The younger brother also makes the mistake of thinking he’s supposed to earn favour with his father, and because he knows full well that he’s failed miserably to serve his father as he deserves, (v.19: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”), he thinks he’s now excluded from sonship, which turns out to be incorrect.
Despite how appallingly he’s treated his father, his father still welcomes him straight back into the family.
I think all of us here know in theory that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to pay for every sin, no matter how bad we might have been, but do we really believe it in practice?
Does anyone else ever think along the lines “I’m going to have to really repent* hard if God’s going to forgive me this time”? I used to think (and sometimes still find myself thinking like this) after committing some sin, before I could dare feel forgiven for it, that I should burden myself with guilt for a certain period depending on how bad the sin was. But that’s adding my own work to what Jesus has done. It de-values what Jesus did on the cross. It’s acting as if I don’t really believe that what Jesus did was enough to pay for my sin.
We already looked a bit at the older brother’s mistake in looking down on other people who’ve sinned, and thinking “he’ll have to do some serious repenting* if God’s going to forgive him for that” but when we look at other people who, like the younger brother, have clearly got themselves into serious trouble, God’s grace is sufficient for them to be forgiven and welcomed in too.
I was heartbroken by the 1st page of Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? where he re-tells a true story from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago:
A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old! – to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
I don’t think I need to add much to what Yancey says about this: “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him… Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”
Now Christianity is not about making people feel better about themselves; what the younger brother did was wrong, and it cost the father a lot, but the father welcomed him back anyway.
We talk about how people don’t like to be told they’re sinners, but actually, younger brother types like the woman in the story above, have no trouble accepting that they’ve done plenty wrong. It tends to be older brother types who’ve been going to church for many years, reading our bibles everyday, praying everyday, working hard to obey all the rules, we’re the ones who have trouble accepting that God shows just as much love to those who’ve devoured his property with prostitutes.
* This is incorrect use of the word “repent”. To repent means to turn away from our sin and back to God, which of course we should do whenever we’ve sinned. The type of thinking I’m talking about above turns “repentance” into a performance of a work so that God will accept us, and what is really meant by this incorrect usage is to load oneself with guilt. This point was queried during the study on Sunday; someone asked the valid question whether there’s a danger of interpreting this lack of guilt in such a way that sin is no longer thought of as a serious problem. Thankfully, Robert Oliver was present and made the distinction between guilt and contrition. It is right to feel contrition (sorrow) for our sin, but we should not load ourselves with guilt as we are no longer guilty in God’s sight.