Now, we’re going to make a clear distinction of terms here so that there’s no confusion. We’ll define “religion” as the belief of the world (and the human heart in its natural state) that man can make himself right with God if he does the right things. We’ll define the “gospel” as the essential opposite, that man CANNOT make himself right with God, but that God descended to mankind in the form of Jesus, and through his gift of gracious love found in Jesus’ sacrifice, HE made man right with God.
In religion, man goes to God. In the gospel, God comes to man. Religion is about what I do. The gospel is about what Jesus did. Religion says that some are either born or eventually become good or bad. The gospel says we’re born bad, but Jesus is good, so our future is good. You get the point.
It’s a little difficult for Christians today to understand that Christianity should probably and properly not be labeled as a “religion.” The world categorizes us as simply another belief system that has certain spiritual practices. But, when Christianity first arose it was recognized so clearly and uniquely as a non-religion. The Christians had no temple, and they had no priests sacrificing no animals at this non-existent temple. Jesus himself was the logical conclusion to each of those religious customs. This lack of religious traditionalism and external rite (with some obvious exceptions, like Baptism & Communion) was absolutely confounding to the pagans as well as the super-religious Jewish moralists.
Today we still tend to drift back towards religious ideology. Despite the new nature we possess as Christians, we never fully shake the effects of the sinful nature in this lifetime. Consequently, we never fully shake the prideful desire for religion to make us right with God in this lifetime either. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians and Christian churches are some of the guiltiest parties when it comes to “religious observance.” Sometimes it seems as though the only ones that Christian churches attract are the well-groomed, moralistic people of the world, i.e. the highly religious. But that wasn’t really who Jesus attracted. That was precisely who Jesus offended. And this reality ultimately leads us to ask if the message we’re proclaiming today is always consistent with the message that he was proclaiming.
Again, we’ll understand better if we see the truth pointed out to us in God’s Word.
Most Christians have heard of Jesus’ famous parable of “The Lost Son” (Luke 15:11-32). But, as Dr. Timothy Keller wisely points out in his book The Prodigal God, the story is probably better called “The Two Lost Sons” or “The Love of the Father” because the parable actually starts out: “There was a man who had two sons.” (Luke 15:11) Both of these sons are in spiritual peril.
No one doubts that the Father’s love in the story represents the gracious and forgiving love of God. No one doubts that the younger son in the story represents all wayward souls who have indulged in the life of immorality only to come to their spiritual senses upon reaching rock bottom and returning to the open arms of God. However, the misunderstood character of the account is the older brother. Keep in mind, Jesus started teaching these parables on “The Lost” in Luke 15 principally for the benefit of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the super religious (Luke 15:2). They went to worship regularly. They gave large sums of money to the church. They performed all of the worship customs and traditions and ceremonies immaculately. And because they did all of this, they felt that God was indebted to them. Like the older brother in the parable, they believed their Father (i.e. God) owed them good things due to their external faithfulness. Also like the older brother, they were furious that the Father’s love could possibly extend to the prostitutes and tax collectors (i.e. the younger brothers). Now, the only way that the older brother Pharisees and teachers of the law could possibly be upset with God about this is if they didn’t understand that the very love which the Father was showing to the younger brother prostitutes and tax collectors was the same gracious love that saved them too. In other words, they didn’t understand the grace of the gospel because they were too religious.
The fascinating connection in the parable between the younger brother and the older brother is found in what they are both pursuing. Both of them wanted the goods of the father, not the father himself. Yes, the young brother makes this more obvious – he defiantly demands his inheritance early on in life, separating himself from the father for the sake of living how he wants. But the older brother, through his anger, showed what the desire of his heart really was too. He was mad at the father for welcoming the younger brother back into the family and now once again making him an heir in the family. This re-admittance into the family actually came at financial loss to the older brother, since the property that remained of the father’s had been destined for the older son. In other words, welcoming the younger son back into the family required true sacrifice on the part of the older brother. Forgiveness always comes at a cost and it’s the one who is doing the forgiving who has to absorb the loss. So when the Father in this account kills the fattened calf for the younger son and puts the special robe and ring on him, it is legitimately taking money out of the older son’s pocket.
All of this was so offensive to the older brother who felt he deserved so much more for his obedience. But remember, both sons challenged the father. Both sons sought to control the father through their behavior – one bad, one good. Both sons were interested in the father’s inheritance, not the happiness of their father. They’re a lot more alike than they think, and more alike than we initially think.
The scary part is that we’re never told that the older brother went in to the Father’s banquet. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28) While the wild, immoral living was certainly dangerous to the younger son, the moralistic obedience of the older son was just as dangerous, perhaps more so, because unlike the younger son, he appears to be blind to his real spiritual condition.
When you think about the parable in its entirety, noting the personality of the older brother, you begin to better understand the behavior of the younger brother at the outset. While the younger brother’s rebellion and immoral living are certainly not justifiable, you can understand his hatred of home due to the relationship he must have had with his moralistic older brother. Who would want to be in a family where you thought you had to earn love through obedience. It’s hypocrisy to even call that “family.”
Many in the world today have lumped Christianity together with other religions and recognize that the Christian faith has called us away from “younger brother” immoral living, but they often fail to recognize that the Christian faith has also called us away from “older brother” moralistic self-righteousness and judgment. That’s an image, and at times a sad reality, that we as individuals and as a church need to repent of regularly – the idol of religion. The world’s assessment that Christian churches are just “more moralistic religion” is regrettably sometimes fair.
So how do we move beyond the idol of religion? It starts by recognizing the brother we wish existed in the parable.
If you examine all three “lost” parables in Luke 15, you notice that “The Lost Son” is different from the other two in that there is no character in it who goes out and searches for what was lost. By the absence of one seeking the lost brother in this third and final parable, Jesus is teaching something pretty remarkable. He is creating for us a longing for a better older brother. And he’s helping us see that HE is the this better older brother.
Think through the account again. We are lost. God the Father is the Father. If the older brother really loved the young, wayward brother, he would have left the Father’s house and chased after the younger brother, encouraged him to come home and absorbed the financial blow of welcoming the younger brother back into the family. Who does that sound like? Left the comfort of his Father’s home. Check. Pursued the lost brother. Check. Encouraged him to turn away from the lost life and turn back to life with the Father. Check. Paid the cost so that the younger brother could re-enter the family and once again be an heir to the Father’s blessings. Check. This greater older brother that we long for when hearing this parable is an actual reality for us – our Savior Jesus Christ. “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).
To avoid the idol of religion, there are a few things we want to recognize. By nature, we are all lost brothers. In our lives, we struggle with the tendencies of this parable’s lost brothers, sometimes the tendencies of both of them. But the love of the Father extends to us all through the greater older brother Jesus. And through his sacrifice, we have once again become heirs of our heavenly Father – recipients of promised real estate in paradise.
As with the two brothers, the distance from the least of us to the greatest of us is negligible in the conversation of earning the Father’s love (and our salvation). None of us can come close to working our way to God through religion. But we fortunately don’t have to because of our perfect brother Jesus. And that means that we’re all in the same boat. None of us has room for judgment. None of us can point fingers. None of us is proud. All of us are humble because we’re all saved by a generous family member’s gracious gift. No religion. Just the gospel.