Lost at Home

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 20, 2016

Luke 15:25-32 AHA: Lost at Home

It is one of the iconic images from the Bible:

a young man, wearing tattered and worn clothes, stinking like a hog farm, shuffles down the road. His feet are blistered from a long walk, he is skinny and gaunt, all skin and bones; and he’s rehearsing a speech to himself, saying that he’s sorry, over and over again.

Suddenly, there is a man running toward him. An older man, well to do and well fed. A man of rank and position and dignity. But right now, all his dignity is forgotten as he runs toward the ragged young man.

They meet, there’s a huge embrace, the young man begins his speech. But the older man isn’t listening. He’s calling for servants, issuing commands. The next thing you know, there’s a huge party. The whole village is invited. There’s singing and dancing and the finest foods. And in the middle of it all, the older man stands up and says: “Friends, tonight we celebrate. For this is my son: he was dead to me, but now he is alive again. He was lost, but today he has been found.”

It seems like the perfect ending to the story. A way of saying: “everyone lived happily ever after.” It’s story of repentance and redemption, a story of love and grace. Everyone listening to Jesus tell this parable must have assumed the story was over. It was a satisfactory conclusion.

But Jesus is a master storyteller, and he’s not done yet. I imagine him taking a dramatic pause, and then, Luke 15:25:

25Meanwhile, the older son…

“Meanwhile…” It’s a classic storytelling word. It makes me think of the comics. Batman and Robin, standing outside a bank where they’ve just foiled a robbery attack, congratulating themselves on a job well done. But then the next panel says: “meanwhile…” and shows the Penguin and the Joker down beneath the city streets, plotting an even bigger crime while the caped crusaders are distracted.

“Meanwhile…” The story isn’t over. There’s another character in the story, and we need to know what he’s up to.

Some of Jesus’ listeners will recall that he began this story by saying: “There was a man who had two sons.” The story to this point has focused on the younger one, the one we call the Prodigal, the one who demanded his share of the inheritance and traveled to a distant country and blew it in wild living. But the existence of two sons was not an extraneous detail, Jesus included that fact for a reason.

Now we are about to find out why.

Before we read the rest of the story, it might be a good idea for us to pay attention to something that I have thus far been overlooking in our study of this story: and that’s the original setting in which Jesus told it. We need to back up to the beginning of the chapter, Luke 15:1-2:

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There were two groups of people listening to Jesus. The first group is labeled as “tax collectors and sinners.” These men and women would have corresponded to the younger brother. They did not observe the moral laws of the Bible or keep the ceremonial laws. They were known for engaging in “wild living” and would have been seen as living in a distant country, far from their spiritual home.

The second group of listeners is labeled as “Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” These were the people who held to the traditional morality of their upbringing. They were careful to keep the law, and fiercely loyal to God. And so, they find it strange and disconcerting that Jesus would spend time with such unclean people. They muttered and whispered to themselves: “Doesn’t he know what these people get up to? They never come to our services, so what are they doing with him?”

It’s in response to this muttering that Jesus tells three stories. First, he tells a story of a lost sheep. One which the shepherd looks high and low for, and then throws a party when it is found. Then he tells a story of a lost coin. Again, the woman who lost it turns everything upside down until it is found again, and then she throws a party. And then, Jesus tells a story of a lost son. One who comes to his senses, tells the truth, and gets up to come home again. Here too, the story ends with a party.

So it seemed that Jesus was telling these stories to explain why he spends time with sinners. He’s the one who looks for the lost. He pictures God as celebrating when the lost are found. It wasn’t exactly the picture these religious types had of God, but it worked as an explanation for why Jesus behaved as he did. It seemed like Jesus was telling the younger brother types that God loved them, that God had not given up on them, that they could still come home.

If the story had ended with verse 24, with the feast and the father’s toast, I think these religious types would have thought of it as an interesting story, directed towards those sinners, and frankly having little to do with them. But then verse 25 comes, Jesus says: “meanwhile”, and we realize that Jesus has been talking to the scribes and Pharisees all along. They are in the story too. They are the older brother.

Here’s what Jesus says, Luke 15:25-32:

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’”

As it turns out, this isn’t the parable of the lost son, it’s the Parable of the Two Lost Sons. This father has two boys, and both of them are far from him. One packed up and moved to a distant country, while the other stayed right there at home, but they both turned away from their father. Tim Keller puts it like this: “The bad son was lost in his badness, but the good son was lost in his goodness.” (quoted by Idleman, p. 202)

This is an interesting twist to this story, and an interesting twist to our sermon series. Many of us have never been prodigal. I’m sure, as we’ve gone through this series, that we’ve all been able to see ourselves in the younger son in some of our bad habits and little rebellions against God; but most of us have never really been to the distant country. A lot of us have been in the church most of our lives. We’ve identified ourselves as Christians, we come from Christian families, we’ve tried to stay faithful to God. So, as the series has moved along, we’ve probably thought more about people we know, friends and family who fit more easily into the younger son description. We might not have thought that this series was really for us.

