THREE WAYS TO LIVE
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
Traditionally this parable is always called, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but not by Jesus. When he begins the story, he says, “There was a man who had two sons” (v.11); the story is a comparison and contrast of both brothers. Jesus’s story might best be named the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.
At the beginning of the chapter, Luke gives us the setting of the parable. 2 “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were muttering and complaining about Jesus (v.2) but tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him (v.1) “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him”. These two kinds of people correspond to the two brothers later in the parable.
Tax collectors and sinners are like the younger brother in the parable.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law, however, are like the elder brother in the parable.
Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery.
Basis operating principle of:
Religion: I obey, therefore I am accepted by God
Irreligion: I don’t really have to obey anyone but myself
Gospel: I am accepted by God at infinite cost to Jesus Christ, therefore I obey.
Of course most people acknowledge there is a difference between the gospel and irreligious ways but I want to show you the difference between the Gospel and religion as well.
3 So he told them this parable:
1. Irreligious Way : The Younger Brother -The way of self-discovery and self-indulgence
The first way to live is seen in the younger brother. His is the way of rebellion.
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
The parable starts with the younger brother demanding his share of the inheritance early, a shocking request to his father.
An inheritance is given at death, not during life. He’s basically saying to his father, “I wish you were dead. I want my share now. I’m leaving.”
The younger brother is rebellious. His actions in the story is very bad. He essentially tells his father he’s dead to him, and he wants his stuff so he can go far away from his boring or dull life. And the father gives him what he wishes. And perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that the father gives it to him.
As the younger of two brothers, he would have been entitled to one-third of the father’s land and possessions. The father would have had most of his money wrapped up in land. To give the son what he demanded meant he must sell a portion of his land.
Who knows how long it took him to gain it? Had it been in the family for centuries? What would it cost him socially?
The younger son does not care. He wants to spend his inheritance living life his way. So he does. And it’s a disaster. He goes through the money relatively quickly and finds himself in a pigsty longing for the kind of food the pigs have. His way of living didn’t work out the way he hoped. Our fantasies of wild living never do. Sin is painful, even if at the beginning it feels good.
The younger brother’s way of living is what Tim Keller calls “self-discovery and self-indulgence” He says, “In this view, the world would be a far better place if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and other barriers to personal freedom were weakened or removed.”
What was the sin of the younger brother? Was it squandering his inheritance on wild living? Was it spending everything his father gave? Yes, those are sins for sure. But those were symptoms of another, deeper sin: the sin of wanting to be his own god. The younger brother’s deepest, most damning sin was his insistence on living without God.
Eventually, the younger brother comes to himself. His senses become ordered rightly, perhaps for the first time in his life. His desires are altered. He wakes up and sees how far he’s come. He repents.
The memories of his father’s house wouldn’t fade. Now, he knows he can never be a son again, but he understands. If only he can be a servant, he will be glad. He rises and goes. He wants to see his father.
But in grace, the father would not allow his son’s sins to keep him from being his son. He covered them with his very own robe, bringing him back without even hearing his plea for mercy. He runs to him—none run for men of his stature on that day. He welcomes him home and throws a party. He was lost, and now he is found.
2. Religious Way: The Elder Brother - The way of moral conformity and moral performance
The second way to live is seen in the older brother. His is the way of self-righteous obedience. It is not obedience out of love for another, but selfish obedience hoping to gain something from another through good works. This way of living despises the father just as much as the rebellious life, but it doesn’t look like it.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘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. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
Outwardly, the elder son is composed, obedient, good. But inside, he is a storm of manipulation and selfishness. This way of living doesn’t care about the father. It cares about the father’s stuff, just like the rebellious life.
The older brother is no better than the younger brother on the inside, though on the outside he appears obedient and loving. His sin is the same: he wants to be his own god. We see this in his conversation with the father as the party goes on inside.
Why did he serve his father? It wasn’t out of love for him. It was out of love for himself. His obedience was merely the gateway to the father’s things, not the pathway to the father’s heart.
They both wants the Father’s thing not the Father
They both wants the things and the wealth not the Father
And they found the strategy to get the thing they really wanted in life.
One strategy was very very bad
One strategy was very very good
C H Spurgeon uses a story to illustrate this point.
Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overhead all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot—what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day that nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”
It is possible to serve others—even God—in order to serve ourselves.
What was the problem with the Older Brother?
A. One problem of the “elder brother” spirit is that he is filled with anger about how his life is going (v.28 — he was angry).
