[This is a staff devotion I shared at Nairobi Chapel in November 2015]
As we begin, I have a question for you. What is your favorite fairy tale, or bedtime story, and why?
Stories are powerful. They communicate in a way that is different from just listing facts or giving information. Part of the reason for that is that we tend to participate in a story in an active way. Some of you may know that we’re expecting a baby girl this month, so we’ve been very excited about that. I imagine after she’s born, and when I’m telling her a story, for example I’m telling her the story of Cinderella. As I’m telling her that story, what is she doing? She’s not just listening, but she’s actually imagining herself as part of the story. As I describe going off to the ball, and meeting the prince, and dancing, she’s imagining herself as the princess, and how it would feel to do all of those things. That is why these stories are so popular, and keep being told generation after generation.
When we hear a story, we participate in a selective way, and we almost always imagine ourselves as the hero, not the villain. When I grew up and I watched movies like Indiana Jones, I’m not the Nazis or the other bad guys, I’m Indiana Jones, I’m the who finds the treasure and defeats everyone else and gets the girl. That’s how we participate in stories, and that’s why we love a story where the hero wins in the end.
We do the same thing when we read stories in the Bible. We almost always choose a character in a story to relate with, often automatically without thinking very much about it. When we read about David and Goliath, how many of you imagine yourself as Goliath? How many of you feel sorry for him when he dies? No, all of us want to be David, we all want to win.
Please turn with me to Luke 15. I’m going to read this passage that is familiar to all of us.
[NIV] 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
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!’
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.’”
Now as I read this story, which character in the story do you identify the most with? Who is the hero of this story? For many of us, we see this story in a particular way: we see ourselves as the prodigal son, God is the father, and this story is a celebration of our salvation. For some of us, this is very true, and this story is a wonderful story of redemption. I know some of us have powerful testimonies of what Jesus has saved us from, and the transformation we have experienced.
However, I believe that for many of us, we are misreading this story. For many of us, we are relating with the wrong character. We are missing a huge part of this story. Let me illustrate this by relating the story in a Nairobi Chapel context.
Retelling the story in our context
I am working in the Oversight department and one of my colleagues is struggling at work and with his faith. He becomes unreliable, and once he even shows up for work drunk. He is put on probation, and warned that he needs to shape up. Then one day he disappears, along with a significant amount of money. We don’t hear anything from him for six months, and then one day he shows up.
He meets with the executive pastors and explains that he had spent the last several months at the coast, spending money, partying, until he came to the realization that God still loves him, but that he was wasting his life. He had a tremendous experience with God, and has seen God working in his life. He knew that what he did at Chapel was wrong, and decided to come to make things right. He says I know I don’t deserve to be an employee, but I am willing to work with no pay until I have repaid the money I stole. But the pastors decide that he has changed and deserves a second chance, and he is given a new department to lead to help those struggling with addictions and other personal challenges.
A few months later we hold an employee awards dinner, and I go in with high hopes of being recognized for my outside work and dedication that year. We come to the main event, the employee of the year. They announce that out of all the candidates, this guy who has come back and rejoined the team has demonstrated the best service, and is the employee of the year. I become so angry that I storm out of the tent, and I go outside. One of the executive pastors notices this and came to find out what is wrong. I am so upset that it is difficult for me to speak, but eventually I say, ‘You know what – this is not fair! I am have been working here faithfully this whole time, coming to work on time, getting my reports done, and doing everything I am assigned to do. How is this failure given any kind of award?!? He shouldn’t even be serving here, but he should be back where he came from, paying back for his sins. I don’t even know if I can work at an organization that rewards and tolerates this kind of behavior. Maybe I should leave and serve elsewhere where my work is appreciated.
The pastor replies, what are you talking about? We know that you are reliable and trustworthy, and that is why you have the responsibilities and the position that you have. We know this guy has really struggled, but what we are celebrating today is his redemption and transformation. His story doesn’t happen every day.
Who am I in this story? I’m not the prodigal son. I never left and did any crazy things. No, I’m the one who stayed the whole time. I’m the older brother. For me personally, I don’t have a very dramatic testimony. When we talked about sharing our story for Inje, with your life before Christ, how you met Christ, and then your life after, I don’t have much to say about my life before Christ, because I have been a Christian my entire life. But if that becomes what defines me and what I rely on, I can be as far away from God as someone who has never even accepted Jesus.
In many ways, it would be crazy for Nairobi Chapel to do what I described in my story. It would be reckless, risky, and inadvisable to allow someone with that kind of recent experience such responsibility. But that’s exactly what God does with us. God gives us responsibilities that none of us deserve to have.
Prodigal definition. You probably assume that prodigal means wayward, sinful, and disobedient. But it doesn’t. It means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” It means “having or giving something on a lavish scale.” In this story, it describes the son, but it equally describes the father. That’s why Timothy Keller calls his book The Prodigal God, but just as the son was reckless with his money, so the father was reckless in celebrating the son’s return, and so God is reckless in celebrating our redemption.
