Three Ways to Live

The story so often referred to as the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, isn't about the prodigal son at all. Its about the older brother. Jesus is telling it to Pharisees and scribes who pour scorn on his partying with tax collectors and sinners.

He tells them about a hedonistic rebel who is completely unworthy of the love of the father, but who gets it entirely by grace. The whole point is to set up the sting in the tail. The older brother is none of that. He is dutiful, obedient, not reckless. Surely deserving? But it's the older brother (ie, them!) who misses the love of the father because he refuses his grace. Talk about a shock. The ones they despise most get in on the love and celebration of God. While they, for all their religion, miss it.

Why does the obedient son miss out on what the disobedient one receives? Three reasons:

  • He has no real relationship with the father. He is a son but he talks in terms of servitude. Instead of enjoying the father as a son his relationship is reduced to "you command, I obey."
  • He thinks he is deserving of love because of what he has done (and his brother isn't because of what he has done). And because he doesn't enjoy the father's grace himself he is unhappy with it being lavished on anyone else. "Love me because I deserve it" is the opposite of the gospel
  • He hates the delight that's going on in the father's house. He sees the music, celebration and dancing and despises it. The heart that says "I don't like God being lavish towards others" typically won't like other people's worship and enjoyment of God either

The story of the prodigal son is one of two rebels, two kinds of sinners. There is the licentious, blatant rebel who throws it all in God's face and refuses his grace, and the religious, dutiful rebel who refuses his grace and justifies his own behaviour on the grounds of obedient service. The shock in Jesus' story is that the first comes back into the Father's love and the second doesn't.

There are those who live without God in blatant, licentious ways. And those who live without God in religious, churchy ways. By definition, almost every Christian is more likely to be the second than the first. The answer to both is a third way to live. To come to the father, to receive acceptance only on the basis of his loving kindness, and to come into the party. If you are tempted to dislike exuberant worship, then in the terms of Jesus story you need to examine yourself to see if you are either in the far country with the younger son, or in the dark with the older son. Either way you need to repent and come into the warmth.