed into God’s family. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath so that we could drink the cup of God’s grace. For it is only by our Elder Brother, Jesus, that we can come home to our heavenly Father–and be embraced as a son who was lost and is now found.