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Sinners, Slaves or Sons?

Luke 15: Younger Brother sermon here

Luke 15: Older Brother sermon audio here

The world is naturally divided into sinners and slaves.  Sinners seek freedom.  Slaves seek reputation.  And they hate each other.  Sinners think the world would be so much better without the slaves.  Slaves think the world would be so much better without the sinners.  We all exist somewhere along this spectrum.

Jesus comes and says - You're both wrong.  You're both wretched.  You're both equally far from heaven's banquet.  That's the meaning of Luke 15.

Jesus comes to bring a new kind of humanity.  Not half-way in between but something else.  Not sinners, not slaves but sons.

Sinners wish God dead by taking His stuff and leaving.
Slaves wish God dead by despising His grace.
Sons are brought from death to life in His embrace.

Sinners are strangers to God in the far country.
Slaves are strangers to God in the field.
Sons are sinners in the Father’s arms.

Sinners seek freedom yet find deeper slavery.
Slaves seek righteousness yet find deeper sin.
Sons seek Christ and find both freedom and righteousness.

Sinners are wretched in their rebellion.
Slaves are wretched in their righteousness.
Sons are wretched in His robes.

Full sermon text below....


The world is divided into sinners and slaves:

There are those who are into freedom, self-discovery, self-actualisation and there are those who are into honour and duty and self-respect.  Everyone naturally exists along this continuum.  There’s some kind of system that’s held up as the way to be a success.  And there are those who opt into the system – the slaves – and those who opt out of the system – the sinners.  But we all naturally exist somewhere on the spectrum, opting in to some degree, opting out to some degree.  Some are more sinner than slave, others more slave than sinner.

And the sinners – the freedom/self-discovery/liberal people – think that the world would be so good if only it wasn’t full of these uptight/establishment/conservative slaves.  And the slaves – these dutiful/honour-bound/conservative types – think the world would be so much better if only it wasn’t full of these immoral/disrespectful/sinners.

And so they are at war.  The sinners, when they get upset at what the slaves are doing hold protest rock concerts.  The slaves, when they get upset at the sinners write angry letters to the Daily Mail and sign them “Outraged of Tunbridge Wells.”

Look at politics and you’ll see all the fights essentially boil down to these kinds of views.  Look at newspapers and you’ll see, all the fights are between these kinds of views.  Listen to any talk-back radio programme and you’ll just hear these two views bouncing back and forth.  Yes but don’t the slaves have a point.  Sure but the sinners are onto something.  But the sinners don’t realize.  But the slaves don’t appreciate…  Back and forth these views bounce.  Look at the world and you’ll see that east and west divide pretty much along these lines.

The world only really knows about two kinds of people, sinners and slaves, and these two kinds of people do not get on.

I think one of the best places to see that is on a Channel 4 programme called “Wife Swap”.  Don’t worry, it’s not a dodgy programme.  All that happens is that they have two different families and the wives of those families swap and go and live under another roof and under another set of rules for a week and the cameras follow them to see how they and their families cope.  And the genius of the programme is that they ALWAYS have one very liberal family where anything goes and one very conservative family where there are a thousand rules.  And when you mix those two kinds of people – fireworks happen.

“The children need more discipline,”

“The children need more space,”

“They need to know boundaries,”

“They need to learn for themselves.”

Back and forth it goes.  But really the world only knows two ways of being – either rule-breaking or rule-making.  You find yourself either in rule-breaking or in rule-making.  Or in some combination of obeying those rules, disobeying those.  But essentially, everyone naturally exists along the same spectrum.  We all define ourselves according to certain agreed rules – and whether we opt in or opt out of them.

And Jesus comes from out of the blue – not from the right or from the left but from above.  And He blows all our thinking away.

He COMPLETELY loves and accepts and welcomes and celebrates SINNERS.  And yet calls them to total, life-changing repentance.

And He COMPLETELY opposes the ways of the righteous rule-keepers while being absolutely sinless and perfect Himself.

