So Close and Yet So Far Away
I love that little clip. It gives you a look at the other character of this story. You see, I think we’ve often misnamed this parable. Instead of calling it the parable of the prodigal son, I really think you should call it the parable of the prodigal sons. There was definitely more than one prodigal in this story. We often hear of the run-away son who squandered his money, ruined his reputation and caused his father unbelievable grief, but many lessons and sermons leave the elder brother sulking in the background without a lot of attention and with even less explanation. But I do not think he was just a supporting actor in this story. In fact, what Jesus wants to teach us through this elder brother is largely the same lesson he taught through the younger: Running away physically to the far country, or running away spiritually while living at home both lead to the same place: Distance from the father.
The sad thing is you can be a long way from home and not even know it. The Pharisees were. They were constantly congratulating themselves on their law keeping, and yet, they were not really in touch with the law giver. That’s the message I believe Luke wants to communicate here: Whether you’re a prodigal in the pig pen, or a prodigal at home, you’re still a prodigal, and the road to your Father’s heart is the same. It is the road of repentance.
And I must say that I think that the story of the elder brother is something all of us really need to hear this morning. I really want you to listen to it for a couple of reasons. First, I really want you to listen because of where we are. We are at church this morning and all of you look as far from the pig pen of sin as can be, this morning. We all want to be accepted, so, when we come to a place like this we try to look like we belong, and if we make a practice of coming to a place like this, we get into the habit of appearances that the elder brother (and I might add, the Pharisees) had developed. And in that environment, it is easy to develop into an elder brother prodigal. In fact, when you read this elder brother’s complaint against his younger brother, he even sounds like some church members.
You remember the story. The younger prodigal has received his inheritance, blown in the far country in a very risque way, and has returned in complete repentance. He has been welcomed with open arms and forgiven so completely by his father that he throws him a party. That’s where we pick up the story in Luke 15:25:
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ “But he was angry and would not go in. (Sound like any church members you know??) Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ”
You see, you need to listen today because, maybe without even realizing it, you may be an elder brother prodigal. It happens a lot in churches.
But there’s another reason to listen. It’s because of what we miss. It’s really the same thing that the elder brother (and, by extension, the pharisees) missed: You cannot equate goodness with godliness. Many church members have been doing that since they were kids, and, in so doing, they have missed the reality of what it means to even be a son of the father. This elder brother opens up a whole new evaluation of holiness that leaves those who think themselves the most spiritual perhaps in greater danger than the prodigal who’s slopping the hogs in the far country. You see, it could just be that you need the same repentance the prodigal needed. You may need to “come to yourself.” You may need to come home in your heart. You, in short, might need to repent, even though you consider yourself to be a good person.
Now I know that, when I preach a message like this, the temptation is to get out the pitchfork and toss it to someone else. By the way, that’s exactly what an elder brother prodigal would do. But can I just challenge you to really listen. I want to give you two reason why even people who may have gone to church all their lives and consider themselves to be good people may still need to repent. Here’s the first reason. Good people need to repent
DIV 1: BECAUSE THEY ARE LOST
Now in our evangelical church world, calling someone else “lost,” is akin to an ecclesiastical slap in the face. And just in case you might be here and not really know what I mean by “lost,” let me just say right up front that to be lost means to be someone who has never received the forgiveness that Christ offers from sin. In short, If you’re an elder brother church member, you may be going to church, but you’re really on your way to hell.
Now I do not make that statement lightly, and neither do I expect you to take my word for it. I think you see evidence of it right here in this story. You see, one of the greatest changes that takes place in the heart of someone who genuinely is changed by the power of Christ is a great change in ATTITUDE, and that change in attitude is not something you see in the elder brother. In fact, it is precisely because of his attitude that I say he is lost. He may be living at home, but his attitude is in the pigpen.
In fact, you can smell his rotten attitude a mile away. The first odor you detect is that of arrogance. This was one proud boy! V 25 says, “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you;
For years this prodigal had lived at home with his father, thinking that, somehow that should gain him favor. He constantly told himself that he was the “good” son. He had stayed home; he had saved his money; he had protected his family’s reputation. He deserved respect; he deserved favor. He had probably dreamed of the day when this younger brother would come back home, dragging his tail between his legs. That was the day he may have been waiting for, but not for the same reason his father wanted it. No, he imagined that his father would have the same unforgiving attitude that he had and might place his no good brother under his authority. He may have longed for the day he could make his brother pay for the way he had ruined the family name.
And it went far beyond simple revenge. He wanted to have his brother to realize that in this little sibling rivalry they’d had for years, that finally he had won. He was on the top of the stack. His brother was going to be under his thumb and was going to remain a disinherited servant to do his bidding, because, after all, he was the “good” son. He deserved the honor.
But now, his arrogance is exposed. Instead of greeting his brother with the punishment he deserved, his softy of a father was giving away the farm. He had restored his robe, symbolically restoring him to his place as a son; he had restored his ring, giving him the authority that he had once had; and he had put shoes on his feet, symbolizing that his possessions had been restored, and all of this angered the elder brother. How dare his father put his brother on his level! And not just on his level: He’d actually put him ahead of him because his dad had killed the fatted calf for him, something he had never offered to do for him. Yes! He was livid, and the anger of his arrogance kept him on the porch and out of the party. His attitude was in the pigpen: You could smell his arrogance.
