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Restoring Grace towards other Christians.
Luke’s Gospel is a fast-paced account of Jesus’ ministry, his teachings ,and his miracles. By chapter five, multitudes are following him. And yet the righteous scribes and Pharisees complain that Jesus’ disciples are dining with sinners and tax collectors (5:30). Jesus addresses their concerns by pointing out that ‘it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick’ (5:31).
Jesus continues his ministry throughout Luke’s Gospel and chapter fifteen starts with: ‘All the sinners and tax collectors drew near to him, to hear him’ (15:1). The Pharisees still don’t understand and complain that Jesus ‘receives sinners and eats with them’. This time Jesus gives a more comprehensive response: a parable with three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Each story starts with loss (notice the escalation—1 out of 100 sheep, 1 out of 10 coins, and 1 out of 2 sons). Then comes the search, restoration, and celebration.
We’ll focus on the last story: the son who wasted his possessions, repented, and returned to his father. Timothy Keller changes the name of this story to ‘The Prodigal God’ as it’s the father who’s ‘reckless’ in forgiving his son.1 Keller touches a key part of the story by asking: what’s the older brother thinking when he sees his father’s recklessness demonstrated in forgiving the younger brother?
In the story, the older brother remains with his father. The first thing he hears after his brother’s return is music and dancing. Jesus notes: ‘He was angry and would not go in’ (15:28). In short, the older brother has no joy because he isn’t seeing things the same way as his father. Jesus uses this to take us into the mind of the Pharisees and scribes.
The older brother takes aim at his father’s reckless forgiveness. He says: ‘Years I have been slaving for you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I may make merry with my friends’ (15:29). Look at how proud he is: I worked, I never transgressed, I deserve the party, not him. Keller points out that the older brother is lost too. The older brother thinks that by being good he has the right to tell his father whom he should be celebrating with. He sees the grace extended to his brother as an insult to his own standing. He obeys to get things from his father, not to please his father.
The older brother’s thinking gets even darker when he says, ‘This son of yours devoured your livelihood with harlots’ (15:30). He’s written off the younger brother. His self-righteousness makes him bitter and judgmental.
Can you see the parallels between the Pharisees asking, ‘Why do you eat with sinners?’, and the older brother asking his father, ‘Why do you welcome your son?’ I’ve been drawn into ‘older brother thinking’ at times. This happens when I come across as all-righteous by comparing myself to others: ‘I attend worship, I read my Bible and I manage my life well, whereas you’re defined by your issue, your sin. My job is to point this out to you and to change you, so that you’ll be worthy of the kingdom.’ When I think this way I’m just like the Pharisees. I’m a million miles away from understanding the grace and joy of Jesus.
How can we overcome this kind of thinking and restore grace to its central place among God’s people? The answer lies in the response of the Father to the older brother. Listen to his words: ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’ (15:31-32).
I see three steps in this passage to help restore an attitude of grace towards our fellow Christians:
1. Focus on God. Remember you’re his child. I often condemn others because I’m insecure about my own position before God. So, I invent a list of behaviours that make me feel like I’m okay when I compare myself with others. In fact, God has made it clear that I’m not defined by my sin. God has showered me with his grace. He’s adopted me and made me a joint heir with his Son. I must stop comparing myself to others.
2. Celebrate grace. There are many times when the right thing to do is to make merry and be glad. Celebration should be rife in the kingdom of God. Too often we can have a ‘glass half empty’ attitude when there’s much to celebrate and be thankful for. All of Paul’s letters start with grace and thanks. We can learn from him. My primary job is to make other Christians feel welcome, not to make them feel guilty.
3. Emphasise brotherhood. In the parable, the father insists the wasteful son remains a brother. We shouldn’t write off other Christians. All of us have sinned and none of us are worthy. Yet John writes: ‘If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). The father makes it clear the brother is alive and is now found, despite what he's done. So, we need to drop the condemnation. Often forgiveness has to be given before it’s felt.
When the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them, he confronts them. Jesus makes it clear that their thinking is way off. He invites them (and by extension us) to consider ourselves in the business of extending grace, welcoming those who are accepted by God and being thankful for the brotherhood and sisterhood of believers.
1 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (Penguin Putnam, 2011).
Michael Bargholz is a member of the Eastside Church of Christ in Sydney. email@example.com