And I don’t know about how you get your arms around this, what grace really is. I can define it as “God’s generosity in action to meet my deepest needs, totally apart from my performance.” But I jotted a few thoughts here that maybe will help you by way of, What is grace? Getting your arms and mind around it.
You desire great things for me, God, and from me. But Your expectations are reasonable. You are mindful that I am but dust. Magnificent dust made in Your image, but as a result, You are patient, You are understanding with me. You know about my struggles. When I purposefully rebel, and some of you think pastors live in a different world, believe me, we purposefully rebel, and reject Your love, Your plans, and Your will for my life, You graciously and lovingly provide pain, no peace in my heart, and ever increasing consequences to prompt me to come to my senses, to return to You.
And then when I do, You don’t keep Your anger or hide Your face from me, when I come with an honest and a humble heart, with a broken and contrite spirit. When I find myself far from You or the enemy bombarding me and the evil of this fallen world, and I feel in an absolutely impossible situation, Your ears strain to hear my cry for help, and Your feet run to meet me in my desperate situation, even when it is one of my own making.
This is what grace is. It’s not a concept, it’s not energy, it’s not theory. It’s the generosity of God in action that seeks my highest good, meets my greatest needs, and delights in me. He is for me, totally apart from anything I could do or anything I have ever done.
Grace is free, undeserved, counterintuitive. It’s the disposition of the infinite Creator of the universe toward me, expressed most clearly and personally in the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ. That’s grace.
I want to ask and answer the question why the good news isn’t good anymore. Euaggelion, that is the Bible word for “gospel.” It just means, “good news.” Literally it means, “happy news.” The early Church simply went around proclaiming, “Do you understand that the God who made all that there is, in the Second Person of the Trinity, came to earth, was born of a virgin, lived an absolutely perfect life, healed the sick, raised the dead, opened the eyes of the blind, healed the lame, died in your place for your sin, rose from the dead – you are forgiven!”
And they went and announced this happy news, “God loves you! That’s why He came!” But somewhere along the line, this happy news became religion and oughts and shoulds and hypocrisy.
For those who are twenty-nine years and under in America, when they hear, “Oh, you’re a Christian? An evangelical, one of those born again types?” That’s the perception. How did the good news become that?
So are you ready? Are you ready to return to our story? The occasion? We begin in Luke chapter 15. Are you ready? Here is the story.
“Now the tax collectors and the sinners were all gathered around to hear Him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable,” one parable, three stories, “‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? Then he calls his friends and his neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.”’” Spiritual application. “I tell you, in the same way, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Story number two to make the same point, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’” And that coin would be probably a part of her dowry. It would be a day’s wage.
Story number one, something is lost out in the wilderness, of value. Story number two, something is lost inside the house of much greater value. Story number three, something is lost inside the home of infinite value.
“Jesus continued, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the young son got together all that he had,’” literally, he cashed out, “and went to a distant country and squandered his wealth in wild living. After he’d spent everything there, there was a severe famine in the whole country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him into the fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”
Breaking point. “When he came to his senses, he said ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and I am here starving to death! I will go back to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and he went to his father.”
Intervention. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion, he ran to his son, he threw his arms around him, and he kissed him.” Literally, repeatedly.
“And the son said to the father, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the robe, the best one, and put it on him; put a ring on his finger; sandals on his feet; bring the fatted calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and a celebration. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and he is found.’
So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. He came near the house, and he heard the music and the dancing.” We get our word for symphony from music. And it’s literally a picture of around a little village house and the entire village has showed up and there is dancing and there is music and there is food and there is excitement.
“So he called to one of the servants,” literally, one of the teenage boys, “and asked him, ‘What is going on?’ ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“And the older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I have been slaving for you, I have never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!’
“My son,” interesting word, it’s the most gentle word he could use for him, it’s tenderness, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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 we look at this passage, we are going to discover how people miss the grace of God. The occasion, remember, by way of review is that Jesus is being criticized by the religious leaders, the Pharisees. They have large portions of the Old Testament completely memorized. They fast on Tuesdays and Fridays regularly. They tithe ten percent of all they have down to the herbs and spices of everything that they own. They are squeaky clean, morally.
