One of the best stories that Jesus ever told is recorded in Luke 15, the story of a wayward son who finally comes home to discover that his Father has been waiting for his return with open arms. It’s a scandalous story that doesn’t include ‘appropriate’ punishment for the son who took advantage of his dad’s generosity, squandering his inheritance on drink and prostitutes. We expect the errant son to find an angry father who, at the very least, lectures him on his failures and puts him on probation to see if his change of ways is sincere. Instead we read of a grand party, a new suit, and restored access to the family fortune. It is a grace story! And there is a part of the story that doesn’t get much attention from many of us.
“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’
“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’ “
His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours— but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’ “ (Luke 15:25-32, The Message)
Many people who have been Believers for a while, who live in obedience and serve the Lord earnestly, can identify with the anger of that dutiful son! Forgetting that they are the beneficiaries of God’s grace, they close the door to ‘those kind of people’ who would bring their messes, their failures, and the stink of their sins into the congregation. “What would people think of Christ if they saw us allowing people like that into our membership?” they think. The mission of Christ (to save sinners!) is lost to a maintenance Christianity that is focused on church programs, conformity to rules, titles for the important, and committee work that gives the appearance of progress. These dutiful sons do some good and charitable things for those they consider beneath them, but they are careful never to extend an invitation for ‘those kind of people’ to enter the church, for they believe it is important to maintain the distinction between ‘us and them.’
Jesus is not suggesting that the only way we can really know God’s grace is to rebel royally, make a total wreck of life, and then come to God! As the Father said to the good son, “You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.” A holy life has rich rewards including fellowship with God and an eternal inheritance. But, when we cross the line from realization that “but for the grace of God, there go I,” to “what a good guy I am: so smart, so superior, so important to my Father,” we enter the territory of ugly self-righteousness and begin to replace the beauty of true holiness with an ugly substitute called religion!
When you hear yourself speaking like a dutiful son, assuming a superior attitude, shutting another out of God’s kingdom, stop and remember the pit from which God pulled you!
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”(1 Corinthians 1:26-31, NIV)
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
was blind, but now I see!