He’s not one or the other, He’s not halfway in between.  He is something completely different.  And it changes the world.

The third, out-of-this-world kind are sons.

Sinners are strangers to God in the far country.
Slaves are strangers to God in the field.
Sons are sinners in the Father’s arms.

Sinners seek freedom yet find deeper slavery.
Slaves seek goodness yet find deeper sin.
Sons seek the Father and find both freedom and goodness.

Sinners are wretched in their rebellion.
Slaves are wretched in their righteousness.
Sons are wretched in His robes.

Sinners wish God dead by taking His stuff and leaving.
Slaves wish God dead by despising His grace.
Sons are brought from death to life in His embrace.

Let's dive into the story…

25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.

You can imagine the sunburn and the sweat and the tired muscles.  Here is the older son in his natural habitat.  Slaving in the field.  Near to home, near to the father’s house and heart and table.  But not in it.

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.

The eldest son doesn’t know what’s going on in his own household.  The slaves are more in tune with the father’s heart than this son.

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.

Why is this man angry?  Because he hates the father’s lavish love for sinners.  Remember v2: This man, Jesus, welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Well here in the story is a picture of what it is to hate the grace of Jesus.  You think, if Jesus forgives and welcomes even him to heaven, I don’t want to be there.  And in fact, in righteous indignation, such people consider themselves more holy than Jesus, because Jesus seems to be letting any old riff raff in.  And so the anger explodes out of this older brother and he throws what is known in ancient near eastern societies a hissy fit.

The toys are out of the pram and here the older brother is throwing a very public, very embarrassing, tantrum.  And he’s doing it on the greatest day of his father’s life.  The father is beside himself with happiness and throws the biggest party he and perhaps the village have ever seen.  The older brother picks this moment to lose it, and to lose it in public.

The neighbours would be thinking, this father has the two worst sons in Israel.  One shames the family in the pigsty, the other shames the family in the back yard.

But this father will again bear the shame of his sinful children.  He went out to his younger son and now in v28 he goes out to the older son.  He doesn’t play favourites.  He hasn’t got a soft spot for the younger son’s rebellious streak.  He loves them both equally.  He is an inveterate reconciler, it’s what he does.  He comes out of the house, bears the shame, to bring his children in.  And he pleads with the older brother.

That’s extraordinary.  Again you’d think he’d just say, “Son, zip it.  If you’ve got a problem it can wait till tomorrow.  This is the greatest day of my life and you’re not going to ruin it.”   But no, the father pleads with a son.  That’s really shocked me this week, cos I’ve been thinking, “Who wants the older brother at a banquet anyway??  Talk about party-pooper.  Who would want him at the feast?”  Answer, the father.  He wants him there.

And Jesus wants the Pharisees in heaven.  He really does, His heart is for the sinners and for the so-called righteous.  He pleads with the older son.

But v29:

29 But [the older son] 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!'

The older son has gone nuclear here.  Look!  Dad!  Not even ‘Dad’, just ‘Look!’

Look at the record books, look at the time sheets.  Study the accounts and you’ll see I have slaved for you.  Check out my performance – the figures don’t lie.

How does he relate to his dad?  As a slave, a good slave, an obedient slave, but a slave.

And all that stuff about a young goat... it’s interesting.  At the end of v12 we learn that when the younger brother asked for his share of the inheritance, the older brother got his share too.  The father divided his property between THEM.  The older son had his own money.  Which means that when the father says in v31, “Everything I have is yours”, that’s absolutely true.

Any time the older son wanted to throw a party he could have.  But there’s noting that makes us think we ever asked for a young goat, until he saw his good-for-nothing brother being celebrated.

No this brother doesn’t seem to be the celebrating type, he’d rather slave.  He doesn’t seem to be the extravagant type, he’d rather scrimp and save.  He doesn’t seem to want to ask for things, he’d rather earn them.

