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Rebels - Runaway and Respectable


(Luke 15:25-32 NIV) "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. {26} So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. {27} 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' {28} "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. {29} But he answered his father, '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. {30} But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' {31} "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. {32} 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.'"

The title of the lesson is from a comment by Carol Martin. It accurately reflects the facts: the two sons are rebels. One runs away; the other stays respectable. It is on the second we shall focus this morning.


Mark Twain called this the greatest short story ever written. One mark of its greatness as literature is the delicate characterization of the three principals. We see this in their attitudes. I give you three views this morning.

Comparison and Contrast: Father and Older Brother

Character is shown in action -- writers are always told to develop their characters with action. There are three actions I would point out to you by way of comparison:

·         The father rejoices to see the younger son; the older brother questions. Look at the difference in the lives! One man is living a life in which joy just waits to bubble to the surface[1]. The other would need it spoon fed to him -- and I suspect is looking for a substitute.

·         The father is looking for his younger son -- not seeking, but on the alert. The brother doesn’t care; he is looking inward. He’s looking out all right -- for number one.

·         The father runs to the boy; the brother waits in the field. Which of them cares?

The brother’s attitude

A curious question: in all this mass of servants, why does no one run to the older brother and tell him what’s going on? Why does he have to come into the house to ask? Sherlock Holmes pointed out to Inspector Jones “the curious incident of the dog in the night.” “The dog did nothing in the night.” “That was the curious incident.”[2] Perhaps no one wanted to be the messenger who delivered the bad news!

The brother displays three interesting -- and almost tragic -- attitudes. Listen to them and see if you recognize these symptoms:

·         He is a man of grim duty - slaving away all these years. It is the service of duty, not the joy of love.

·         He feels no obligation to his brother. Indeed, he refers to him as “this son of yours” rather than “my brother.”

·         He has the suspicious mind. No one mentions prostitutes before he does; the kid has been away. Where did this idea originate?[3]

Attitude check!

·         Is your service to the Lord a labor of love, or grim duty?

·         Do you see (for example) the homeless as your brothers, or ...?

·         Are you always ready to see the evil in others?

We must now hop over to the other side of the fence.

The Prodigal’s View

The Prodigal comes home confessing. There is no thought that he intends to make up with his brother; his father is all that is on his mind. I submit there are two lessons here:

·         Sometimes, it’s easier to confess to God than it is to man!

·         Divine judgment is always just; human judgment can be excessive as well as lax.

Compassion and Envy

If the older brother were a true reflection of his father, he would have shown compassion in the same way. He did not. Why is it that we have such hard hearts?

·         Sometimes a lack of compassion is a symptom of pride. We are working our way into heaven, and therefore feel very righteously superior to those who are not.

·         Sometimes is just a case of indifference. We have not had our hearts softened to those around us.

·         Sometimes we know too much. We’ve studied the Scriptures; we’re Bible experts. Knowledge without grace leads to pride; we can become too holy to associate with anyone but those like us. (The word I’m looking for is “Pharisee”).

But there is a second possibility. Maybe it’s not just a lack of compassion; maybe it’s envy. Is it just possible that the older brother sees the prodigal as someone who “got away with it all?” A person who got all the pleasures of sin, and still finds his way into grace? How many of us want to spend our days in all the sins of the world, repent the last day and squeak into heaven! And how many more envy those who do?[4]

Perhaps the brother would have said, “It’s not fair!” And indeed, by the Old Testament law, it was not fair. For in the Old Testament tradition, we would find that the first born son had rights:

·         he was entitled to that double share.

·         he was entitled to authority over the younger brothers

·         even if his father didn’t want him to get it (because he didn’t love his mother) he still was entitled.[5]

This, however, misses the point. I put it as a question: “Is God fair -- or merciful? Can He be both?” Only at the Cross can He be both fair and merciful.

The brother’s problem may be that of envy. So what advice might we give him?

·         (James 4:2 NIV) You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.

·         (Prov 14:30 NIV) A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

·         (1 Cor 13:4 NIV) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

The Pharisee

It’s not obvious from the short passage we have read, but this parable (and the two preceding it) are not directed at the disciples. They are directed at the Pharisees.[6] It is a serious matter to call someone a Pharisee. Indeed, it smacks greatly of the judgment we are not to perform. So I will give you some tests. Ask yourself these questions:

p Are you looking for loopholes in the law of God, always trying to make an exception to what the Bible says to apply to you?

(Mat 22:16-21 NIV) They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. {17} Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" {18} But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? {19} Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, {20} and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" {21} "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

p Do you delight in being publicly praised for your good works -- and is it this which motivates you to do more?

(Mat 6:2-4 NIV) "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. {3} But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, {4} so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

p Do you feel that your faith would be much stronger -- you would be much more convinced -- if you saw an occasional miracle or two?

(Mat 12:38-40 NIV) Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." {39} He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. {40} For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

p Do you feel superior (in a quiet, decent way, of course) to those whose lifestyle is “not Christian at all?”

(Mat 12:7 NIV) If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.

p Do you see the main purpose of this church as a health club for saints to practice their spiritual exercises (“great singing, great worship.....”) or a hospital for sinners?

(Mat 9:11-13 NIV) When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" {12} On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. {13} But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

p Does your life go one without any results for the Lord? No fruit?

(Mat 3:8 NIV) Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.


I have a great fear in delivering this lesson. When I first began to compose it, I feared that I would lose some students, for no one likes to be called a Pharisee -- especially when looking in a mirror. Now my fear is worse than that. I fear that I won’t lose anyone. The Pharisees of our time are also lukewarm.

[1] (John 17:11-13 NIV) I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name--the name you gave me--so that they may be one as we are one. {12} While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. {13} "I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.

[2] The Adventure of Silver Blaze

[3] (Mat 12:34 NIV) You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

[4] Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the landowner, illustrates this point.

[5] (Deu 21:15-17 NIV) If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, {16} when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. {17} He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father's strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

[6] Luke 15:1-3

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