The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni
The Gospel of Luke recounts for us some of the most beloved stories told by Jesus that are not recorded anywhere else. I think especially of the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of the Prodigal Son. Here is an excerpt from a sermon I preached a couple of years ago on Luke 15....
This morning I would like to focus on the second part of Jesus’ story that we often call the parable of the prodigal son. We often forget about the elder brother, but that is whom I want to focus on today.
I believe this part of the story poses at least three questions for us to consider. The first question is: what is our attitude toward those outside the church?
The older brother becomes angry when his father throws a party for his younger brother. The older brother feels slighted because he has never had a party thrown for him and he has been a dutiful servant for years. The older brother is amazed at his father’s generosity to the younger son who has done nothing to earn his father’s favor.
I wonder: is that how we feel about people outside of the church? Do we, perhaps, resent the attention they receive when they “come home”? After all, they have not earned that attention have they? Did it occur to you that the father in this story is simply far too permissive? If so, hear these words from Robert Capon….
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.”
Let me ask this: what about new people at church? What is our attitude toward them? Maybe lost people like the prodigal son seem too distant for us to get a handle on our feelings about them. However, do we ever feel like new people at church get more attention than those of us who have been going to church all our lives? Do we feel like they have not done as much work as us around the church so why should they get all the attention? If we identify with any of these attitudes then maybe we have a bit of the elder brother syndrome going on in our hearts.
We have a choice in our attitude toward the younger brothers in our lives. Either we can be grumbling warriors at the edge of the crowd or we can be compassionate people welcoming others home at the center of the crowd. When it comes to our younger brothers, either we can be on a search-and-destroy mission or a seek-and-save mission.
We have a nickname in the United States for tow trucks. Some people in our country call them wreckers. However, over in England, all of their tow trucks have one big word on them: RECOVERY. We are talking about the same vehicles, with the same instruments, and the same mission (supposedly), but the English have a very different perspective. They say to people who are having car trouble: “Here comes recovery!” We say: “Here comes the wrecker!” Let us be honest: a lot of us in the church think, and act, like wreckers. We cannot stand certain kinds of people outside the church. We would be happy if they never came around. However, Jesus came on a recovery mission. I believe he has a keen interest in those who are lost at the edges of our society. Do we share his interest?
Our lives can either be wonderful advertisements for Christianity or horrible warnings against it. Sheldon Vanauken, who was once a member of this church, wrote these words during his years outside of the church….
The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.
It is our choice what we will be: strong arguments for Christianity or against.