But, as it turns out, Jesus has been talking to us all along. John Piper writes:

As we unpack this, most of us need to listen very carefully. This is a passage for long-time churchgoers. This is a passage for people who don't struggle as much with running from God as they struggle with condemning those who do. This is a passage for people who tend to think of other people who need this passage. (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-blinding-effects-of-serving-god)

Here’s the point that we need to get today, the big idea: If we are trusting in our own goodness to define our relationship with God, we are just as lost as those who rebel against God. The problem with the scribes and Pharisees, the problem with the older brother, is that they thought it was their own effort, their own service to the father, that made them special to him. They were trusting in their own goodness instead of the goodness of God and in the end they were just as lost—more so, really—as the so-called sinners.

So, how do you know if you are an older brother? Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, says that there are four signs that we have “elder brother lostness.” I’ll go through them one at a time.

Scratch My Back
First, bitterness. When life doesn’t go their way, elder brothers aren’t just sad about it, they are often bitter and angry. The beginning of verse 28: “The older brother became angry…”

When we fall into older brother thinking we begin to believe that if we live a good life, we should receive a good life. We begin to think that God owes us a smooth road because we have tried so very hard to live according to his standards.

Of course, we all ask: “Why did God let this happen?” whenever we receive particularly bad news. I think that’s human nature, we all want to have insight into the mystery of the Divine Will. We all long for a glimpse of the bigger picture. I don’t think asking that question is so bad.

But when we take it a step farther, when we ask: “Why, God, did you let this happen to me? Didn’t I deserve better?” When we start to enumerate all of the things we have done for God, and question why he hasn’t rewarded us with good health or a prosperous business, that’s when we’ve shifted into anger and bitterness. When we shake our fists at God, when we use words like “I’ve earned” or “I deserve”, we are thinking like the older brother.

What this reveals is that our morality is results-oriented. We do good, we keep the law, not because it is good to do good for good’s sake, but because we believe that we can somehow control our environment or manipulate God. If we do good, we reason, then God will have to give us what we want.

I call this the “mutual back-scratching” view of God. You know the old saying: “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” A lot of times, we think this applies to God. We think: if I scratch His back, if keep his commands and give money to the church and volunteer for charity, then God will have to scratch mine by giving me a peaceful family life and awesome friends and a winning basketball team to cheer for.

D.A. Carson writes:

We must acknowledge that some people who think of themselves as Christian also think that their relationship with God is of this “your scratch my back, I scratch your back” sort. Provided you are good enough, you will get married happily. Provided you read your devotions every day, you will live a long life and will not get cancer until you are at least ninety six. Provided you are honest at work, you will not lose your job as has happened to others, who deserve to lose them a lot more than you do. Provided you always say your prayers, your kids will never rebel. And one day you will go to heaven. You scratch my back, I scratch your back. (The God Who is There, 45)

The problem with this is that we are presuming that God needs something from us. We assume that God is like us, and there are certain favors He wants and needs us to perform for Him. So we think we can barter with Him (and, of course, we become bitter when it doesn’t work). But God does not need anything. Acts 17:24-25:

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.

We are serving a God who needs nothing. So if we are counting on our goodness to pay off with divine favors returned, we are bound to become angry and resentful whenever things fail to go our way.

Competitive Comparison
Second, a sign of elder brother lostness is a misplaced pride in our own goodness. When we see others who do not behave as well as we do, we have a heightened sense of our own moral superiority. Notice how the older son talks about his own brother in verse 30:

30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes…

He can’t even acknowledge his own brother. He says disdainfully: “This son of yours…” And he can’t help but to bring up the younger son’s mistakes. He “squandered your property.” He was “with prostitutes.” You sense his pride. You can hear the subtext. What he’s really saying is: “I would never do something like that. I am moral and upright. I am the good son. I am better than that.”

Keller calls it “competitive comparison” and he says it is “the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance.” (p. 53) People who think they have the right to decide who belongs in the church or not, who believe they can choose for God who He will love or not, are displaying this kind of elder brother pride.

Jesus warns against it in Matthew 7:1-2:

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Now, I need to pause here a moment. This is absolutely the correct verse to quote at this time, and it is a strong warning against spiritual pride. But I have to say a word or two about what this verse is not saying.

Please understand: this verse is not saying that it is wrong to call wrong wrong. This verse is not saying that Christians should never, ever judge. In fact, in the very same chapter, just a few verses later, Jesus says:

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

How are we supposed to distinguish the false prophets from the true prophets unless we exercise judgment? If we see wrong teaching, we have to call it wrong.

