Summary: Part 5 in series Return of the Prodigal, this message examines the possibility, potential, and process for the return of the elder son to the father.
The Elder Son Returns
The Return of the Prodigal, prt. 5
Wildwind Community Church
March 13, 2011
Today we continue our series called Return of the Prodigal, based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. I want to start off with a provocative quote from Henry Nouwen. This series has been inspired by Jesus’ parable, by Rembrant’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, and by Nouwen’s book, which was inspired by both the painting and the parable.
Nouwen says, “God’s love does not depend on our repentance, or on our inner or outer changes.” That almost sounds like heresy at first. It almost seems to say repentance is not important. But listen again. “God’s love does not depend on our repentance, or on our inner or outer changes.” Is it saying repentance isn’t necessary? Of course not. It’s saying that repentance is not what secures God’s love. God loves us before we repent. After all,
Romans 5:8 (NIV)
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So this statement that seems at first to be a bit heretical is actually very, very sound. It is not our repentance that secures God’s love. And since God loves us before we have repented, he certainly loves us before we have made any inner or outer changes in our lives.
I could almost conclude the sermon right now. Because although we say God is love, it is an assault to our ears that God loved us, and loves us, in our sin. It doesn’t sound right to say that God loves us completely apart from any changes we might make. But it’s completely true.
Now here, at the end of the parable, at almost the end of the series, we are left hanging, and are presented with a choice. Jesus ends the parable without ever wrapping it up. We are never told if the older son comes around and pulls it together and joins his father and brother at the feast. We’re never told if perhaps he drops to his knees at some point and, like his younger brother, begs for forgiveness. This moment is pregnant with opportunity, and I think Rembrandt portrays that with the space he creates between the elder son and the father. You guys check out the painting while I read you something:
Luke 15:28 (NIV)
28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
Luke 15:31-32 (NIV)
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.'"
We have to decide what happens here with the elder son. But here is what we know. Just like the father runs out to meet the younger son, he also goes out to meet the older one. He goes out to welcome back the son who has returned, and he goes out to plead with the one who is still lost, that he might return as well. The Father’s heart is for both of his sons. It doesn’t matter why they are lost. It matters only that they both return.
The Father’s words to the elder son are beautiful. Are they words you hear God speaking to you?
Luke 15:31-32 (NIV)
31 "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
How our lives will change as we increasingly come to hear God saying those words to us. “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” That is to say, all of God’s love is yours. All of God’s peace belongs to you. All of God’s joy is yours as well. All of God’s patience and compassion are yours. The Father graciously shares everything with you, and not only shares it, but considers it equally yours. This speaks of that condition of “unity with God” that the mystics are always seeking – the condition that John Wesley referred to as “Christian perfection.” This is the idea that God isn’t just letting us borrow his stuff. He considers it ours. That is the extent of God’s goodness and mercy. That is also, by the way, why God asks for our lives in return. God asks that we give him our lives so that he can give his life to us, which is infinitely better and richer and fuller.
Here I want to depart from the parable and especially from Nouwen a little bit to bring in something I think is really important. The father says, “you are always with me.” Taken literally, we see he’s referring to the consistency and faithfulness of the elder son. But there’s a sense in which the younger son, also, was always with him.