The first point, The Goat, is an introductory point. The main point is The Grace, but The Grace is the solution to a problem, so before we get to the solution I think it makes sense to have a quick look at the problem first, and the problem is The Goat.
How does the younger brother get into the mess that he gets into? The problem is he wants his father’s stuff more than he wants his father.
He makes this obvious in v.12-13 when he just comes right out and asks his father for his inheritance early: “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” He’s effectively saying: “I don’t want you, I just want your stuff. I wish you were dead.” And then he “gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” And we know how he ends up.
But the older brother has the same problem.
He makes it less obvious. Outwardly he still respects his father, but in v.29, when the older brother complains “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” he shows that he’s not satisfied with his relationship with his father. On the outside, he looks like a much better son than his younger brother, but inwardly his attitude to his father is not much different, he still wants his father’s stuff more than he wants his father himself. He acts as you’d expect a good son to act, but he doesn’t serve and obey his father because he loves him; he acts that way to earn some other reward. His father’s love is not enough for him; he wants a goat!
So the question to ask ourselves is: What’s my equivalent of a young goat? What is it that makes me think “ok, I’m in God’s family, but so-and-so’s got such-and-such a gift, why don’t I have that? After all I’ve done for you, God, don’t I deserve that gift?” The Bible has a name for people who live outwardly as if they love God just for who He is, but in reality just act that way because they want something from him; those people are called hypocrites.
Now those of us who’ve been at a church like this for years know our Bibles, we know full well that God is supposed to be more important than our family, job, house, car, or a young goat to celebrate with friends or whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not idolising anything. More likely it just means that our idols are more subtle, so that maybe we don’t even recognise them ourselves most of the time.
I don’t want to talk about myself too much, but to give an example, my own equivalent of a young goat used to be the knowledge that my sins were forgiven. I wanted the guilt for sin to be gone more than I wanted a relationship with God. I thought the whole point of being a Christian was that I wouldn’t be sent to hell when I died. I knew I’d sinned, and Jesus could save me from the hell that I deserved. I also knew that when people become Christians their lives are changed, they read the Bible, they pray, they go to church, they evangelise… so I worked hard at doing those things so God would be pleased with me.
Then at university, I came across people who went to those awful happy-clappy churches I’d heard about, and these people seemed completely unburdened by guilt, while I felt more and more burdened by my own, and I thought feeling the weight of your sin was a sign of a good Christian. I thought the problem must be that their churches didn’t teach about sin properly.
Like the older brother, I thought: “I’m reading my Bible everyday, I’m praying everyday, I go to the right sort of church, I work hard not to sin, so how come I carry this guilt while these other so-called “Christians”, who don’t seem to work as hard as me, sing and clap as if their guilt is completely gone?”
The older brother in the parable wanted a young goat, not his father; I wanted God’s forgiveness, but I didn’t want God himself. Thankfully, God tore down that idol a couple of years ago and put Himself in its place as the main goal of my life, and ironically, once I recognised that knowing God was more important than knowing I was forgiven, God gave me the assurance of forgiveness too.
When God doesn’t give us the things we want more than we want him, he’s not depriving us; he wants us to have the best, which is Himself.
So the 1st point is: don’t pursue God’s stuff, pursue God Himself.