Sin of Being Good
"But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." (v.20, NRSV) "Then he (the elder brother) became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (v.28 & 31)
As with most of Jesus' stories this one is multifaceted with different shades of meaning. Since it was told to Old Testament Jews it is, on one level, pointing toward the New Covenant that would soon be opened to those outside the bounds of the Hebrew Community. Jesus here alludes to persons coming to God through a new way of forgiveness. He is saying that these tax collectors and sinners are worthy because they are persons of sacred worth and there is no reason to not welcome them. To make this point clear he told them this story.
Traditionally called "Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son," the story also illustrates contemporary humanity's need to come to the Father. It is a story about a Forgiving Father who seeks relationship with all of His children in every age.
Throughout the centuries many have called this their favorite story ever told. Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal" captures its essence on canvas. The repentant adolescent is pictured kneeling at his father's feet with his face hidden. Standing defiantly erect in the background is the well dressed Elder Brother. Rembrandt also masks his face as if to say, "In these two sons we can each find ourselves." Indeed, this seems to be Jesus' point.
We see ourselves in these two sons for personalities are the same in every age. Margaret Mitchell's number one selling novel of all time, Gone With the Wind, contrasts the characters of the sinful Scarlet, and the respected Melanie. There is also the worldly Rhett Butler set opposite the highly moral Ashley. These fictitious Atlantans of the Civil War era can still be found in our city. Indeed, since ours was the largest church in Atlanta in the 1860s, we can assume that persons just like these fictional characters sat in our pews. Jesus' pictures of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother are painted in every generation.
Recently a young man came begging at our church door having slept in our dumpster the night before. He seemed amazed that fellow street people had stolen his cash and his coat at a shelter. Fortunately for him he had run out of resources just a week after leaving his family home. I asked if he had heard the story of the Prodigal Son, and he said, "I am a preacher's kid and have had it pumped into me all of my life." I reminded him that his father was probably waiting and he smiled and walked off toward home hopefully to find a welcome mat.
But it's hardly ever that quick and easy. One old fellow had been sleeping under bridges for many years. He had been addicted to drugs, alcohol and whatever else he could beg or steal. By the time he got to us he could hardly talk, his words were random fragments, but soon I was able to piece together his story. He had been an attorney, had married a fine woman, but lost it all. I asked him what he wanted from me, and all he wanted was for the pastor to know his name. After several failed attempts, I wrote it down and he shook his head yes. That's all he wanted, and he stumbled out the door. A few days later a corpse was found in the woods beside the expressway and I wondered if it were him. Perhaps he made it home to his Heavenly Father, or maybe he's still out there lost somewhere.
Then there are others who are the good boys and girls who never run away or outwardly rebel; their secret inner rebellion is kept well hidden, but it's there just the same. We know them as respected bankers, esteemed physicians, sometimes clergy, who are good at being piously good. Our churches are populated with good people and it is to us that Jesus directs this story. The sin of being good is that it is harder to forgive those who have acted out their rebellion when we have kept secret our sinful and hard hearts. We learn to look down our clean noses at our inferiors. We lose sight of our own inward rebellion. We ask, "Why should this sinner be given grace so easily when we have worked for it so long and so well?"
It is clear that the Father in the story represents our Merciful Father. Ours is a God who is eager to be friends with all of us: Those of us who never rebel and those who do.
As we consider a turn toward home we need to look again at the meaning of repentance. Its root meaning in the Latin means to feel sorry for sin. It is related to the words "penitent" and "penitentiary." The New Testament Greek word for repentance is "metanoia," which means to turn, or be converted. It is like driving south on the freeway and getting off on an exit ramp and turning around and driving north. It is a change of direction. This is what happened to the Prodigal Son, he turned around and returned to the Father. This is what needed to have happened to the Elder Son. Instead of hardening his heart in jealousy toward his repentant younger brother, and also toward his Father, he needed to be converted.
And how do we find our way to the Father? We must come to Him from whatever place we have been. Some of us would have to come as did the prodigal pleading for mercy and finding it as the Father runs out to meet the repentant son. The son had been lost but is now returned home. Others would come from having lived superficially as the respectable person but who had inwardly lived apart from God? The point is that both must come to God as sinners in need of grace. The dangerous sin of being outwardly good is that we can pretend not to need God at all. And both types of sinners are freely forgiven by our Father. God always receives us when we genuinely repent. As our Holy Communion Words of Assurance say, "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1:9) Forgiveness is guaranteed! And He puts a ring on our finger and sandals on our feet and kills the fatted calf and calls for a celebration because a lost child who was dead in sin is now alive through salvation!
It is our choice whether to come home.
a sermon synopsis
by Dr. Bob Allred, Pastor