When I look around this tent, I don’t see the prodigal son. I don’t see a group of failed, miserable, outcast and morally compromised people. I don’t see the tax collectors and prostitutes of Nairobi here. I see respectable, upright, moral people. I don’t see the prodigal son here, I see the older brother. Now I know that some of us have had prodigal son experiences, some of us have been alcoholics, and some of us have overcome other significant failures in our past. But for most of us, that is not what describes us now, in this moment. Most of us are well respected and well thought of.
Two Lost Sons. Calling this story the prodigal son is somewhat misleading, because the point of this story is actually that both sons are lost, just in different ways. In his book, Timothy Keller calls this story the parable of the two lost sons. Why is Jesus telling this story? Look at the beginning of chapter 15. 1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to this comment, Jesus tells three stories, ending with this story. This story is directed straight to them, to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, pointing out that they were unable to celebrate the redemption of those who were lost. These stories are a defense and explanation of the ministry style and ministry focus of Jesus. And this story is also directed to us, as the religious leaders of our day. We are in great danger of doing the same thing. I have two related points I want you to remember.
Never let your desire for justice overcome your sense of mercy.
Never let pride quench your joy of salvation.
Danger of pride. For us who are here now in this space, I would argue that our greatest temptation is not drunkenness, theft, murder, even adultery. Those can be temptations to some extent, but they are not our greatest dangers. No, the great danger for us is pride, especially since that is a sin that is rarely discussed in d-groups, or e-groups, or other accountability spaces. How many of you were asked about pride in your last evaluation? I know that wasn’t something I was asked. For most of us, as long as we are doing our job and meeting our goals, pride isn’t a big concern. But pride can be the worst possible thing to ever happen to us, and it can rot your very soul from the inside.
Danger of working in church. I believe there are some of us here for whom working in church is the worst thing that has ever happened to your walk with God. Every since achievement you have, every victory you attain, every objective you meet you become more and more confident in yourself and further and further from God. That is what happened to the older brother. The older brother wasn’t even able to see the prodigal son as his brother, but calls him ‘this son of yours’ when he is talking to his father. His relationality ability has been killed and warped by his many years of working for his father, and his ceaseless obedience to the rules that were set out for him.
Pastor Example. A few years ago a prominent pastor in the US had to step down from ministry, and I’d like to read the statement his church put out. They said he had been “at times, been guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner. While we believe he needs to continue to address these areas in his life, we do not believe him to be disqualified from pastoral ministry. He has never been charged with any immorality, illegality or heresy. Most of the charges involved attitudes and behaviors reflected by a domineering style of leadership.” The interesting point here is that arrogance and pride have been separated from morality, as through morality is only concerning your sexual life. This is completely untrue! Pride is the heart of immorality. C.S. Lewis once said that the fountainhead to all vice is pride. Every other sin is a mere expression, a symptom of pride.
Pride can cut families apart and destroy relationships. Look at the other two stories in chapter 15. The first is about a shepherd who lost a sheep, and left the 99 to look for the 1 until he found it. Then there is a lady who lost a coin, and searches her house until she finds it. Then Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son, or the two lost sons. Each of these three stories has something lost, something found, and a celebration. But our story has something missing. In the first two stories, someone goes to search for what is lost, and does not give up until it is found. But in this story, no one goes to look for the prodigal son. Who in our story would be expected to do that? It is the older brother. That’s what older brothers do, is look out for their lost and wayward younger brothers. Cain was supposed to be Abel’s keeper, to take care of him as a good older brother. But the older brother’s pride and desire for status and achievement prevent him from doing that, and he would rather have his younger brother lost forever than to welcome him back to the house.
We have a lot of younger brothers to take of. We have a lot of younger brothers in our congregation, in our families, and in our neighborhoods. We have the responsibility of seeking them out, and doing all that we can to bring them back to the Father. With God’s help, many of them are actually more than willing to come, they just don’t believe that they will ever be allowed back inside. But that is the very heart of the gospel, that no one is turned away, and everyone is welcome inside.
Jesus is making a crazy statement in this story. He is saying that working for God faithfully can separate you from fellowship with God. It can destroy your relationship and intimacy with God. We all know that squandering money and living an immoral life can separate us from God. We are all on guard against that sin. But how many of us are aware that serving God religiously and faithfully can be just as damaging to our souls?
How does this story end? You might have noticed that this story doesn’t have an ending. It closes with the Father and the older brother standing outside. If you are the older brother, you can choose how you would like the story to end. You can choose to resist the temptation of pride and status and come inside, to rejoin the feast. You can come back to God, but it means giving up your status of self-reliance, and being good enough on your own. It means you have to be willing to be in fellowship with people who don’t keep the rules, people who are very lost and very broken. But God is still willing to allow us back inside, just the same as he welcomed back the younger brother.
Never let your desire for justice overcome your sense of mercy.
Never let pride quench your joy of salvation.