Belong: We are God’s Family (Week 4)

“The Heart Condition of the Older Son”

Luke 15:11-32

In Jesus’ parable, neither son, younger or older, is submitting to the Father in his heart nor is either fulfilling his responsibilities as a member of the Father’s Household. How could they?

 

They are distracted—too busy focusing on their entitlements and their inheritance, on what they could get from the Father. They both are doing their own thing while claiming the status and rewards of being a member of the Household of the Father, but not desiring to be with the Father or with one another. If each son represented a church, we would say they are both off mission!

 

The Older Son is so busy being good, that he is distancing himself from God with his self-righteous moralism. Jesus used the older son to describe the Pharisees who were more in love with their ideas and traditions about God than with God Himself! This is a very dangerous place to be as it is easy to get off God’s mission when your ideas and traditions about God start defining your focus more than God Himself prioritizes your focus.

 

The Younger Son is so busy being free to do what he wants to do that he is distancing himself from the Father with his free-for-all “no one can tell me what to do” lifestyle. Jesus used the younger son to describe the Tax Collectors and sinners who wanted nothing to do with the Household of God and all of the older brothers who thought they were better than everyone else. This is also a very dangerous license that many people take, even doing so in the name of Christ. Christ did not die on the Cross so that you can be free to do anything you want, but so that you can be free from sin to live for righteousness in His easy yoke of discipleship.

 

Both groups—the tax collectors and Pharisees—are being selfish because neither is focused on being with the Father or desiring His will for their lives. Both were off mission on what it meant to be a member of the Household. Both heart conditions kept them far from God, but by the end of the story, one is in right relationship with the Father and the other is hardened against God and His grace given to the other. By the end of this story, we know what it means to be on mission as the Family of God and we know what it takes to get on mission.

 

Why is it that people who claim to be followers of Christ so often end up unsympathetic to people who are in need of finding Christ?

 

Until you have had an experience of the Father’s grace that has saved you from being lost (and that only happens when you realize your true brokenness) you will remain distracted by your need to make your life work out for you the way you want your life to work out for you. It is especially sad when your religion and traditions become a way of finding self-satisfaction and self-justification for what is opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Let’s examine the heart condition of the Older Son and see how this applies to us today?

 

There is another parable Jesus teaches before His crucifixion that I see is an important way to enter this conversation. It is called the Parable of the Two Sons from Matthew 21:28-32,

 

But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”[1]

 

Again, two sons. One seems to start off well saying the right things, but he doesn’t end well. The other, doesn’t start off well saying the wrong thing, but he does end well. Which is on mission?

Obviously, the one who did what His Father asked! The one who at first rebelled, but repented.

 

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the older son is forever marked by his last words in this parable. Jesus’ character of the older son and his final words are targeted at the grumbling Pharisees and scribes of Luke 15:1-2. In 15:29-30, Jesus says that the older brother responded to the Father’s grace for the younger son with anger (28), saying very disrespectfully, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”[2] Do you hear it? Here is the heart condition of the Older Son:

 

Moralistic! It is obvious that the younger son was selfish in his actions, but what has not been so obvious is that the older son was selfish too—self-righteous and superiority! In a powerful article called, “Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel — And Why So Many Christians Think It Is”, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler clarifies the false gospel of moralism,

 

Most moralists would not claim to be without sin, but merely beyond scandal. That is considered sufficient. Just as parents rightly teach their children to obey moral instruction, the church also bears responsibility to teach its own the moral commands of God and to bear witness to the larger society of what God has declared to be right and good for His human creatures. But these impulses, right and necessary as they are, are not the Gospel. Indeed, one of the most insidious false gospels is a moralism that promises the favor of God and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave and commit themselves to moral improvement.[3] (emphasis mine)

 

The scandals of both sons are the same – both are sin!  One son is a public failure and the other son feels superior and judgmental. What you really have to worry about is the bitter root that is being created in the older son that causes him to think, feel, and act less and less like the Father. As Pastor Tim Keller said, “Elder brother self-righteousness not only creates racism and classism, but at the personal level creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. This elder brother cannot pardon his younger brother… Because he does not see himself as being part of a common community of sinners, he is trapped by his own bitterness. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her.[4] (emphasis mine)

 

Jesus says to those in the older son condition in Matthew 23:27-28, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[5]

 

Moralism is not just a false-gospel, it is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of God’s grace! The Pharisees were more than off mission, they were actually acting in ways opposed to the mission of God, and Jesus was showing them this in His parable.[6]

