Yesterday Northwest celebrated our 52nd anniversary with a Homecoming Sunday. It was a really uplifting day with those leading the worship being ministers who grew up at Northwest as children and later went on into ministry. Our theme focused on Luke 15 and the prodigal son. As Donny Dillon preached to us from that passage he mentioned something that had never dawned on me before. He mentioned the difference between how the two sons addressed their father. The younger, despite all his failures, addressed him as “father”, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). A few verses earlier the young man mentioned his plan (15:17-20). His self-dialog revealed a lot about his view of his father. He realized that his father treated his own servants better than his current living situations. He planned to go back, renounce his role as son due to his unworthiness, and become like the hired help or slaves.
Then there was the older son. The older son addressed him disrespectfully, more like an angry servant than a son, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends…” (15:29). He goes on to disown his brother calling him, “this son of yours…” His view of himself was more a servant than a son. If he understood his relationship with his father he would have addressed him as such and not talked of his brother that way (you can only understand who your brother is by understanding who your father is). He served his father out of obligation and expected his hard work to be rewarded with a wage. Yet, the father responded to him with love and still as a son, “My son…you are always with me and everything I have is yours [because son #2 already got his]. 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.”
Remember the context, Jesus is telling this in the presence of both tax collectors and sinners as well as the Pharisees and teachers of the law. We often give the Pharisees the shaft in our preaching and teaching. But Jesus is saying here that ultimately both the “sinner” and the Pharisee are still considered children of God. The difference Jesus is pointing out is not how the Father views the sons but how they view themselves. The difference is due to attitude. Do we serve God out of love or out of obligation. God wants all of his children to treat each other like brothers no matter how far we have come from or how close we have stayed and no matter how rotten our attitudes were or how rotten they are. He has room, gracefully, for all. And the only way we can really view each other as brothers is to have the proper view of the father and to see ourselves as sons rather than servants.
There are several things this story does not teach:
- That if you run from God, lose it all, and return that God has no place for you.
- That if you have a rotten attitude God will no longer call you “my son”
- That you have to have it all together to be in relationship with the father
- That fattened calves are only for the prodigal., He said to his older son, “All I have is yours”…all he had to do was ask a favor. The older brother should have realized if the father was gracious enough to give the younger his share, certainly he could have had a calf if he just asked.
- That the goof ups get relegated to servant status or second class sons
- That it is cooler or receiving of more love and attention of the father if you run off, come back and have some awesome, moving conversion/repentance story that sounds more like bragging than remorse.
God wants everyone to be home where there is no place for treating sons as servants or arguing over who did what. We are all just glad to be with the father and be accepting and welcoming to those he is accepting and welcoming too. Far be it from us to have stricter standards of sonship than the standards set by our Father.