And you could also smell his self-righteousness. When the father comes to plead with this arrogant to come into the party, he self-righteously answers: Lo, these many years I have been serving you; (notice!) I have never transgressed your commandment at any time and . . . (v 30) he has devoured your livelihood with harlots . . . His voice is dripping with judgment and his heart is blinded by deception. Is there anyone here who really believes this guy? I mean do you really believe that he had never transgressed the father’s commandment. Now, before you answer, remember that this second son represents the pharisee. It was the pharisee who claimed to keep the law, but Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, showed that, even though many might think they kept the law, in their hearts they were still sinful. This guy is deceived. He’s not right with the father, but he sure thinks he is. If he would have stopped for just a minute he would have been arrested by the odor. His attitude was in the pigpen. You could smell his arrogance and you could smell his self-righteousness.
And you could also smell his ingratitude. Will you notice the accusation the elder brother makes? V 29 again says: Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your lifvelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him. You get it? He’s saying, “Hey Dad, I have served you like a slave and I did everything you asked, and you never threw me a party at McDonalds, but here this (and notice he does not say “My brother”, but) this son of yours came, who (by the way) wasted your livelihood on prostitutes, and you throw him a party at Ruth Chris steakhouse!
Now I tell you this guy was ungrateful! The reason I say that is because of a little phrase up in v 12 that often gets missed: And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to THEM his livelihood. Hey, this father had not just given the inheritance to his younger brother, he had given the inheritance to BOTH of them. And by the way, since he was the eldest son, his father had probably given him TWICE what he had given the younger brother. Talk about stinkin’ thinkin’! You could smell this guy’s ingratitude a mile away.
You see, here’s the problem with this guy: He thinks that his inheritance, even though it is twice what his brother received, is what he deserved, not what he had been graciously given. And his arrogance, his self-righteousness, and his ingratitude has put him further away from the father in his heart, even though he lived at home, than the son who ran to the far country. And here’s the most disturbing truth: The problem with the prodigal at home is that he, or she, is LOST!
And, what is it that a lost person needs? Well, for that answer, the elder brother could have asked his younger brother. You see the road that must be taken is the same, whether you’re going to the father’s home or simply to the father’s heart. That road is repentance.
And you want to know the ironic thing? The ironic thing is that the younger brother, who ran to the pigpen, was actually closer to the father’s heart than the older brother who tried to do everything right. Why is that? Because the younger brother knew he was lost and the older brother did not.
It was supposed to be the "perfect" town. After all, it was planned by Disney itself. The town of Celebration, Florida, a 16-acre utopian community just ten minutes from Walt Disney World, was developed in order to promote "Disney values." Disney designed the buildings, as well as its education and health policies. Most homes look identical, even with the same plants in the front garden. During winter evenings, the town even gets a gentle dusting of artificial snow every hour on the hour. (If you're familiar with the movie The Truman Show, you probably get the idea).
But this carefully planned, picture-perfect world was shattered in 2010 by two violent deaths: a murder and a suicide. Matteo Giovanditto, aged 58, was the victim of the town's first murder. Just three days later, Craig Foushee, distraught over his impending divorce and bankruptcy, barricaded himself in his home and started firing shots. After a tense standoff with authorities, Mr. Foushee eventually shot and killed himself.
According to a British news article on these tragic deaths, "The incidents have added to signs that cracks are forming in the sugary veneer of the town, where visitors can take horse-and-carriage rides through the picket-fence-lined streets."
This is a picture of the elder brother. He’s done everything right and he thinks that has given him a “spiritual Disney World.” He thinks that he has earned his way into his father’s favor, but he quickly learns that the favor of the Father is not based on our own effort. You can’t work your way to righteousness and you can’t create a perfect environment in which it flourishes. The prodigal at home is still a prodigal, no matter how good he looks on the outside. And he still needs repentance.
For some of us this morning, the greatest thing we could do is simply admit to ourselves and to God that, no matter how good we may look to others, we’re really lost. We’re lost not because we’ve wasted our life with harlots, but because we’ve never had a heart that is vitally connected to our father’s.
Is that you this morning? Let me ask you, do you really enjoy your heavenly Father? Now note that I did not ask you if you come to church; if you do all the right things, or do you have all the right political positions on the hot button issues. The question is, Do you enjoy the Heavenly Father? Do you connect with Him when you pray? Do you have a heart of gratitude for His salvation? Do you really enjoy your conversations with Him, or do you even really talk to Him at all? Do you enjoy Him?
And then, do you feel that you deserve better than you are getting? Do you complain a lot? Are you always angry? Do you even resent the Father? I’ll tell you all of these are symptoms that you’ve never really connected with Him.
