In the previous studies, we looked at the prodigal son and the prodigal’s father. The heart of the story is not about the son, but the love of the father. The parable of the prodigal was introduced by Jesus when the religious people of that culture criticized Him saying, “This man receives sinners and even eats with them!”
They were appalled by the concept of having fellowship with people of lesser character. As we discussed in an earlier message, in that culture, to sit down at the table with someone was to proclaim your acceptance of that person. No respectable leader would be caught speaking to a prostitute, thieving tax collector, or drunkard, much less would they dare to dine with them and acknowledge them as acceptable.
Instead of criticizing their judgmental attitudes, Jesus first explains how God cares enough about the sinner, that He would go out and seek to save those who are lost in their sins. Later, Jesus will begin to explain how the law condemns anyone who is born into a sinful nature, for not even the elite religious thinker can avoid sin. They may hide it from public view, but they cannot purify the sin inside.
In Matthew 23, Jesus was moved with compassion to rescue the masses from the burden placed upon them by religion. He condemned the heavy weight placed upon those deemed to be sinners and explained to them the true acceptance by God is to be humble. Through the scriptures, we understand that humility is recognizing we are all incapable of becoming righteous by our best efforts, and we then acknowledge all good is a gift from God. It is God’s righteousness, given to those who recognize they can do nothing, and then turn to Christ. The humble depends upon God’s gift of grace. The proud still thinks they can achieve goodness by making themselves perfect for God. The self-righteous has rejected the gift of grace, and is making themselves into a rival of Jesus by presenting their own works in the place of Jesus’ work.
The law was given to reveal to man the perfect standard of good. Since Adam’s fall, man has looked to himself for good. He still believes the lie, “You can be like God to know good and evil.” It is in human nature to fashion rules into something we can keep. For this reason, God gave the law. Man has always tried to reshape the law into something self-affirming, but God is constantly reminding man that if we fail to keep the whole law, we are guilty. If we fail in one point, we are guilty of the whole law. Therefore, there are two things you should know about the law. It is the standard of perfection based on God’s character. It is also the revelation that you cannot find perfection in yourself. It is intended to drive you away from trusting in your works so you are forced to look to the cross.
Religion can spruce up the outward appearance. Anyone can present a perfect façade to the world and other religious people, but the most religious and the most morally bankrupt have the same problem. They have a rotten sinful nature, and though some may mask it better than others, at our core, we all are in the same position. This is why Jesus said, Matthew 23:27-28
27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.
28 "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
The very people who were condemning the riffraff of society had the same problem. You can paint a tomb white, but it doesn’t change what is on the inside. Those who are looking at the outer shell will be impressed. Those who are decorating their outer appearance can give the pretense of perfection, but just below the surface is rottenness and corruption. We are all in the same boat.
But the good news is that it doesn’t matter. As we have discussed before, when we trust in Christ, we have the promise that the Holy Spirit circumcises (or cuts away) our old inner rottenness, and replaces it with a new nature, born after the Spirit. It is born of God, abides in God, and is a partaker of God’s divine nature. From this point on, the problem is no longer our inner corruption, but remaining in the mindset of the outer flesh.
The problem with religion is that it blinds the self-righteous to their need, and blinds the immoral of their deliverance. I say ‘immoral’, but the truth is that every person has the same heart. Some sins are just more socially acceptable or easier to mask than others. Let’s illustrate this with the story of the airplane pushers.
A certain village was settled in a valley encircled by a massive mountain range. Their forefathers had been banished to this place and they still lived in extreme poverty. The limited resources made every day a fight for survival. No one had ever successfully crossed the mountain ridges to discover what was on the other side. Generations ago, their forefathers wrote of a land of abundance, but they had no way to reach it.
One day the Lord spoke to a man and gave him a message for the village. The people were to build an airplane according to specific instructions. If they trusted and obeyed, they would soon discover God’s promise of a land with every need met. No one knew what an airplane was, but it was the only hope of escaping this place. The man carrying God’s instructions assured the people God’s plan was perfect, even if they didn’t understand. These impoverished people rejoiced at this word and began constructing the airplane.
Though they didn’t understand, they built it according to God’s message, and soon they had a plane at the foot of the mountain. The base of the mountain was a gentle slope, but the higher the mountain went, the steeper and more rugged the terrain. Soon the Lord spoke again and instructed them to take the plane over the mountain. The strongest men were placed at each wing, and the rest pushed from behind. Then the journey began. For a while, things went fine. It was tiring, but the plane moved steadily up the rising slope of the mountain. But then they reached the first cliff.
The people reasoned out a new plan. They roped the plane, and after many struggles, they pulled the plane over the first small cliff. They pushed the craft along until they reached the next cliff. It was higher and steeper than the one before. With great effort, they tried to scale the cliff with the plane, but failed. They regrouped and came up with a new plan. They would disassembled the plane, climb the cliff, and reassemble it again.