They have long prayer shawls and they stand on corners and recite prayers out loud. They are the people who are intellectual, they have the power, and they have wealth. And Jesus comes, now claiming to be God, multitudes are thronging around Him, the common people hear Him gladly. And He is hanging out with notorious sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, irreligious, immoral, far from God, unholy, contaminated people.
And the religious leaders are thinking He is shaming God. And so this story is to correct their thinking about God and how God feels about people.
So what did this story teach about God’s heart for lost people? The younger son receives, are you ready? Grace. Grace. It’s just an amazing picture. God loves us. He just loves us. The father wants relationship with the son.
The robe is his robe, the ring is the financial family signet ring, the sandals are, “You’re a son.” The fatted calf was a celebration! It’s not a celebration for the son. It’s the father’s celebration. It’s what he has back.
The son receives grace, but the father receives the son’s shame. He is viewed as someone, this would never happen, ever, in a Middle Eastern village. Today or then.
The father has embarrassed himself. He has run with his robe showing his legs. He has forgiven the young kid who ought to be beaten. The elders who would have come if the father wouldn’t have gotten there, could have had the ability to stone him. He has received all the shame on him, he has told the servants, “Put my robe on him.”
So the servants who would be ticked off, all they could say was, “If our master has received him, who are we?” And so that was the first part of the story of the younger brother. And, by the way, here is the deal. That’s how God feels about everybody.
I just want you to think of the people who, in your mind, maybe, I don’t know what the category is, I don’t know what they look like, I don’t know what your experience is, but I want you to think of people who you think, Ugh. They are so distasteful to you. You so would not want to be around these kind of people, whoever these kind of people are.
And I just want to remind you, God says, “I love them. I am passionate. I made them, I created them, I died for them.”
Now we move to Jesus’ message to the elder brothers, the Pharisees of that day. And as we do that, let me just give you a little bit of historical background. We read the passage.
It’s interesting, the narrative here, He makes it very clear that this transition is there is this party going on and as the party is going on and you can imagine the people, they are locked arms and they are dancing and there is a little musical band and there are cymbals and the fire is blazing. It would be interesting, the little servant boys, the teenagers and preteens would not be allowed to go in, they are not old enough yet unless they had been through their bar mitzvah and stuff, and so the adults are there and there is food.
And there would be a big head table. And at the head table is where the father would sit. And then all the dignitaries and the elders and people would be out here. The oldest son’s job at a celebration was to be the maîtres d. And he would stand, representing the family, so the father could be free to get up and interact with people. And that was the older son’s role and that will be very important later, because this older son will disrespect and diss his father equally like the younger son did. He’ll just do it in a different way.
And so we pick up the story and it says that in the meantime the older son comes. And in a village like this, if you heard dancing, you would be excited. It’s a celebration, something has happened.
And instead of moving right in, because this older son is revealing his attitude. He has a master/servant relationship with his dad. “I have slaved for you all these years.” So he hears about a big party and instead of excitement, he has suspicion. “Who could be having a party?”
Secondly, you need to remember, one third of the estate was given to the young son, and he has blown it. Two-thirds of the estate is the older son’s. But the father owns that and can spend it however. But every dollar that is spent before the father dies, is decreasing the estate.
So all he knows is, There is the big party and parties cost a lot of money and the fatted calf and we are blowing out the doors and all this means is I am going to get less and less and less after dad dies, if that tells you a little bit of his mindset.
So he calls one of the little teenage boys and says, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” And then he tells him the story. But he uses and interesting word. He says, “Your brother has come back safe and sound.” That’s actually one Greek word. And that Greek word, when it is translated in the Old Testament is translated, shalom, or, peace.
It’s not that your younger brother came back and now he is doing restitution and he has got a payment plan and he has been at least beaten or reproved. That’s what the older son would expect. He screwed up, he did this, he did this, he did this. Now he has got to pay it back.
