God is serious about mercy
What does it mean to be a Christian? Jesus didn’t call his followers “Christians” but he did narrowly define and describe them. “All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Disciples love the way Jesus loved. Jesus loved, full of grace and truth. Grace says, “You will be forgiven.” Truth says, “This is God’s law and those who break it are condemned.” Those don’t seem to mix. There is a tension.
It is not a balance, nor is it one or the other. It is both. Some of you grew up with too much grace and some of you grew up with too much truth. Jesus didn’t pick and choose, he didn’t balance. John 1 says he was the fullness of both. As, followers of Jesus we do this. When we do this, it will be inconsistent, it will be messy, it may even be confusing. When we get comments and critique, we might actually be doing this right.
Jesus when modeling this, found himself with two groups of people. One group thought they were so bad that God would never approve of them. The other group was so good that they thought God already did. Jesus said they were both wrong and tackled this thorny issue. What does a God of grace and truth look like and how do we apply it?
“1 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him.” Tax collectors were scum, liars, cheats, and greedy. Tax collectors strolled up in their fancy ride and body guards. They were their own category of sinners. Sinners were everyone else who didn’t live up to moral standards. If you went to church where Jesus preached, front row would be filled with the worst people in culture. Jesus was so different than them but they loved him.
The back row would be filled with the Pharisees. “2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” They couldn’t figure out why those who were nothing like Jesus would come to him and why he would welcome them. Jesus embraced them and asked them to lunch after church. The Pharisees had more in common with the Jesus than the sinners did. They muttered because of the tension between grace and truth. “Does he condone their behavior? I haven’t heard Jesus condemning it. It sounds like Jesus is condoning it.” So we have a group of misfits and a group who thinks they are the only ones who fit.
Jesus didn’t directly address each issue with both groups. He didn’t speak to one side or the other. He found common ground with a parable. Parables teach a difficult subject with a story. Jesus began by asking a question. Doesn’t a shepherd go out to find his lost sheep (15:4)? Doesn’t a woman tear the house apart to find her lost coin (15:8)? Everyone nodded in agreement. When you lose something precious, you stop to look for it. When it is found, you are more excited about lost being found than the things that are never lost. Jesus said, “7 There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God rejoices when the lost are found.
With this, Jesus started his third story with three characters, a father and two sons. The older son was a “behaver,” the younger son was a “mis-behaver.” The older did everything right and the younger rebelled. The younger said, “Dad, I wish you were dead. But you can’t seem to die. Can you pretend you were dead and give me my inheritance?” All present would be offended at this. It is offensive in every culture, but especially the first century Jewish culture. What is more offensive? The father said, “Ok.”
So the son liquidated it all and left to a distant country. Then he bought into a lifestyle bigger than he could afford. This is what the word “prodigal” means: the opposite of saving. 1/3 of his father’s life was gone. Offense and anger would be unanimously increasing in the audience. Then it got worse. So he looked for a job and found one feeding pigs. Then the crowd would have exclaimed “Yes! The desperate son wanted to eat the pig food.” Now everyone would be enjoying this story. This is one to tell your kids. “What goes around comes around. Disobedient children get theirs.” End of story.
Not yet. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! What am I doing?! 18 Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not a mistaker, I am a sinner. Here is what I will do to show I am sorry. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” 20 So he got up and went to his father. The crowd may have thought, “This is going to be good.” Everyone knew what this son had coming and what they would do if they were the father.
Jesus is telling this story to help them. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with… And the audience would have said “Anger!” How dare the son humiliate his father. That is what you feel when someone takes advantage of you. Righteous indignation. Anger. Jesus said, “compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Everyone gasped confused. All the sinners thought this son would get what he disserved. All the self-righteous thought he would get what is coming. The father embraced a stinking son who did the worst thing he could to a parent.
Before the son could finish his rehearsed confession, the father told the servant “Quick!” Not, “Let’s see if he is sincere. Maybe this is a short plea because he ran out of money. Give it some time.” Nope. “Quick! Get the ring, the best robe. What else? My son, where are your shoes? Sandals too. My son is going to be my son. Slaughter the fattened calf we have been saving up for a special occasion. Invite everyone in town. Let’s celebrate.” At this point, everyone was confused. “Where is the punishment? Proof of repentance? Jesus messed this all up.”
Most people only hear this part of the story. But there is another son. The behaver is working and finish up his day, he hears music and sees that someone has killed the fattened calf. “What is going on?” A servant responds, “Your brother’s back.” “Really, I can’t wait to see this.” At this point everyone may identify with the older brother because they know what they would do if they were the father. The older brother is angry. The younger doesn’t deserve to be there. Ever met any angry Christians? Are you tired of being around angry Christians? They seem to look forward to hell because all those sinners who will suffer. They are the Christians who are against everything.
Neither brother wants to be at the party. The younger doesn’t deserve it the older wants his own. Jesus said this because neither group understood what God was like. The father embodies grace and truth. Neither the self-righteous nor the unrighteous understand.
Father goes out to plead with him. To which the son argues, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed you.” Do you know why you are an angry Christian? You think you deserve something from God because you are so faithful. The holier you get the angrier you become because you are not grace. “What goes around comes around. Reap what you sow. You get what you deserve.” You do what you are supposed to and you get so mad when others don’t. You pray, you attend, you give, and you obey because it is a job, not a joy. That is nothing like Jesus.
“You gave me nothing, not even a skinny goat. Everything you worked hard for, your son (not my brother) squandered with prostitutes. You did this for him and I’m ticked.” Unjust. After dad patiently listened, he responded. “31 Son, you are always with me.” “Dad, did you just change the subject? What does that have to do with anything?” “Son, it is what I value most. Everything I have is yours. You will get your reward. I haven’t forgotten you. We had to be glad. He was dead to us. He is alive. He was lost. He was found. He was not with us but now he is with us again.”
Christianity is not about getting what you disserve, about performance, or sowing and reaping. It is not about working hard. Both brothers thought performance. One didn’t think he deserved it and the other thought he earned it. It is about being close. It’s about proximity. God could not love you any more or any less than what he already does.
The real point of the parable is that the Father loves both sons. True love is willing to give up everything to prove itself. In this, Jesus wants mis-behavers to be embraced by his forgiving love. Jesus begs the behavers to stop trying to earn love from the Father and receive the gift of salvation for free. He gave up everything, his life, that you could have it all.
In closing, I want to speak to the lost. There is a tension in your life and a sin that bothers you. You have scars that last a long time. Some of you have something in your conscience that is not right. You think it prevents you from coming close to God. Welcome home! We are not going to hold up the list of those things. We want you to be with the Father. I have been there. This changed it for me, it is never about what I do but about what Christ has done. You are tired of being dead, tired of having to pretend it away and hide it away. God will find you, and forgive you. He will bring you back so that you are in the family, apart from your behavior. That is why Jesus came.
Here we are together, both sons, all of us. God will stomp out all your unrighteousness and destroy all our self-righteousness and be defined by both, not either or, not a balance, but both grace and truth.
Pastor Josh Bishop – 3/31/2019