The madness of this older son is that he would rather be a good slave than a beloved son.  It’s in all of us to some extent.  There is some crazy part of every human being that would rather be a good slave than a beloved child.  It is deep inside us to relate to God on the basis of our merit, our hard work, our moral observance.  And it is spiritual poison.

The father combats it in v31 with two earth-shattering words:

31 "`My son,' the father said,"

Dear boy stop slaving, you are MY SON.  Sons don’t slave.  And slaves aren’t sons.  Dear child don’t tell me you’re slaving.  You are my son

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 father is so different to his older son.  The father HAS to celebrate, He HAS to be glad.  There’s nothing else he can do when he has his sinful son back safe and sound.  The father can’t help celebrating, the older brother can’t help seething.

Do you see how different their hearts are?  When a lost sinner is found the father can’t help celebrating, the older brother can’t help seething.

But here is the cliff-hanger ending.  You thought EastEnders invented the cliff-hanger ending.  Jesus was 2000 years ahead.  Here’s the cliff-hanger, the father finishes his speech and we never hear the older son’s response.

Will he repent and come in?  And you might say “Repent?  V29, He hasn’t done anything wrong.  He’s never disobeyed his father once.  What does he need to repent of?”  Well I hope you see, he has to repent of everything.  His whole life has been built on an appalling lie.  He has related to his dear father like a slave to a slave-driver.  And the more you learn about this father, the more appalling this appears.   This father, this running father, this compassionate father, this hugging, kissing, robing, rejoicing father, this pleading father, this reconciling father, this cannot-help-but-celebrate-and-be-glad father – how should you relate to such a father??  As a slave?  By angrily holding up your faultless moral record?  If this father were a slave driver you could understand it.  But think about this father, think about his nature.

We’ve said that this father is representing Jesus who, v2, welcomes sinners and eats with them.  And so as we read on in Luke we get an even deeper picture of the compassion and grace of this father.

At the end of Luke’s gospel, we see the cross.  He doesn’t just give over His best robe, He is stripped naked.  He didn’t just bear the shame of associating with sinners, He became sin for us.  He didn’t just sacrifice the fatted calf, He sacrificed Himself.  He didn’t just come out of his house to plead with sinners, He was shut out of heaven as the darkness fell.

That’s His nature.

And you see He did it ALL for me – sinner that I am.  He was stripped, so that I can be robed.  He was made sin, so that I am made righteous.  He was given vinegar for his thirst, so that I can be given the feast.  He was shut out of heaven’s love so that I could be brought in.  He cried out ‘My God, My God.’  On the cross was the only time Jesus didn’t call God His Father.  He was estranged from His Father so that we could call Him Daddy.

That’s the heart of Jesus for sinners.  That’s His heart for you.  Jesus is the compassionate father here, the running, hugging, kissing, robing, celebrating, pleading, loving father.  How do you relate to such a person?

“All these years I’ve slaved and never disobeyed you!”  The older brother has lost the plot.

He needs to repent of everything.  His whole life is built on an appalling lie.  His vision is entirely skewed.  He sees his father as a slave-driver, he sees himself as a good slave, and everyone else is inferior, unclean, sinners.

This older brother – this good boy, never disobeyed, clean moral record, in church every Sunday – he is a hideous wretch.  And all his supposed goodness and obedience and hard work that’s what’s keeping him out! Moral goodness doesn’t get you into heaven, it keeps you out.  Do you realize that?  Moral goodness doesn’t get you into heaven, it keeps you out.

If this boy is going to come into the banquet, he’s going to have to repent.  Everything’s going to have to change.  He’s going to have to have a new kind of relationship with the father, with his brother and with himself.  This son needs wholesale repentance.

So will he come in?

Well the parable ends here.  But the story in Luke continues.  We know that the characters in the parable refer to real life people.  The younger brother types are the sinners and tax collectors who flock to Jesus.  And the older brother types are the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  So what happens with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law?  It’s not a happy ending.

Let me give you my ending to the parable according to how events unfold in Luke’s gospel.