One sign of a moralistic spirit is a feeling that God owes me a good and comfortable life if I live up to his standards. Now that will continually lead to anger whenever your life takes a bad turn. If you feel you have been living right, you will be angry at God; if you feel that you have not been living right, you will be angry at yourself. Either way, your life will be filled with anger because you have been trying to control God through your goodness.
B. A second problem of the “elder brother” spirit is a joyless, mechanical obedience.
Notice that the older son says, “these many years I have served you” or “I've been slaving for you” (v.29). Elder brother obedience treats God as instrumental — a means to an end. You don’t do good out of a delight in goodness for its own sake or for the pleasure of God. Instead, you do it joylessly and slavishly. But Christians are filled with amazement at the grace of God and so obey out of a delight in pleasing him for his own sake.
C. A third problem of the “elder brother” spirit is a coldness to younger brother-types.
The older son will not even “own” or acknowledge his brother — “this son of yours” (v.30). For one thing, if you believe you are a sinner saved by grace alone, you will not feel superior to anyone else, not to other cultural or racial groups, not to other faiths, not to immoral people. You will treat them with respect because you know that your morality has been as sinful as their immorality. Secondly, if you understand the gospel, you will treat others with hope. You will never look at anyone and say, “Here's someone who could never become a Christian,” because now you know that all “types” of people are equally unlikely to find God. Thirdly, if you understand the gospel, you will be very courageous in your witness. You will not be bound by what people think of you.
D. A fourth problem of the “elder brother” spirit is a lack of assurance of the father’s love.
The elder son says, “you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” or “You never threw me a party” (v.29). There is no dancing or festiveness in the elder brother’s relationship with his father. As long as you try to earn your salvation by controlling God through your goodness, you will never, ever be sure you have “made it.” There will always be anxiety and fear and uncertainty in your relationship. No wonder there is no intimacy in the prayer life of the “elder brother” — no joy or closeness — though the elder brother may be very diligent in “saying his prayers.”
E. A fifth sign or problem of “elder brother” spirit is an unforgiving, judgmental spirit.
If you are an elder brother, you lack two things necessary to forgive. First, you lack the emotional humility to say, “I’m no different.” You instead look at the sinner and say, “I would never do that!” Second, you lack the emotional “wealth” to say, “I am so loved and forgiven by my father, what does it matter that I was wronged by him?”
It is not his badness keeping him out, but his “goodness.” The elder brother in the end is lost, not despite his good record, but because of it. As one writer put it, “The main thing between you and God is not your sins, but your damnable good works.”
The result was that they both were alienated from the Father. One was spiritually lost far from home and one was spiritually lost at home.
But at the end, the younger son, the lover of the prostitute repents but the elder son does not.
3. The Gospel: The Father’s Heart
The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion—it is something else altogether. Religion makes law and moral obedience a means of salvation, while irreligion makes the individual a law to himself or herself. The gospel, however, is that Jesus takes the law of God so seriously that he paid the penalty of disobedience, so we can be saved by sheer grace.
There are third ways to live. What are those third ways? It is lay down in the story
FIRST: we need the initiating Love of the Father.
Even the younger brother gets the father’s kiss before he repents (v.20). The father's kiss is not a response to our repentance, but the action that brings it about. With the older brother, the father must come out and plead with him (v.28), just as he pleads today with hardened religious people! We all need God’s grace to come to us first.
SECOND, we must repent, not just of our sins, but also for the reason we do the good thing.
The religious only repent of sins. The irreligious don’t repent at all. Christians, however, repent of both their sins and of their self-righteousness. Repentance means to admit that the reason we did right was to put God in our debt, so that we could have some say in the kind of life we “deserve,” and keep control of our lives.
THIRD, We need to see what it cost God to bring us home
There is a striking change in this parable when compared to the other two. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, each lost thing is sought out. In the parable of the prodigal son, that element is missing. The younger son leaves home, and the father watches him go. No one goes looking for him. He comes home of his own accord.
Who should have searched for him? I believe that’s a question Jesus is raising. The Pharisees and scribes stood there with all the knowledge of the Bible without any of the evangelistic zeal of the Bible. They left the sinners to themselves when they held the good news of God’s grace and mercy at their fingertips. Why would they not reach out? Probably for the same reason the elder son wouldn’t. They didn’t want God as much as they wanted his stuff—in this case, the stamp of righteousness.
Jesus did not have to engage the Pharisees and scribes. He could have ignored them, left them, refused to speak to them. But he didn’t. Instead, he called them to repentance, not seeking that any should perish. But they wouldn’t listen. They had hardened their heart and would not yield to the Father’s wooing through his Son. Instead, they packed up their things and went to a foreign land. They refused to enter the party, wondering how those people could ever get in.