The young one just comes and says, “He has shalomed with your father.” Well, that means reconciliation has happened. How could that have happened? And now there is a party and my estate is shrinking as dad uses my money to honor…
Do you see it? See, this is how the Pharisees see life. It’s how they see what is happening. And so, in these little villages, everyone is involved in what is going on and now the father does something completely unheard of and as the Pharisees are hearing this, they would know this would never happen.
When the father comes out, he doesn’t get even the title, “O father.” He doesn’t even say, it’s not his brother, it’s, “Your son.” The older brother had responsibility for reconciliation, he didn’t care about the younger son, and he didn’t care about the father.
And so he stays outside. And the word is the older brother is outside. Everyone knows he has so disrespected his father, and the father does the unthinkable. He goes outside. And in the Middle Eastern culture, as He is telling this story, that he is going to go outside, [they would expect] he is going to say, “Get in there and do your job. Enough.” Or, “Have him beaten, have him tied up, we will deal with him later.” That’s exactly what they would expect.
And instead, just as the father took on the shame of the younger son in order that relationship could happen, notice his words, teknon, “My son.” And literally he is pleading with him, “Come inside, take your role, be a part of the family. The younger son was lost in a distant land and he came home. You have been in the home, but there is no relationship. Come close. Be a part of the family. Accept my love. It’s not about your performance.”
“I have,” listen to his words, “I have never disobeyed you. You have never given me.” And the father goes, “I have never given you? All that I have is yours. It has been available.”
You see, elder sons are legalistic. Elder sons are performance driven. Elder sons have a transactional relationship with “their father” or God. It’s not personal. Older sons are demanding. And older sons don’t understand grace and so they see: That’s not fair.
This older son is as lost as the younger son. The younger son wanted, not his father, but what the father could give him. The older son didn’t want the father either, but just what the father could give him.
And the Pharisees are listening to this story and they are acutely aware that the younger son are the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the older sons are them.
He has completely revamped their view of God. He has completely changed what God the Father is like, what it means to be spiritual, what it means to walk with God, what it means to love people.
A couple of things we learn from this older son scenario is that very good, moral, religious people who believe the Bible can be as lost as the most immoral sinner. Let me say that again. Very good, sincere, religious people who believe, intellectually, the Bible can be as lost as the most immoral sinner.
Jesus extends forgiveness to the elder brothers. An elder brother life can be just as miserable as the pigpen of the younger brother. Because, see, elder brothers feel like they are in a slave relationship. Elder brothers have, I have to do all these things. I am responsible all the time. I don’t measure up unless I do all these things for God.
Elder brothers are often angry at God. Life isn’t working out! I did this, You’re supposed to do that! They are often very angry with themselves, because no one can keep the standard so they are down on themselves, privately. They live with a lot of condemnation.
I found, in the years I have been a pastor, when I meet people with elder brother symptoms and, boy, do I get it. I have had an elder brother part of my journey that is so ugly when you see it.
But I find they’re often depressed because they are angry and they never measure up. And then I discover, too, that many older brothers, if you live in this transactional relationship with God and it’s all these things you have to do, since no one can do it, there is often a break that occurs.
They have these private sins. Do you ever wonder why all the Catholic priests got involved in pedophilia? Ever wonder why all the Protestant evangelists who were ranting and raving about God and sexual purity, you find out so many of them have had these affairs - homosexual and heterosexual affairs?
Do you ever wonder why there is such a high level of alcoholism in elite leaderships of some churches and denominations? See, if you have some sort of works [mentality] and you can’t keep it, there is a break.
This probably would be a good time to stop and say, I wonder how we could recognize older brother tendencies. Because I will tell you, here is my concern, I think this is one of the most serious passages, serious truths we will ever talk about.
When you are a younger brother and you are lost, you know what the good news is? You know you’re lost. I mean, you know you’re lost. The only reason that he came back was he hit rock bottom.
But when you’re an older brother, you’re living under the delusion that everything is okay. In fact, God owes you. The Pharisees were the most religious people, and they were farther from God because they were unaware of their need.