The father makes his plea to the older son.  The older son in blind fury picks up his shovel and bashes his old man to death.

That’s what happens in the Gospel.  Because it’s these Pharisees and teachers of the law who so hate the grace of Jesus that they conspire to kill Him.

That’s where older brother living takes you.  You are forced to hate gracious Jesus.

Now do you see what dynamite this story is?  Jesus comes saying there’s two kinds of people – and we all say, Yeah we know.  And Jesus says they are BOTH lost, they are BOTH sinful, they are BOTH equally far from my banquet.  The younger brother types are far away in the pigsty.  But the older brother types are just as far away in the field.  And when both types are confronted with the grace of Jesus, it’s the older brother types who are left out in the cold.  And it’s their goodness that keeps them out.  “All these years I’ve slaved!” is their mantra and it’s a mantra that keeps them out of the banquet and leaves them gnashing their teeth in outer darkness.

This parable turns everything on its head.

One thing it does is give us a much better definition of sin:

SIN IS RELATIONAL – not behavioural (v29 might technically be true but the older son is still a hideous sinner)

SIN IS A MATTER OF THE HEART – not the externals

SIN IS NOT RECEIVING THE GRACE OF JESUS – it’s not about what we offer to God

If you don’t get this, you’ll stumble along in Pharasaical older-brother Christianity

I hope you can see that there’s a problem with being an older brother type.  Are you an older brother type?  Let me give you seven signs that you might be an older brother, or at least older-brother-ish in your Christianity


1)    You’re in church

Verse 25, where is the older brother.  In the field.  The natural habitat of the younger brother is the far country – far away from religion, far away from God-stuff.  The natural habitat of the older brother is the field.  The back yard.  Very near to religious things.  Older brothers go to church.  Churches are filled with older brothers.  They get on very nicely with their high moral standards, their work ethic, their hatred of sin.  All of us here are in danger of being an older brother.

2)    You’re angry

Verse 28, the older brother has volcanic anger.  Of course most of the time the lava is kept well below the surface.  Usually he’s far too worried about being polite and good and hard-working to show it.  But it’s there, molten hot lava runs through his veins.  Is this you?  Different people show anger in different ways.  And if you’re a NICE person then you know that NICE people aren’t allowed to be angry.  What these veins bulging on my forehead, no that’s just because I’m full of Christian love and goodwill. You’re furious but you’re supposed to be good and you don’t know what to do about it.  Some people implode in depression (one popular description is frozen rage), some people starve themselves, some people stuff themselves, some people cut themselves.  Some people are just impossible to get to know deeply.  And no-one really can put their finger on why.  But there’s a distance and deep down you sense there’s a dangerous anger.   .  I’ve been working in churches 10 years and I’ve seen a lot of Christian depression.  And a lot of it is older brother

3)    You’re self-promoting

V29, “Look!” says the older brother.  Look at me, look at my performance, look at my achievements.  And it just comes out of them, they’re not even aware half the time but somehow they’ll work their entire CV into a friendly conversation over coffee.  They’re always terrible at chit chat because they ask questions like, “Did you see the sunrise this morning?”  And they never ask you that question in winter, they only ask you at the height of summer when sunrise is at 4:51am.  Yeah I was at the seafront.  I love to paint the sunrises.  I find watercolour is the best way to unwind after my 2 mile swim.  I’m training for a triathalon.  It’s for charity. Look!  Their whole way of relating is ‘Look!’  Unless of course they’re so paralyzed by underground anger, but if they’re not crippled by their anger, self-promotion oozes out of older brothers.

4)    Life with God feels like slavery

Verse 29:  “All these years I have been slaving.”  Are you on a treadmill in the Christian life?  It just feels like a relentless list of demands and things you have to tick off a list.  God’s a big sergeant-major in the sky or a big slave-driver and you’re one of his billions of minions trudging along.

5)    You can’t admit to sin

Verse 29: I have never disobeyed your orders.  This is huge.  How many older brothers sit in church every Sunday and think they’re basically ok because they haven’t disobeyed orders from their heavenly slave-master.  Not the really big ones anyway.