And Parents, let me ask you, how do you avoid raising an “elder brother?” How can you encourage a real connection with God in your children? Well first, emphasize attitude not action. When you are disciplining your child, focus more on their attitude than on their behavior. That is something I hated when I was a kid, but which I thank God for now. My parents cared about attitude, and I think they may have disciplined more on attitude than on behavior. Numerous were the times when my Dad would tell me, even though I was being obedient, “Rusty, you need to straighten out your attitude.” It really makes a difference! You get a child’s attitude right, their behavior won’t stray too much even when you aren’t around, but a child with a bad attitude is likely to do anything at anytime. If you want to encourage your child’s connection with God, emphaszie attitude.
But next, emphasize reality, not performance. Yes, there are some things which we must make our children do, but many parents stop their discipline there. As long as the child is doing the right things, they think that’s ok. But listen, performance that doesn’t come from the heart is not effective.
And last of all, if you want to encourage your child’s connection with God, emphasize their need, not their sufficiency. In our “high self-esteem” society, this is especially acute. Listen, parent, I think you need to praise your child, but you should not praise them primarily for what they do, but for who they are in God’s eyes. And who they are in God’s eyes begins with their need. Children should be told that they are sinners . . . primarily because they are! Until they connect with their sinfulness, they will not connect with their need for God and their faith will be simply mental assent. Before Christ can save them, they must know that they need saving and repent.
And you see, repentance is what “good” people need. They need it because they are lost and then they need it:
DIV 2: BECAUSE THEY ARE LOVED
Now if it had been me, and maybe most dad’s, the reaction to this older son’s impertinence would have been anger or apathy. We may have said, when the servant came and told us that the older brother was outside, refusing in anger to come in, “If that’s the way he wants it, fine! Let him stay outside. Just go tell him that this T-bone from the fatted calf is tasting mighty fine!”
But the Father in this story demonstrates such unbelievable love and patience. He leaves the party and goes out to seek the lost son who was on the porch. Notice v 28 says, Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. The word “pleaded” is made up of two words in the Greek: para, which means, “to the side of,” and kaleo, which means “to call.”Put them together and you have “to call to the side of.” It reminds us of the word paraklete, which is the word for the Holy Spirit used in John 16. The idea is that the father comes out, puts his arm around this angry man, and gently comforts this elder son and quietly encourages him to come in.
Listen! Just as the younger prodigal was received and graciously forgiven, so this older son is offered the same opportunity. I love how the whole story ends in v 32. The father says, It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ” When he says, it was right that we should make merry, it means “It was necessary.” It’s like the father is gently saying to the son, “Son, don’t you know me? Don’t you know how loving I am? Didn’t you know that if your brother ever came home in true repentance that I would fully and completely forgive him? And don’t you know that, even though your heart is far from me, and you don’t even like me right now, that I want to completely forgive you, too?”
You can hear the echo of this scene in Paul’s letter to the Roman church when he says in Romans 11:32 that . . . God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.
You see, Good people need to repent because they really are lost, but they also need to repent because they are loved.
Robert Farrar Capon wrote in Christianity Today: You're worried about permissiveness--about the way the preaching of grace seems to say it's okay to do all kinds of terrible things as long as you just walk in afterward and take the free gift of God's forgiveness. ... While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn't. He wasn't afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He's angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue--that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: "Cut that out! We're not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he's alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” The name of the game is not score-keeping; the name of the game is love.
And may I tell you this morning how you know you are loved if you are an “elder brother,” even if you think that you are a good person? Well, first, it’s because the Father welcomes you, even when you think He’s not fair. Whether you realize it or not, your belief in your own goodness is a much greater insult to your heavenly Father than if you were involved in what you consider to be the “worst” kind of sin. Actually, the greatest sin a person could ever commit is not to visit a prostitute, or even steal from their neighbor. Yes, those things are wrong, but they are only symptoms of the problem we all have in the heart. When I, in the arrogance of my heart, think that I deserve for God to give me anything, I commit the greatest insult to the Father. This father’s justice and generosity had been insulted by the pouter on the porch, yet the father still goes out in love, puts his arm around his petulant progeny and gently invites him in. What love! Listen, all you people out there who think that you are good enough for God. You are lost, but more than that, you are loved.
I know that because the Father welcomes you even when you think He’s not fair. I also know it because the Father pursues you, even when you think you’re not lost. And this is the biggest wall between the Father and the homebound prodigal: On one hand, elder brothers think they’re ok with the father, but they’re really not. They are lost, but the good news is this. Even though you may not be willing to admit it, the father pursues you even when you think you’re not lost.
C. S. Lewis was a fine respectable college professor in England. He was so self-righteous and arrogant that he thought he didn’t need any God at all. He was an atheist. And yet, God pursued and pursued him. Through a series of conversations with J. R. Tolkein, he came under great conviction. The father pursued him. He wrote:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him of whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 [May 22] I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? … The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compassion is our liberation.
And you know what I think? I believe there are some elder brothers here today who are on the verge of a whole new relationship. I believer there are some porch pouters who just may come to understand just how much their self-righteousness has cost them. I believer there are some prodigals at home who, maybe for the first time in their lives really need to come home. There are some of you, who for the first time in your life need to truly experience God’s amazing grace.
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