 

The Condition of the Older Son was not only Moralistic, but also Entitled! What we see come out of the older son at the end of the parable is as sinful, as disrespectful, and as rebellious as the younger son. The venomous spirit of entitlement. Pastor Tripp wrote,

 

Entitlement always seems to follow pride. If you think you’ve earned _________, then you will think you deserve __________. Then, carrying around not only pride but also entitlement, you will tend to turn blessings into demands and gifts of grace into what is to be expected. We must never forget that we have earned neither our standing with the Lord nor our place in ministry. Each moment that he accepts us and each situation in which he uses us are the result of one thing and one thing alone: grace. We have no right before God or others to self-assuredly stand with our hands out. We are independently entitled to nothing but his anger; it is only grace that entitles us to his accepting love. The smug expectation of blessing will cause you to question not only the appreciation of the people around you but also the goodness of God.[7]

 

The Older Son wanted what he had coming to him and he wanted to share it with only the people he deemed worthy to be his “friends”, which would most likely not include his brother or his father. His self-righteousness and entitlement fueled exclusivity based on who measured up. It created heart barriers to be on mission—to seek and to save the lost!

 

The older son does not understand grace because he thinks that he is better than other people. He doesn’t remember a day when he wasn’t a good person obeying his father—“I have never neglected a command of yours”. Whereas the younger son is so rebellious that he wished his father dead, asked for his inheritance, ran away from home with it and lived a wild life until it all came crashing down. When he hit bottom, he realized what he had at home and he repented. Jesus told a parable in Luke 18:10-14 to contrast these heart conditions:

 

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ [emphasis on the ‘I’ mine] But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.[8]

 

It wasn’t the older son’s efforts to please the Father that caused Him to be distant from the Father, it was his attitude that he somehow had already earned and was now entitled to what His Father has to give. Remember, God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning! As soon as you feel entitled to receive something from God and you don’t get it, you have 1 of 2 choices: 1) in your brokenness you get angry at God and harden your heart at Him and towards others, or 2) you experience your brokenness and then you fall into the arms of God’s grace and become a herald of grace for others.

 

If you don’t experience brokenness, like the Younger Son, then you are only left with this option: a Hardened Heart! The younger son ended the story with a broken heart that led to a right relationship with the Father, whereas the older son ends up hardened and far away from God, judging the Father’s grace to receive back the younger son as evil because it violated his worldview of moralism and entitlement. A hardened person, no matter their church affiliation or religious zeal, is not on mission with Jesus Christ to seek and to save that which was lost. And if you are not about this, then you are not yet truly about Jesus or the work of His Father.[9]

 

The older son was supposed to be the hero of the story! He was supposed to go after his younger brother, but he was stuck in his own heart condition. That is the point of these three back-to-back parables in Luke 15: Jesus intends for you to start expecting someone to go searching for what was lost and when no one does, you are left wondering why.

 

To miss the point of this parable is to be distracted from the mission of Jesus Christ because our hearts are hardened against the very mission Jesus came for and created His Church to do—to seek and to save the lost sons and daughters who are designed to belong to God, but are caught up in either the older son or younger son heart conditions.[10] It’s God’s desire to have all of his children at home with Him, truly with Him at the heart level, so much so that all of his family represents His heart to all who are not yet home belonging as His Household!

 

Who is going to demonstrate the heart of the Father to the next generation?

 

At least the younger son had the decency to be honest about his rebellion—shockingly to our sensibilities and former understandings of this parable, the younger son was the more honorable of the two because he was honest with himself, God, and others. The older son hid behind the appearance of being a good person, an obedient and dutiful son, but the whole time wanting his own way, his rights, and what he felt was coming to him.[11] Religion and morality can become a control mechanism for making life work for you, just like rebellious living. Both are an abuse of God’s grace and both are willful-activities against the heart of the Father. Both are ways to be in control, but neither saves! Only through God’s grace can you be saved!

 

The person who will demonstrate the heart of the Father is the person who has been broken and truly knows it, who is daily and actively experiencing the forgiveness of God through a relationship with Jesus, and upon receiving God’s grace lives by grace and gives grace to others.

Whether you grew up in the church or not, we all have tendencies toward the heart condition of the older brother. We each must war against this tendency by remembering that at some point, we each had to have made a personal faith decision for Christ. You may not have as dramatic of an experience of hitting rock bottom like the younger son, but in order to be saved, you must come to place where you understand how desperately we each needed saving—whether you hit that point because you ran away from home or because you dutifully stayed home!