But they can never really face the awfulness of a heart that is filled with entitlement and pride and malice and gracelessness, joylessness, lovelessness, self-promotion, self-pity, self-righteousness, self-protection, self, self, self.  A heart that despises the grace of Jesus.  A heart that means when you see Jesus open His arms to sinners, it makes you angry.  And far from confessing that wicked heart as sinful – you justify yourself: Well I’m NOT like those nasty sinners, I’m NOT! Maybe – but you are NOTHING like Jesus either.

You don’t like those relational definitions of sin because you know that if that was sin, then you’d be a sinner.  And you cannot admit that.  You’re whole identity is founded on being better than others. You can’t admit to sin.  Not real sin.  Not hell-deserving sin.

6)    You don’t allow yourself to celebrate

Verse 29: a young goat with one or two friends, maybe.  But I don’t reckon this elder brother even asked for a goat.  He’s not into extravagant celebration.  Is that you?  You work hard, you put in the hours, you scrimp and save, you’re careful.  It’s all about your performance so cutting loose or relaxing just isn’t in your vocabulary.

7)    Everything’s unfair.

Verse 29 – he got more than me! You’re always looking over your shoulder at what the other person has and crying foul.  Because you’re always earning, earning, earning and then life has the audacity NOT to unfold according to your work ethic.  Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people and you hate that.  You’re always looking at situations feeling entitled and like life’s not fair.

8)    You cannot associate with sinners

If there’s a party with sinners you just wouldn’t go.  What on earth do you have in common with these people?  In church terms, you’d never even consider doing an outreach to the homeless or drug addicts or the marginalized because, to you, they are a different species.

And perhaps people come to you with problems in the Christian life and in the end you find it difficult to identify.  You have advice for how they can do better, but when they have inveterate problems, ongoing sin, you just don’t relate to that, you can’t enter into that.  You’re not the person sinners can open up to, because…

9)    You’re wracked with superiority

V30 – this guy can’t even bring himself to say “my brother” – it’s “this son of yours”.  He won’t even admit to being family with this dreadful sinner.  Of course it’s impolite to be superior in public and so he’d try to hide this most of the time, but it’s there and it’s very powerful.  He’s better and he needs to be better.

10)   You don’t know the grace of Jesus and the love of the Father

And this is the heart of it all.  I could have just written this sign ten times.  Here’s the real problem.  The older brother’s world revolves around slaving and appearances and superiority.  And it’s got nothing to do with Jesus.

Churches are full of older brothers and it’s to the shame of churches that older brother types can get so comfortable in our churches because often we are so moralistic ourselves and we don’t preach the grace of Jesus and the love of the Father.

But read verse 31 again and know that Jesus is pleading with all the Pharisees of the world here:

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.'"

Jesus pleads with all Pharisees in all ages: join the joy.  Join the joy!  Heaven is a feast, a banquet, a celebration.  And the centerpiece of the celebrations is JESUS who has saved sinners.  It’s to HIS glory and He pleads with younger brother types and He pleads with older brother types and says NONE of you deserve it, but it’s my pleasure to offer it.  Don’t be proud: join the joy.

And for all who receive Jesus by faith, they are adopted as children and can call on God as their own Father.  Do you have any idea the wonder of being called a child of God?

Being the child of a millionaire would be nice.  Being the firstborn son of a wealthy monarch would be cool.  But we are beloved children of the Emporer of the Universe.

Jesus stands with His arms wide open, pleading with you, Don’t be a good slave.  Be a beloved child.

Lay down the shovel.  Lay down the self-righteousness, the anger, the pride, the superiority, the joylessness.  Lay it down and join the joy.


2 thoughts on “Sinners, Slaves or Sons?

  1. Pingback: Ten Signs You’re a Pharisee… « Christ the Truth

  2. Pingback: Sinners, Slaves and Sons, again « Christ the Truth

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