A Sunday school teacher had just concluded her lesson and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up. “Sin,” he said.
That’s true. Unfortunately, that’s not really the part in question.
God wants to forgive us. But we need to accept God’s forgiveness. We may know about God’s forgiveness intellectually, but we need to believe it, deep down inside, accepting it is true — because it is!
One thing that often blocks us from accepting forgiveness from God is that we are unable to forgive ourselves. God wants you to forgive yourself.
Scripture tells us to “look straight ahead with honest confidence; don’t hang your head in shame.”
We need to try a little tenderness on ourselves, at least this is what Jesus said God is trying with you.
Our reading is a very familiar story and perhaps the most famous of all Jesus’ parables, “The Story of the Prodigal Son.” There are other ways we could call it: “The Story of the Loving Father” or “The Pharisaic Older Brother.” It just depends on who you focus on.
This morning I want to focus mainly on the older son and the father, but it’s almost impossible not to talk about the more famous prodigal son in a message looking at this parable.
There are not many tender words for Pharisees in the Gospels. Mainly the words are highly critical and tough. The most moving words of tenderness for Pharisees, the view of them as legalists, and for the pharisaical of heart are in this parable. The fact is this amazing story tries to tell everyone, the legalist and duty-bound as well as the hedonist and pleasure-seeker, that God holds a love for them they can’t extinguish.
Luke 15 begins with Jesus eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees who see this stand aloof, grumbling, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In verse 28, it’s the older brother that stands aloof, angry and unwilling to join the father, who is now eating with the younger brother, the sinner himself.
What we want to see is how the father deals with this son, the rule-keeper. After all, it’s up to dad to put this right.
Just like he did with the younger son, the father tries some tenderness. With great patience, his father does four things.
First, the father moves toward him, similar to the way he ran out to meet the younger son in verse 20. Verse 28 says, “And his father came out.” He doesn’t send a servant to get him. He doesn’t holler from inside the house and tell his son to grow up and get in here. He goes himself. He meets him out on the porch.
Second, he entreats his child. “His father came out and began plead with him.” The word plead is different from what the elder son said about the way his father speaks. He had said that his father gave commands. But the father is begging, not commanding. He did not want a performance from a hard-hearted son; he wanted to win his heart over again.
Third, the father calls him, “my child.” “My child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Most translations use “son,” but the Greek word for son throughout the chapter (eight times) is huios. Here the word is teknon, and is more intimate and tender. He is not belittling him, but speaking endearingly.
He also says his son is “with him,” connoting a special relationship the son had missed or couldn’t see or didn’t understand nor feel. While this relationship was something special to the father, it appears it wasn’t to this son. Being with the father every night for supper, and running the estate together was not a joy for this young man.
In fact, he doesn’t see it in these terms at all. The son said, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command….” Notice the words “served” and “command.”
The problem is that the older brother related to his father as servant to a boss, not as son to a father. His father was merely a command-giver, and he was a command-keeper. And therefore, merit, doing the thing right and the right thing, was the foundation of the relationship as perceived by the older son, not love or mercy or compassion.
The truth is the elder brother perhaps really wanted to be out like his wild little brother; he wanted to party with his friend, and leave the old man behind—but he just couldn’t do it. He was the responsible one—and he hated it. He wanted to be loved by his father and he thought he had to pay the price for it. He thought he could earn this love by doing what was right.
He did the right things but he didn’t have his heart in it. Why do I have to be the one doing right when so many others don’t? His heart was in
rebellion but his actions were still following the right. In other words, he was double-minded. He lived at home hoping to get his father’s love and acceptance but he was angry about having to be there and fight for what should have been his freely.
And then the younger son comes home….
In Jewish culture back then, men wore long robes. In order for a man to run, he had to lift the hem up and hold it high to keep from tripping over it. In doing so, he would bare his legs, which was considered highly undignified. Men of respect never ran; it would have been embarrassing.
But can’t you see this father grabbing handfuls of robe and running toward his son? He didn’t wait for the son to reach him, he ran to meet the son. He hugged and kissed his rebellious son before the son said one word! Remember the son had been working in the pigpen. He looked and smelled awful, not exactly the kind of person you want to hug and kiss! The father could have said, “Oh, you’re back–good. Clean yourself up before you come into this house!” But instead, the father accepted him “just as he was.”
When his brother came home and dad lavished compassion, love, and forgiveness upon him, it was too much. He was witnessing firsthand how loving his father could be, to someone undeserving mind you, and the unfairness and incomprehensibility of a relationship based on love and not obligation made him angry.
Notice above all that it’s the father here who is on trial. The elder son has placed dad on the stand and is indicting him for all that’s gone wrong here and by extension in his own life.
How many can’t enjoy their blessings because they’re still angry and hurt about what they didn’t get, what they suffered, what they felt should have been theirs?
Too many people find it very difficult to be truly joyful with what they have. It’s almost completely irrelevant as to how much this is because almost no matter how much or little it is, we still feel/believe something is missing, something isn’t right, something or some things needed to be done, or said, or not done or not said, or given or not given. Without this (missing) piece, without whatever it is we didn’t get, true joy alludes us.
If we’re still angry about something, we will blamed someone. Of course, we can be angry at different people at different times but ultimately someone is at fault for what has you throwing away your blessing, disregarding your treasure, denying your bliss. Many really blame God.
And yet for all their anger at others, most people are deep down ashamed that they themselves have done much wrong. We get angry at ourselves for not being able to figure out how to do their life right. We need forgiveness.
One person who was an atheist said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.” How many of us are really taking good advantage of the most important aspect of our Christian faith?
One rainy afternoon a mother was driving along one of the main streets of town. Suddenly, her son Matthew spoke up from his relaxed position in the rear seat. “Mom, I’m thinking of something.” This announcement usually meant he had been pondering some fact for a while and was now ready to expound all that his seven-year-old mind had discovered. His mother was eager to hear. “What are you thinking?” she asked. “The rain, is like sin and the windscreen wipers are like God, wiping our sins away.” “That’s really good, Matthew”, she replied. Then my curiosity broke in. How far would this little boy take this revelation? So she asked, “Do you notice how the rain keeps on coming? What does that tell you?” Matthew didn’t hesitate one moment with his answer: “We keep on sinning, and God just keeps on forgiving us.”
Hopefully when we realize what it means to be truly forgiven and what it means to truly come to God the “rain” will slow down considerably.
Jesus tells us there’s one overriding element to God’s forgiveness: A total acceptance back into God’s heart and home. We aren’t left out on the porch among the non-family. We are given a new robe; it’s lovingly placed around us, covering up all that’s gone on before.
In Jesus’ day, sons often wore family rings with the family seal on it. So Jesus used this idea to tell us the prodigal son is welcomed back into the family completely. He is given a new ring.
And slaves and servants didn’t wear shoes back then. Only family members did. So the father had shoes brought for his son. The old Negro spiritual “All God’s children got shoes” was based on this verse.
As for the older son, Jesus leaves unsaid the possibility he will remain forever on the porch in his heart and not inside the home of his father. It will be up to him.
It is up to us to let go, to forgive all those we think have hurt us, to relinquish the sense of injustice done to us, to find in the Lord our God our heart and home.
It is up to you to enter the joy that is set before you in the blessings of your life, in the good things that God has given you, and not to turn away from God’s gifts.
It is up to all of us to accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, the washing away forever of our sin, the remaking of our lives, the love of God our father and mother who loves us with an undying and tender compassion.
Can the church say Amen?