Some argued against this plan. Their instructions was to take the plane up the mountain, not pieces of the plane. They had to stick with the original word. The disagreement became so great, the village divided. The majority sided with disassembling, and those holding to the original plan were left without a plane, so they built their own airplane.
Those who carried the pieces scaled this cliff with great effort, only to find the next cliff was higher and steeper still. What’s more is they were barely started on their journey. It was clear that the only way to make it would be to do the best they could. They reasoned that if they could get one piece to the top of the mountain, God would honor their efforts and reward them. They would focus on getting the most important piece to the top.
The people began arguing over which was the most important. When they could not agree, they divided again. Those who thought the wings were what God wanted called themselves the wing nuts, and they focused on carrying their valued piece. The holy rollers said the wheels were most important. The visionaries took the windows. Each group set out to get their piece to the top.
Those with the lightest pieces made fast progress. The strongest among them soon climbed the highest. Everyone began to bog down as the mountain became more treacherous. The complete plane crowd made no progress, but they kept trying and repairing their plane. God would be pleased because they were the most faithful to the original instruction. Each group looked down at those below and were sure God would honor them because of how much more progress they had made than others. Each group began measuring themselves against those below, and obedience was based on how much better they were than others instead of the impossible task of climbing the mountain.
The weaker among them became frustrated and gave up completely. They returned to the valley, and were considered as outcasts. As they looked back to the mountain, from a distance the highest achievers looked no different than those at the lowest cliffs. No one was even a fraction up the mountain, so why bother?
One day a man showed up in the village. He told them it was impossible to get the plane to the top of the mountain, and it was never in their power to do so. God never intended for the people to carry the airplane. Those who had made it the highest hated the words of this man. Their identity was now wrapped up in how much better they were doing than other groups, and especially the mere valley dwellers.
The man readied the plane and invited any who would come to enter the plane. He claimed he could use the wind to lift the airplane and guide it over the mountain. All they had to do was get inside and rest.
“That’s preposterous,” the elite of the village cried. They condemned anyone who would trust in this ridiculous doctrine. God instructed them to take the plane over the mountain. They could not accept that taking the plane was to get in it, and not to bear it on their backs. Besides, how could God measure their worthiness if their efforts meant nothing?
They scoffed at the idea that the wind could have the power to safely lift this plane. They had seen evidence of the wind many times. Sometimes it knocked things over. Sometimes it turned the windmill. One nutcase even built wings for his arms and flapped around like a fool. He never left the ground and no one had flown with the power of the wind.
Those who believed, climbed in the plane and were amazed that this mass of material could fly. The wind was able to use the wings to create lift? The power was in the wind, and not in the plane itself? The mechanics of the plane only served to receive the wind? Their limited understanding couldn’t comprehend how this was possible, but they rejoiced when the mountains that had been their prison for so many years drifted powerlessly under them as the plane carried them to the promise God had given them.
Their best efforts had been worthless, but now they also realized their weaknesses and limitations were irrelevant. Once they were carried by the wind, the mountain that once imprisoned them had no power at all.
This mindset is why God’s people could not comprehend the message of Christ. Those who compared their success against those who appeared weaker scoffed at the gospel, for it said they were all hopelessly imprisoned by the law. Those who saw the impossibility of climbing the mountain of holiness and perfection rejoiced at the gospel message.
You mean to tell me that nothing is about what I do for God? It’s not about me fulfilling the perfect standard of the law? The law only served to reveal to all of us the impossibility of measuring up to God’s nature. Even today, those who look at their accomplishments by comparing themselves to those with greater limitations will feel self-righteous, and their identity is wrapped up in self-glorification. But if we turn and look at the mountain, the cliffs of human limitations, sin, and our nature that weighs us down, we will understand why religion cannot please God. When we look at others, we might feel proud. When we look at our own weaknesses, we might feel defeat. But when we look at Christ, we discover that our works are irrelevant. Our sins are irrelevant. Our limitations are irrelevant. We are trusting in His works, His power, and His strength.
This is what the prodigal son discovered. When he turned to his father, he was focused on his defeat, but the father revealed to him that all his sins and failures were irrelevant. All he had to do was turn away from what was worthless and enter into the fellowship of agape love. Yet his brother wasn’t focused on the love of the father either. He was looking at himself and comparing his works to his brother’s failures. Look at Luke 15:25-32
25 "Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 "So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
27 "And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
28 "But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.
29 "So he answered and said to his father, `Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
30 `But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
31 "And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
32 `It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’"
Which of these brothers were denied love or fellowship? Neither. The son who fell into sin allowed the world to rob him of experiencing love, but once he turned back, he found that the only thing between him and the father’s love was his rejection of that love.
The brother who didn’t fall into sin also missed fellowship. Because he counted his brother as unworthy, he refused to participate. Yet the father refused to cast his brother out of the party just because the older brother put that condition in place. The self-righteous brother withdrew because he thought his younger brother was unworthy. Yet it was he who missed the joy of fellowship, not the brother who returned from sin.