 

Salvation can neither be earned nor lost, it can only be received! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always God’s good news of His work for salvation in Jesus Christ.

 

The person who is gladly receiving this good news as today’s (every day’s) top head line will be the one who is on mission! This is the person who belongs to the Family of God and invites others to belong and works hard to help all people know they can belong, too.

 

Pastor Tripp wrote, “God has chosen to build his church through the instrumentality of bent and broken tools. It is your delusions of strength that will get you in trouble and cause you to form a ministry that is less than Christ-centered and gospel-driven.”[12]

 

In order for FBC to be on mission to seek and to save the lost we must be broken first. We cannot be older sons, we must repent of any self-righteousness, superiority, moralism, or sense of entitlement. We must pray and ask God right now to soften any hard places in our hearts and break us of any pride caused by our church affiliation, backgrounds, or traditions. Any delusion of strength will only get us in trouble. Our church and community does not need modern day Pharisees or Tax Collectors, but people who demonstrate the Father’s heart for all of us family. We can only be this because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

What is your heart condition?

 

Let us be a Christ-centered and gospel-driven church where the broken are healed and the lost are found. You belong here and so do they. We are God’s Household!
 
Belong Week 4:  Listen to it here
 
 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Mt 21:28–32.

 

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Lk 15:29–30.

[3] Albert Mohler, “Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel — And Why So Many Christians Think It Is” (September 3, 2009). https://albertmohler.com/2009/09/03/why-moralism-is-not-the-gospel-and-why-so-many-christians-think-it-is/ (accessed March 19, 2019).

 

[4] Tim Keller, The Prodigal Son: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), 63.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Mt 23:27–28.

 

[6] Tripp comments, “You see this dynamic in the Pharisees. Because they thought of themselves as righteous, perfect law givers, they had no problem laying unbearable law burdens on others. Their misuse of the law had its roots not only in bad theology but also in ugly human pride. They saw law keeping as possible, because they thought they were keeping it. And they thought that others should get up and keep it as well as they did. They were the religious leaders of their day, but they were arrogant, insensitive, uncompassionate, and judgmental. They were not part of what God was doing at the moment; no, they were in the way of it” (Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012], 153).

 

[7] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 161–162.

[8] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Lk 18:10–14.

[9] It is amazing how you can appear to be close to God and still be far from Him in your inner attitudes, thoughts, and actions. If you want to do a quick self-diagnostic, here are four gauges you can check.  If you are feeling insecurity, performance anxiety, shame, or are just weary and heavy-burdened, you may be off mission. Here are the four gauges: 1) Insecurity! Every time something goes wrong in your life or a prayer goes unanswered you wonder if it’s because you aren’t living right in a certain area. You have not yet experienced the assurance of your salvation that is 100% grace and 0% works. 2) Performance Anxiety! Criticism from others doesn’t just hurt your feelings, it crushes you. This is because your sense of God’s love is performance-based and you need the approval of others to help you see that you are doing right. You have a hard time experiencing the unconditional love of God for yourself. 3) Shame! You experience irresolvable guilt when you do something wrong. You have a struggle or inability to forgive yourself that comes with a vague sense of shame, if not a strong feeling of condemnation. You do not yet know the justification of Jesus. 4) Weary and Heavy-Burdened! You have a dry prayer life. Not that you don’t pray, you do so dutifully, but it is just that, a duty and not a joy to be in the presence of the Lord and in awe of Him. The yoke with Jesus is ill-fitted and His commandments feel burdensome. You’re not living in the power of the Holy Spirit in and through you. Ideas original to Tim Keller’s, The Prodigal God (72-73).

[10] One reader noted a potential discussion on this topic, posing a different perspective, “An interesting dynamic to explore might be the idea that we harden our hearts as a defense mechanism. Sometimes the vastness of the mission of Christ, the sheer number of people who are lost or unreached is so overwhelming that it feels hopeless. When we hear statistics about abortion, genocide, victims of trafficking, etc., the astronomical figures make us feel hopeless. So the only way to keep us from curling up in a ball on the floor, devastated at the evil, corruption, and despair in the world around us, is to harden our hearts as a defense mechanism.”

[11] In speaking of the Pharisees, “That although they met with so much care, they were worse than harlots and publicans, and by so much” (John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series [New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888], 415).

[12] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 152.


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