Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
August 19, 2018
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! ’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
— Luke 15:25-32, ESV
While the title of “prodigal son” is generally applied to the younger brother in Jesus’ story, the older one is a prodigal, too. The parable is plainly about a man with not one but two sons, both of whom can be seen wasting a part or the whole of their lives. But the extent of their respective prodigalities are quite different, as different as the two groups who served as the Lord’s original audience.
Remember “the tax collectors and sinners” as well as “the Pharisees and scribes” had gathered around Jesus for the telling of the three parables of lost and found. Prodigal one, the younger, clearly represented the first group whose sins were public and whose potential for repentance and faith were as good as the father’s love. Prodigal two, the older, was clearly an abstract of the religious rulers whose secret sins of pride and prejudice caused them to reject the Lord Jesus Christ.
The younger brother indeed wasted his life, for a season, or so it seams. While sin should never be sanctioned for any reason, it was this prodigal’s sin that led him to cling to grace, which he found in his father’s eyes. His sins were forgiven, his rebellion redeemed, and all things worked together for good in the life of this true son of the father.
On the other hand, we have the older brother. This little piggy stayed home. He feigned love and obedience for the father, but eventually his boiling sins bubbled to the surface. He was the kind of person who would never miss church a Sunday in his life, but at the same time never grasped the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This ending to this trinity of tales is terrifying. It condemned self-righteous Jews and it condemns self-righteous Christians. At the end of tales of lost and found, it warns of the dangers endemic to people who think they are found but lost, who think they are sons and daughters of God, but who remain prodigals, too.
A person remains a prodigal when they refuse to love.
Love is God’s greatest gift and a godly person’s greatest characteristic. Love abounds in a believer’s heart for God and God’s church, lost and unchurched people in the world, and in healthy and reasonable esteem for one’s self. But love seems absolutely absent from the elder prodigal son.
He showed no love for his father. His tone towards him was tainted with anger, accusation, and disrespect. Of course, it is not always wrong to be angry (ref. Ephesians 4:26), but there is an anger that is the opposite of love, and this persistent prodigal flashed it. He accused the father of bad judgment regarding the younger son and bad faith in respect to himself. He disrespected the father by declining his gracious invitation to come in and join the party. Of course, the father in this story represents God. People who are persistently angry, judgmental, and disobedient to God are prodigals, wasting their lives.
He showed no love for his brother. He refers to him as “this son of yours.” Pride is not always wrong, either (ref. Philippians 2:16), but there is a pride that is the opposite of love. The elder brother was obviously looking down his nose at his brother and could not bring himself to rejoice at the miracle of his repentance. Even if the younger brother was just visiting, still a slave to sin, he should have loved him. When the brother came home to stay, redeemed by the father, he should have loved him even more. We should remember the words of Christ’s Apostle and best friend John who wrote, “For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (ref. 1 John 4:20).”
He showed no love for himself. Angry, prideful, legalists are the most miserable people I’ve ever encountered. I think the person they love least is themselves. Instead of repenting and believing, they judge, blame, and compare. It gives them a temporary high to cope with the pain of self-loathing. The elder brother should have embraced the father for embracing the brother, he should have joined the party, loosened up, and had a good time reveling in God's love. He deprived himself, because he did not love himself, because he did not love his father and his brother.
There is more to the gospel than John 3:16, but that is certainly a great place to start. For the gospel deals with sin and rebellion, requires repentance and faith, teaches the great doctrines of justification, sanctification, and glorification. But it begins and ends with the greatest gift: love.
A person remains a prodigal when they refuse to embrace grace.
I have myopia and cannot see past my nose. There are corrective lenses for this, and with them though I was once blind, now I see. I have arthritis in my knees and I cannot run and jump like I used to. There is a correction for this, it’s called the fountain of youth, and I haven’t found it yet. I was once a lost person, a prodigal to the extreme, and I could not see God nor run to Him. There is only one cure for this. It is the grace of God.
The elder brother remained a prodigal because he failed to see grace in his father’s actions toward his younger brother. He would have preferred his sibling be punished and banished. But the gracious father gave him forgiveness and redemption. “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” Gandhi said. Indeed, the younger son spit in his father’s eye, so to speak, but the father returned only tears of rejoicing upon his repentance. The older brother would have preferred spit. He was blind, you see, blind to the grace and goodness of the father.
The elder brother remained a prodigal because he failed to grasp grace in his father’s attitude towards himself. He tried to impress the father with his litany of works. The father appreciated them, no doubt, but he did not want his son’s works, he just wanted his son. Come on in, the father said, all I have is yours, the father said, join the party, the father said, but the elder son said no.
Let us reflect upon the great theological treatise of Ephesians 2:8-10. Grace is preeminent. Faith is grace’s gift. Works cannot merit unmerited favor. Works are a fatal substitute for faith. Works flow from grace through faith. Get these things out of order, as the elder son did, and you will die a prodigal, much farther from the father’s house than the younger son ever ventured.
Sometimes people who are the closest to grace totally miss it. This was true of so many Jews in Jesus’ day and so many church members in ours. No wonder Jesus said about prodigals everywhere, “Many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we [do this, do that, do the other thing] in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (ref. Matthew 7:22-23).
A person remains a prodigal when they refuse to come into the father’s house.
Admittedly, Jesus’ story leaves us hanging. So, all we can do is go with the facts and look at the last thing the elder brother did. “He … refused to go in” (ref. vs. 28). Maybe he was a vegetarian and didn’t want any fattened calf. Maybe he was a Baptist, turned off by the wine, music, and dancing. Certainly he was a legalist with, in the words of Haddon Robinson, one eye on his prideful self, one eye on his sinful brother, and no eye left for God. Evidently, he remained a prodigal, too, on the outside looking in.
Prodigals everywhere will be absent from church this Sunday and many will be found in the pews. Prodigals everywhere will continue to run from God with their eyes wide open and worship God with their eyes wide shut. Prodigals everywhere will continue to be smug in their decisions to live life on their terms, not God’s, clothed in both secularism and religion. Until they discover the love and grace of God, they will remain prodigals, too.
God loves you. Essentially all He wants if for you to love him back, without reservation. Love Him with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength. You can see Him, but only with the eyes of love.
God is gracious to you. Essentially all He wants is for you to accept His grace, by faith, in the perfect person and work of His Son Jesus Christ, who preached these parables, gave His life, and rules and reigns forevermore. You do not have to run to grace, grace will run to you. As a matter of fact, it is right here in Luke 15.