Or, again, in 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul needs to address an issue of sin within the church. It is a rather blatant and outrageous example of immorality, but the Christians have mistakenly assumed it was a good thing because God’s grace would cover it. Paul tells them:

11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people… 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Clearly, the Bible does not think it is wrong to call wrong wrong. If you are a parent, you need to judge the misbehavior of your children. If you are married, you need to hold your spouse accountable. If you are a Christian and a part of the church you need to—as this passage says—address issues of immorality you see in your Christian brothers and sisters.

But—and here we can go back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7—that does not give us license to take a position of moral superiority. If we pull out the microscope to examine every flaw and error in the lives of others, we should expect the same microscope to be used on us. If we condemn others without an awareness of our own sin and error, we are merely condemning ourselves. Keller writes:

If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, “I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.” Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making. (57)

Slave Thinking
The third sign of elder brother lostness is joyless service. We are constant and dutiful in our service to God, but there is no delight in it. We serve out of obligation, not love for the father.

This is perhaps the most damning thing about the elder brother in Jesus’ story. In verse 29 he says: ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.’

All these years he has been working for his dad. He has played the role of the good son. He seems like he loves his father. But now he reveals that this whole time he has seen it as slavery. He hasn’t done it because he is a son in relationship with his father, but because he sees himself as a slave working for a master.

John Piper writes:

This is not the way the father wants his children to relate to him. This is a distortion of Christianity. It is not the Christian life… It dishonors God to treat him as a master in need of slave labor. What honors God is not slave labor, but childlike faith in his all-sufficiency.

Piper goes on to quote Jesus’ words from Mark 10:45 which says:

45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Then Piper continues:

Jesus did not come and hang out a help-wanted sign. He came and hung out a help-available sign. Jesus is eating with sinners because he is a doctor with a cure, not because he is an employer with a labor shortage.

The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t see that because they themselves had a totally different mindset: “For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours.”

Test yourself here. I fear that at this point many might say, “It seems to me that the elder brother really has a legitimate complaint.” If you say that, you’re not getting it. You are still thinking in the old way of master and slave and works. Not the Christian way of Father and child and faith. The question is not whether the son really has kept all the commandments; the question is whether the father wants to be related to as commander to slave. (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-blinding-effects-of-serving-god)

“The Father’s house is not a house of merit, it is a house of mercy.” (Idleman, p. 204) If we are serving because we have to, if we are obeying God’s rules because of duty and not because we delight to be his children, then we are missing the point entirely. We have painted God as a tyrant that He is not, and we are missing out on the joy of being His child.

Doubting the Father’s Love
The fourth sign of elder brother lostness is when we doubt God’s love for us. Though we stay close to home, we are never certain that God really cares about us. Here’s what the elder son says in verse 29: “Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

Even though this boy has been living under his father’s roof all this time, he still doesn’t know him. Even though he has seen the recklessly extravagant way he has given the inheritance to the younger brother, and even though the sounds of the lavish party are echoing in his ear even now; he does not believe his father’s generosity extends to him.

Please understand, this statement reflects far more on the older son than it does on the father. Everything we’ve learned about the father in this story would indicate that he loves his sons and delights to share what he has with them. This is not a stingy man. So it may be true that this boy has never had a party with his friends, but I’ll guarantee you he never asked. He has made assumptions about his father that are all wrong.

Keller writes this:

As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you. (p. 63)

God does love you. Whether you are a younger or an older son, God loves you. Whether you are in that circle of people listening to Jesus that would be classified as sinners, or in that circle that would be classified as Pharisees, the whole point here is that God the Father loves you.

That’s why Jesus tells the story, and that’s why He includes two sons. Because both groups need to hear that they are lost. Both groups need AHA. Both groups need to know that God is ready to welcome them home with open arms.

That’s my final point, and one we cannot miss in the story: Even though both boys have wounded the father’s heart deeply, even though both have wandered away from what he wants for them, still the father is loving and gracious to both sons.

This man, in that culture, had every right to throw the ungrateful younger son out on his ear the moment he began making noises about the inheritance. And when the young man came back, the father would have been perfectly within his rights to act as though he did not know him. But that’s not what he did. He welcomed him home.

In the same way, when the older son threw his hissy fit out on the front porch, the father would have been completely justified to tell him to beat it. If he couldn’t be happy for his father’s happiness, then maybe he didn’t need to be there anymore. But that’s not what the father did. Verse 28, and then verses 31 and 32:

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him… 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’”

The father went out to him. The father pleaded with him. The father said: “Everything I have is yours.” The father said: “My son.”

It is possible that we have many elder brothers here today. It’s possible that you are lost at home. If so, you need AHA as much as those who are far from God. Maybe even more. Because at least the younger sons realize that they are lost.

The sad thing about Jesus’ story is that it ends in a cliffhanger. We do not know if the elder brother ever went inside. We have no idea if he realized how wrongly he was thinking about his father, and whether he was able to go and join the celebration. We don’t know how this story ends.

The question is: what about you? How is your story going to end?