I have read the “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” a thousand times. I have heard pastors draw out from the older son’s conversation at the end of this parable.
Here is that conversation.
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he 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!’
What jumped out at me yesterday was verse 29. “‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.”
Jesus is wise! Jesus goes straight to the heart of the religious mindsets of the time. The funny thing is that it goes straight to the religious mindset of our time, and it is something that permeates our church culture.
Why would Jesus purposely use this phrase, “‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you”? You see, the younger brother had his inheritance handed to over to him, but this brother has been slaving and working hard, and we see here that his intention was to earn it.
Let me say this a different way…
The older brother has been working and obeying to hopefully receive what he wanted from the father.
Let me say this a different way that gets to the heart of what we see in our church circles today…
If I obey God by…
raising hands higher while singing
attending church and other church activities
reading the Bible more
not sleeping around
making my kids watch Christian cartoons
listening to more Christian music
(insert religious behavior)
God will bless me by… (name your desired blessing)
None of our blessings are dependent on obedience in these areas!
“Slaving” is such a strong word. Another way to say it is “working while being burned out”. I believe that it does represent the feeling that many of us who are Christians feel. We are slaving, white knuckling, giving, sacrificing, and trying to work our tails off in hopes that God will bless us (and normally in the way that we want). I believe that this is because many of us have a poor view of God as Father, grace, and obedience, and we aren’t taught well about these in our churches.
A poor view of God as Father has created so many destructive tendencies and beliefs. At the heart of a rigid religious system is a view of God as a strict father. This father is a father who at the first misstep will remove you from your inheritance. I grew up with families who would actually kick their children out of the house, disown them, and write them out of their will, if they were in a season of rebellion. I believe that we fear this from God. Maybe we believe that we will make it into eternity, but we believe that the blessings of being His children will be stripped away.
This view of us needing to earn our blessing is put to rest when we see in this parable that the father hands it over, and when his son returns he goes above and beyond to welcome him back.
We struggle with grace. It goes against our natural inclination. We feel that we are good in the eyes of God when we obey Him well. The problem with this logic is that we actually feel like we are obeying Him well. In even our greatest moment of obedience, we are still in need of redemption and grace. We still miss the mark of perfection that is demanded by His holiness. He pours out His grace freely and it cannot be earned.
Our biggest struggle with obedience is that we obey to prove that we are worthy of a relationship, blessing, and the identity of being called God’s child. Obedience that is healthy comes as a natural expression of being aware that we are already in a relationship through Jesus, we are blessed and that will never be removed, we are loved children no matter what, and we are never going to do it perfectly. Galatians tells us that the promise is not dependent on obedience to the law (Galatians 3:17-18).
Just like this parable, a good indicator that you are burned out and slaving away is what you expect of other people and what you expect of God.
Do you get angry with other people who don’t seem to obey the way you do and claim to be a follower of Jesus?
What religious works are you doing or holding onto in order to feel that you are worthy?
What is a blessing that you are expecting from God, by your works?
Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”