Not too many days ago I stumbled across a comment on social media somebody had made about their repugnance for the choice of sermon prepared by the pastor that morning and how it was clearly not the best use of her time. The sermon’s topic? The Prodigal Son.
If you don’t know this parable, you can read it in Luke 15 (and please do, it’s a beautiful story), but here is a brief synopsis: A man has two sons, one is the good son, who does everything right-a real daddy’s boy. Then there’s the other son. This kid is selfish and demanding. He decides he doesn’t want to follow the rules, so he’s going to go out on his own and do it his way. Oh, and by the way, Dad, give me my inheritance now. Can you even imagine asking your parents such a thing? But the father gives it to him, and he uses it to get in all kinds of trouble. All kinds. Until the money runs out. Then he decides to go back home and see if Dad will let him be a hired servant. Meanwhile, the other brother is back at home being the perfect and awesome son that he is. But, when Dad sees the younger son coming down the road, the son who was took his money and squandered it, the son who was disrespectful in a time where disrespecting your parents was SERIOUSLY uncool, he takes off running to meet his son. Terribly undignified for the dad to run, by the way. But run, he did! Then he tells the servants to start preparing a party. A massive blowout. Dad welcomed back his son, who the Bible refers to as the Prodigal, not as a servant, but as his son, just as though he’d never left.
And his older brother was ticked off. He was the one who stayed to help dad. He was the one who followed the rules. ALL of them. He didn’t squander anything. And HE never got a party.
And so was the person who posted about the sermon being a waste of her Sunday morning. She wasn’t just arguing that her pastor was giving the prodigal too much air time, she had a beef with the Bible putting him in such a favorable light. Light bulb moment here: the prodigal isn’t shown in a favorable light. He is a mess. But this parable isn’t so much about the character of the sons, it’s about the character of the father. It’s to show us the character of THE Father, despite the character, or especially in light of, the character of His creation. God is is overjoyed when we, the hot messes, make our way back after telling him we can do it our own way. So for my friend who made the post, I sadly think she has completely forgotten, or never really understood, the amazing grace of God that He shows through redeeming us from our mess.
But let’s go back to the older brother. We all have to be mindful of the Older Brother that has the potential to lurk within us. When we encounter people who don’t know Christ, living like prodigals, we have to remember that they don’t live by our ‘code of ethics’. So don’t place that on them and cast your judgment for how poorly they perform. Remember that we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and need a Savior. There are some messed up people out there, folks! We are living in times where people seem to be exchanging the truth of God for lies at a record pace. Evil is not idle. But there is still a God who redeems the lost and hurt, and He can reach the worst of them! Praise His name for that! So when they come walking through the door, instead of demanding your goat (read the story!), go help get the party ready for the prodigals who have come home. Welcome them in! Whatever is in their past, do not it compare to yours. Jesus’ blood still has cleaning power.
But what about what we do to each other? Or have you completely mastered the art of not judging and comparing yourself to anybody else? Don’t lie.
I had a very humbling moment a last week. I have her permission to share this. A couple of weeks ago a young woman I know, Bethany, who loves the Lord with all her heart, announced via posting pictures on Facebook that she was expecting a baby. She looked so happy in her pictures. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. She’s not married. In my mind, all I could think of was, ‘doesn’t anybody pursue holiness anymore’? Every time I saw her post for about a week, this would go through my head. Folks, this is classic older brother. Her sin is bigger than my sin. This one is often subtle. But after about a week, the Holy Spirit wasn’t so subtle with me. I was sitting in our Bible class at church and it hit me. She didn’t even know. But I knew. And God knew. Even though she didn’t know I had sinned against her, I knew I had to ask her to forgive me.
The Older Brother is made possible because of something called “comparative righteousness”. It’s pretty simple, really. If you get any sense of righteousness by assessing how you stack up compared to somebody else, that’s comparative righteousness. (This also works in reverse–if you believe somebody, compared to you or another, is more righteous in their standing with God.) We do not earn righteousness in comparison to others. There is only one standard of holiness by which we are compared and that’s God Himself. And every single one of us falls terribly short. Thankfully, Romans 3:22 tells us that for those who put their faith in Christ, we receive his righteousness. Whew!
So after a week of lamenting about one girl’s choices that could have been time spent dealing with my own poor choices, the Spirit gave me a smack down (as he is apt to do once in a while) and said “Ahem! She is not your problem! YOU are your problem!”
Oh yeah. All of MY sin. Worrying about another’s sin doesn’t do anything to help me confront my own. It just adds to my own with my judgments and harsh words.
We will never become more holy by attempting to mitigate the sin in our own life by putting a spotlight on the sin of another, or showing how farther on the scale of “bad” their sin is. It doesn’t work that way. God deals with us individually. And yes, there is room to approach a brother/sister with a sin issue (see Galatians 6:1-3), but that’s not really the issue we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing with good, old fashioned judgment and deflection. It keeps you from giving grace to the one you judge, and it keeps you from seeing the need for grace in your own life.
Let’s take one last look at the story in Luke 15 for some perspective. It’s about a loving father. Okay, we know that’s representing God. And the prodigal is representing sinners. But since we are all sinners, why is there a good brother and a bad brother? Who does the older brother represent? The Pharisees. These guys felt entitled to the kingdom of God based on their own righteousness, through their actions. NOT through their love for God and others. Nope. By showing how good they were, by having all the right moves and making sure everybody knew about it. They were the kings of comparative righteousness! They didn’t need grace, or so they thought.
How can we keep from falling into that trap? Be free with grace. When you are free in your grace towards others, there is little room for self-righteous judgment. And when we do that, we are open to the Holy Spirit to move in and work in our own lives. We can work on our own mess. And thank the Lord that He promises to keep working on our messes until we are complete!
Bethany was full of grace for me. I’m thankful for that. I am grateful for a God who has enough grace to lavish on anyone who seeks His face. So the next time we find ourselves letting that inner Pharisee come out, seek His face in that very moment. Praise Him for his grace and mercy. I’m willing to bet that voice of judgment slinks away with nothing to say.