We all tell stories. And we “make stories” too to make meaning of what we see and experience around us. One story that is told about Christians is that we are judgmental. In fact, 87% of the unchurched view Christians as judgmental.
Before you make a judgment about that you may want to pause.
Before you want to say they are wrong, consider this. A survey was given to self-identified Christians that measured their attitudes and actions and whether they lined up more with Jesus’ attitudes and actions or those of the self-righteous Pharisees. The result? “Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.”
Christians who judge others even judged themselves as judgmental. Amazing!
The same study revealed that many Christians are more concerned with pointing out unrighteous behavior—especially in pointing fingers at immorality in the culture—than they are with self-righteousness and confronting Christians who exhibit this trait.
We can easily make up stories about others while letting ourselves off the hook. And in doing so we give those who do not know Jesus an opportunity to create a story about us. The problem with that is that often the story about us becomes the same story for God. He is judgmental. He is pointing fingers at us when we do wrong.
Sometimes we need a new story. Fortunately, Jesus gave us many that give us a view of God that is accurate. If you were to choose just one story to know and tell that Jesus told, you’d want to choose the one we will look at today. Charles Dickens called it the greatest short story ever told. You might know it as the Prodigal Son.
Here’s how the story goes:
A man had two sons. The younger son asked his dad for his inheritance, which basically meant he wanted his dad to just go ahead and die. The father gave each of his sons their share of the inheritance.
The younger son took what he had and went off to a distant country. He spent everything he had on foolish living. After he spent everything a famine hit the land and he really had nothing. He had to go to work for a Gentile who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs…not something a young Jewish man would want to do. It got so bad he even wanted to eat what the pigs were eating.
One day he came to his senses. He thought, “My father’s hired hands have plenty of food and I’m dying here of hunger. I’ll go to my father and tell him ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Let me be like one of your hired workers.’”
When he was close to his father’s home, his father so him from a distance and had compassion on him. The father ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son started into his speech, but the father told his servants to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his son. Then he told them to find a fattened calf, slaughter it, and prepare a feast to celebrate his son coming home.
Meanwhile the older son was in the field and as he came to the house heard music and dancing. He found out his brother had come home and the celebration was for him. The older son got so angry he didn’t want to join the feast. He told his father, “I have been slaving many years for you and I have never disobeyed an order. But you never gave me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has devoured your assets with prostitutes comes home, you throw a party.
The father said, “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead and is now alive. He was lost and is now found.
That’s a great story. When we listen to stories, we find ourselves in the characters. You have some options with this one.
You could see yourself in the younger son. Maybe you’ve done some things in your life that you are ashamed of. Shame hits us hard and tells us we are not enough: not good enough, smart enough, good looking enough, rich enough. Shame is hard to defeat.
Maybe it was the teenage years. Or into your twenties. Or just this week. And now you wonder what God would think. You have felt the judgement of his people over the years and now you have begun to wonder if he looks at you the same way.
If you see yourself as the younger son, then you need to see the Father. I don’t know what the younger son expected. I don’t know what you expect from him either. But I do know what the son and you or me get. We get a father we most likely did not expect.
Did you notice what the Father did? First he ran to greet his son. Running was not a dignified thing for a father in that world to do. Kind of like if you saw the President of the United States getting of Air Force One and running across the tarmac to greet some foreign dignitary. It just doesn’t happen.
But it did in this story. That’s how much the Father wanted to be with his son. He didn’t wait for him to get to the house. He went out to him while he was still “a long way off.” Have you ever wondered why?
One reason is his love for his son. He wanted to be with him. He didn’t want to wait.
But there’s another reason. After he embraced him and kissed him he had a servant bring a robe, a ring and sandals. These were items that restored him to his son ship in the family. But the robe especially did something. It covered his shame.
Don’t miss this! The robe covered his shame. Sometimes we think God wants to broadcast our sin to everyone. In this story Jesus says, “no.” The son confessed to his Father but he didn’t have to tell anyone else. The Father covered him so that when he did get to the house, no one would have to know where he had been or what he had done. All that mattered was that he was home.
If you see yourself in the younger son, you need to see this part of the story. Let it sink in. feel the Father’s embrace. Talk to him. And let him restore you.
And learn from the Father. We have a world that needs us to be more like him, especially when we fall. Instead of being concerned about pointing out other people’s unrighteousness maybe we should be more concerned about self-righteous attitudes. The Father was.
The other character in the story is the older son. You don’t want to be him. The story began because the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. They did not see themselves as “sinners.” Their hearts were hard. Callous. They grumbled. Grrrr-ited teeth. A low rumble. Grumbling.
They didn’t see themselves as the older son. But they were. “Angry that the sinner was welcomed.” “Always with you.” “Never disobeyed.” Really? Maybe we need to sit down and rehearse your life. Not to condemn. But to help you see yourself for who you are.
The only people Jesus gets upset with in the gospels are the self-righteous. They are quick to point out the faults of others without taking into account their own. And because of that they have no room for the one who has made some mistakes in life.
You may wonder why the father had not gone looking for his son. In those days a younger son would get 1/3 of the inheritance. But the older son—who received his share too in this story—would receive 2/3. The Father gave 3/3…or everything he had. The person with the resources to go looking for the younger son was the older brother. And he did nothing.
But Jesus did. He says in Luke 19:10 he came to seek and save the lost. He wants us to do the same. But it will never happen if we continue in older brother tendencies.
As long as we harbor a desire to point out the unrighteousness in others and not address our own self-righteous behaviors, we’ll always be on the outside of the party looking in. Older brothers have to choose how they will respond to the party invitation.
That’s why Jesus leaves the story in the same way we will leave it today. we don’t know if the older brother came in or not. And I don’t know if you will or not, but my hope is you do. The Father is preparing a great feast and he wants you to be at his table.
You can’t come alone. There will be tax collectors and sinners, some recovering Pharisees and scribes. All in need of a savior. You’ll see his seat at the banquet. But don’t be surprised if it’s empty. He’ll probably be out looking for the next person who’s lost their way to the party.