This is you and I when we deem someone a sinner to be shunned. We are all in the same boat. My sins may not be as blatant as the outcast of society, but we both have a sin nature. We both are incapable of becoming righteous. We both are incapable of fulfilling the law.
Human nature is masterful at self-deception. When we see the law, we shape it into something we can keep, and then we convince ourselves we are righteous. I go to church, but they don’t. Yet is my heart in worship of who God is and what He has done for me? If not, I might as well not be here. I’m not doing God a service by being here. If I am in a spirit of worship, then I am also in a humble spirit of receiving from God. I then understand I am only righteous because He has given me His righteousness. The only difference between me and the one I deem as a sinner is that they have not yet discovered God’s gift of righteousness. They become righteous the same way I did – by grace through faith. It is a gift of God not of works so I cannot boast.
We recreate many laws in order to create a standard by which we can feel as if we’re measuring up, but that’s mere religion and will not be honored by God. I’ll give an example. Some claim that unless we keep the Sabbath, we are guilty of violating God’s law. The Sabbath is Saturday. Yet these people don’t keep the Sabbath? Do they travel to church? Do they get their kids ready? Do they cook, set the table, clean up, or do any chore or work in any way? The law of the Sabbath is to do no work – at all. Don’t buy, sell, or exert yourself in any way. Not only can you not work, but it is also a violation of the Sabbath to allow a stranger with you to work. That includes supporting businesses or allowing someone else to do the work for you. Oh, and don’t buy or sell on the Sabbath.
Yet we have shaped the Sabbath into something we can keep, and then we feel justified for keeping our version of the law. We are breaking the Sabbath and then placing ourselves above God by rewriting the law to fit our culture and lifestyle. It’s not just us. Jesus said to the law-abiding Jews, “Moses gave you the law, but none of you keep the law.” And no one disputed Him because deep down they knew they were guilty, though they tried to cover their sin with human effort.
Yet the word Sabbath means rest. That’s why Jesus said, “Come to Me and I will give you rest.” It’s also why the Bible says, “We who have believed do enter that rest.”
If you are in Christ, you are a Sabbath keeper, for He is that rest. If you are in Christ, you have kept the law, for the Bible says in Romans 8:3-4
3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Just in case you may misunderstand the wording here, let’s bring in Romans 8:9
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.
If you are in Christ, you are a fulfiller of the law. The law is fulfilled by faith. Your faith is to trust in Christ, who fulfilled the law, and you trust in His gift of grace, which blesses you as though you have kept the law. It’s all about trusting in Christ.
The message of the prodigal is all about the love of God, your Heavenly Father, given to you. God does not love you because of what you do or don’t do. He loves you for who you are because of who He is. God is love, and He loves you because that is His nature. He invites you into His agape fellowship because He is glorified when you receive His goodness. And then He blesses you for receiving grace.
Back to the story of our airplane pushers. When they landed in the land of promise, some who had made the most progress on the mountain were stuck in that mindset. They met together and discussed how much God had been pleased with their work on the other side, and to receive the greater blessing, they had to show God how much they were willing to do for Him. So they began climbing the mountain from the other side. They persuaded others to follow them.
When they felt beaten and famished, it must be that God was not pleased. They had to be strong enough to conquer this mountain. Now they had God’s strength, so they would use it to defeat the mountain.
As the Restoration of Mountain Climbers grew in popularity, others began climbing with them. Again people began feeling defeated and falling away. They were shunned, just as they had been on the other side. Someone came to the group and said, “Turn around and look. All you need has already been given,” but they were scorned and counted as offenders. Even in the land of plenty, many lived as though they were on the other side. The same mountain that defeated them before, continued to defeat them. They couldn’t understand why God wasn’t blessing them to climb. Some enjoyed the promise and lived by faith in what they had been given. Others returned to the self-righteous mindset and lived as though they had never been delivered.
The truth is that God will never bless you to accomplish for Him what He has already accomplished for you. Even a Christian, if he or she returns to the law, will live as someone under the impossible burden of the law. They will be tempted to reject others because they are again looking at themselves instead of the giver of all things.
If we look to anything other than faith in Christ, we are under a burden not intended for us. We are also blind to the love of God. The Bible says that when people read the law as their focus for obedience, the veil is placed over their hearts. That veil is only taken away in Christ. While under the veil, the only measurement we have is our works and the sins of others. Both are false measurements.
The prodigal son could not receive love because he was focused on the false promises of sin. The prodigal brother could not receive love because he was focused on his false righteousness and refused to be in the fellowship of those he deemed unworthy of love. Yet he was rejecting the Father’s love just as much as his brother did. Unfortunately, it’s easier to recognize our weaknesses when we fall to sin than when we fall for religion.
Regardless of which side you are on, God’s love does not change. He pleads with the prodigal sinner, and the religious sinner. Any who will come will rejoice in the fellowship of God’s love.
Eddie Snipes 2014
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