Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
So… when you hear this parable, whom do you identify with the most—the younger son… or the older son?
Because make no mistake: the younger son was was really bad! He caused great harm to his father and older brother. But at least when the younger son “came to himself” in verse 17—that is, when he came to his senses—he appreciated just how much harm he had done. That’s why he plans on telling his father, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’”
And notice the older son agrees completely on this point: his younger brother, as far as he’s concerned, no longer deserves any good thing from his father. He deserves only punishment.
And that’s why the older son gets so angry at his father. “It’s not fair the way you’re treating him… You’re giving him the opposite of what he deserves! In fact, you’re giving him what I deserve!”
Is the older son right?
See, I worry that far too many of us—even many of us good churchgoing people—agree with the older son: we agree that he, unlike his brother, deserves his father’s love, and deserves all the good things that the father is giving to his younger brother. The older son, after all, is a good person. The younger son is a bad person.
If you’re around my age, you’ll remember that growing up, the biggest rock band around was Van Halen. The lead singer was Sammy Hagar, at least after David Lee Roth left the band. Anyway, Hagar was asked in an interview one time what he thought about Jesus Christ. And he said he believed that we Christians have misunderstood who Jesus was, and what his message was. Hagar said,
I think [Christians place] too much emphasis on the Man Himself, and if He were walking around here today, [Jesus] would go, ‘Hey man, don’t be looking at Me. I can’t save [you]. Only you can save [yourself]. And [Christ] made it pretty easy on us. Those rules are so simple, The Ten Commandments … Anybody in their right mind could live by those rules. I think that’s all Christ was really trying to do.
Anybody in their right mind could live by… the Ten Commandments?
Well, let’s give Sammy Hagar credit: he’s not wrong that the Ten Commandments are the standard of righteousness against which God will judge each one of us!
My question is, “Do any of us measure up to that standard? Do you?”
Recently, I’ve been watching videos of an evangelist on the West Coast named Ray Comfort. He spends a lot of time doing street evangelism, and he films these interactions as a way of helping ordinary Christians do the same thing. And most people he talks to are like Sammy Hagar, or they’re like the older son: because they think they’re good people—and because they think they’re good people, they’re pretty confident that they’ll go to heaven based on the fact that they’re good people!
So Comfort gets them to see that, based on God’s standard, based on the Ten Commandments, they are in trouble.
Now, Comfort is from New Zealand, and I wish I could imitate his accent. But in a typical interview he asks the person, “Do you think you’re a good person?” Inevitably they say yes. “Have you ever told a lie?” They laugh and say, “Yes, of course. Many lies!” “What do you call a person who lies?” “A liar?” “Right! Have you ever stolen anything—even something very small in value?” “Yes.” “What do you call someone who steals?” “A thief?” “Yes! Have you ever taken the Lord’s name in vain?” “Yes! All the time,” they say. “That’s called blasphemy,” he says. Then he asks about lust and how Jesus said it was adultery of the heart. He asks whether they’ve looked at pornography or whether they’ve had sex before marriage. And the people he interviews will usually say yes.
Then Comfort says, “Now, I’m not judging you, but by your own admission, you’ve just told me that you’re a lying, thieving, blaspheming, fornicating adulterer in the heart. So when you stand before God in judgment, are you guilty or not guilty?” “Guilty.” “Will you go to heaven or hell?” And I’m surprised that people are usually honest enough to say, “Hell.” Then he asks, “Does that concern you?” he asks. And the people say, “Yes.” And that gives him an opportunity to talk about Jesus.
If the older son in the parable were honest with himself, he would see that he, too, would fail this test of righteousness… Sure, outwardly, he obeyed his father, but look at his grumbling, complaining, ungrateful, unloving heart: “You never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” His father might have responded, “Yes, but you had something much better than any material thing… You had me! You had my love! Am I not enough for you?” And clearly the answer was no. The older son loved the good things that his father could give him far more than he loved his father!
And isn’t that often the case with us—that we love the good things that God can give us more than we love God? And as soon as we get the good stuff—money, possessions, romantic relationships—how easy it is to forget about God! That is breaking at least the first two commandments!
So… whether we’re conspicuous, obvious sinners like the younger son, or whether we’re covetous, idolatrous, angry sinners who harbor sin in our hearts, like the older brother, I hope you can see that none of us is good or righteous based on God’s only standard for righteousness—the Ten Commandments. The Bible says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” That includes you and me. The Bible says, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” The answer: none of us! The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death”—and that isn’t just death at the end of our lifetimes, but it’s spiritual death, that is, eternal separation from God… in hell.
And if that’s true—and it is, because God’s Word doesn’t lie—we have a serious problem: As a matter of simple justice, we all deserve hell. And God is committed to perfect justice; it’s a part of who God is. How does God fulfill his demand for justice while at the same time rescuing us from the well-deserved consequences of our sins?
He sends his Son Jesus… who is God, the Second Person of the Trinity. God comes to us in the flesh to live the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live, and on the cross, to die the God-forsaken death, and even suffer the hell, that we deserved to die and suffer.
And through Christ’s death on the cross, a great exchange can now take place: When we believe in Christ, it’s as if God places all of our sins—past, present, and future—upon Christ, and he suffers and dies for them, he pays the penalty for them that we would otherwise have to pay, and Christ, in return, gives us his righteousness as a free gift. The Bible puts it like this: “For our sake, he made him”—God the Father made God the Son—“to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him”—in Christ, as we place our faith in him—“we might become the righteousness of God.”
And the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates what happens when this exchange takes place: The father does not hold the younger son’s sins against him. He doesn’t even let the younger son finish giving his well-rehearsed speech about being treated like one of his father’s hired hands. Instead, the father runs to meet him and embrace him. He gives him his best clothes, his signet ring—which was a sign that the younger son was a full-fledged member of his family again—the father kills the fattened calf and throws the biggest party imaginable. Because the father is overjoyed that his son has returned home.
If we haven’t received God’s gift of eternal life through faith in Christ, we are like that prodigal son—separated from our Father, dying in a faraway place, no hope of salvation. But if we repent—that is, we turn around to our Father, confess our sins, and believe in what Jesus has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection, our heavenly Father will not only forgive us, he’ll treat us as one of his beloved sons or daughters. He’ll say of us, “My child was dead, but now he’s alive; he was lost, but now he’s found.”
But notice what had to happen first, before the younger son decided to come home to his father. He had to “come to himself,” verse 17, or “come to his senses.” He had to realize the great danger he was facing—that he was dying outside of a relationship with his father.
God often uses fear to get our attention. That’s a good thing.
A couple of days ago marked the 19th anniversary of 9/11. For those of us who are old enough, that crisis got our attention. It made us feel unsafe, vulnerable… it reminded us of the grave danger we were in, as a nation, because of the threat of terrorism. Most of us hadn’t considered that danger before. Most of us felt safe and secure before 9/11.
But it was a false sense of security! The events of September 11 shook us out of that false sense of security so that we could get ready and prepared.
The truth is, some of you feel a false sense of security right now. Because… you think you’re okay. Because you don’t know, you haven’t heard, that apart from a relationship with God through Christ, you face an infinitely greater danger than being killed in a terrorist attack. Indeed, Jesus himself said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Jesus means that even dying in a terrorist attack is nothing in comparison to a sinner being judged by God according to his perfect standard of righteousness; it’s nothing compared to facing an eternity separated from God.
But you have an opportunity right now to prevent that from happening…