The 2ndpoint is The Grace, although we’re really looking more at the opposite of grace, i.e. the mistakes that both brothers made in thinking they were supposed to earn the father’s favour by serving him.
a) I think the older brother makes two mistakes in v.29-30. Firstly, he compares himself with his younger brother: “I have served you… I never disobeyed… But… this son of yours… has devoured your property with prostitutes…”
i) Why is the older brother wrong to compare himself to his younger brother? Well, we see in the passage that the fact that he behaved outwardly more like a good son than his younger brother didn’t make the father love him more. The father didn’t look at his two sons and think “you’ve served better, you’re more deserving of my love, well done”, he just loved both of his sons despite their behaviour (we saw in the first point that the older son wasn’t really much, if any, better than his brother in his motivations for his actions, and remember God looks at our hearts, not just our outward behaviour).
Why else is it not a good idea to compare ourselves to other people to gauge how pleased God must be with us? Well, when we consider the God who created the universe, and the glory that is due to him, and consider his law, that we should love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and see how far short we fall of honouring him in that way, as he deserves… any difference between me and a man who spends all his money on prostitutes barely registers as a difference when we compare both of our lives to how infinitely holy God is.
I’m reminded of other passages in the Bible like the Pharisee and the tax collector, where, in Luke 18:11, the Pharisee says “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Now, in the UK in 2012, tax collectors are not really considered quite such bad people as the Jews who collected money from their own countrymen to give to the Romans who were occupying their land. I guess we’re more likely to thank God that we’re not like that homosexual, or that atheist, or that 15 year old girl who had an abortion. I notice the Pharisee does thank God that he’s not like that, technically he does give God the credit for making him a better person, but Jesus still says that the Pharisee exalted himself. Do we look at those “real sinners” and start to think we’re actually doing quite well, God must be pleased with us?
Or perhaps we know our Bibles too well to make the mistake of thinking our fasting and tithing makes us better than a tax collector, perhaps we see that Jesus says the humble tax collector will be exalted and think “Ah, so God is pleased with people who humble themselves, ok then, I’ll beat my breast and lament loudly over my sinfulness so everyone will hear how humble I am. Thank God I’m not like those Catholics who rely on their works, I believe in salvation by grace alone. I’ve got my theology right, so God must be pleased with me.”
Both the older brother in Luke 15 and the Pharisee in Luke 18 think God must be pleased with them because of how they compare to other people, but when compared to the infinitely holy God himself, the difference between the most devout Pharisee and the worst of the worst sinners is negligible. Thankfully God doesn’t love us based on how our lives compare with other people; he loves us based on his own grace.
ii) The apostle Paul addresses another problem with comparing ourselves with other people in his 1st letter to the Corinthians. In the church at Corinth, divisions are starting to appear between groups of people who are boasting (1 Cor 1:12) “I follow Paul”, or “I follow Apollos”, or “I follow Cephas”, or “I follow Christ”. They were comparing themselves to each other, boasting about who’s teaching was the best. In Chapter 4, Paul is writing so that none of them may be puffed up in favour of one against another, and in v.7 asks “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
It’s ridiculous for me to boast that I’m better than anyone else, because if there is any way in which I am better, it’s entirely down to a gift I’ve received from God. I didn’t make myself better.
Does anyone else struggle with that? When I see some awful story on the news, do I really believe that it’s only thanks to God’s grace that that’s not me committing that crime? I so easily forget that, but it’s true, I didn’t make a deal with God to earn the family I was born into, with this type of upbringing where I’ve been relatively sheltered from a lot of the horrible things that happen in the world. There’s no reason apart from God’s grace that I shouldn’t have been born into a family in Manchester involved in gang warfare that might have led to me getting arrested at 15 years old in connection with murder. So I have no right to look down on the people God hasn’t blessed in the same way as he’s blessed me.