'What is the rump about?' , he asked. He was told that they were discussing Christianity's unique contribution to world religions. In a forthright manner, Lewis responded, 'oh, that is easy. It's grace.'
Grace is God's free, unmerited and undeserved favour. Grace is what the younger son experienced when the father ran to him, embraced him, and forgave him. The party that was being held was a celebration of grace. The father had amazed the village by showing extra-ordinary forgiveness to the younger wayward son. But not everyone was happy about grace.
There were two sons. For the older son grace was not amazing it was infuriating. As we will see this son was every bit as lost as his younger brother had been.
1. Good people are enemies of the gospel
Remember who Jesus is telling this parable to. He is speaking to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They had been scandalised by Jesus. Jesus associated with tax collectors and 'sinners'. He even ate with them, which was a sign of friendship and acceptance in that culture. So Jesus tells the story of two sons and the most wonderful father.
The younger son clearly represents the broken and failed people that were attracted to Jesus' message of forgiveness and mercy. They knew their need and had been thrilled to realise that God was longing to embrace them. The older son represents Jesus' religious critics. These men didn't want to face their desperate need of God's forgiveness and mercy. Like so many people they wanted God to accept them on the basis of their good deeds. This is simply called pride. How arrogant to think that a perfectly holy God could accept us on the basis of who we are and what we have done. How arrogant to fail to see our desperate need of a Saviour. How arrogant to think that we are above God's offer of amazing grace.
Some people do not come to God's party of grace because they think that they are so bad that a holy God could never forgive them. They need to be told that they are even worse than they imagine but that God forgives the worst of offenders. Other people stay out of God's party of grace because they don't think that they are bad enough to be utterly dependant on the mercy and grace of God. They protest, 'don't call me a sinner, I am a good person.' It is pride that takes them to hell. As one preacher loved to point out, 'good people are enemies of the gospel.'
2. The gospel is a message of peace
The family was clearly wealthy. They had a fattened-calf waiting for the appropriate banquet. Their home was large enough to host the crowd who would eat the fattened-calf. The father had robes and hired workers. This means that the older son was not in the fields slaving. He was a man of standing in charge of other workers. He would have been seated respectably in the shade supervising the labourers. The day was over and he was on his way back to the home.
He hears the music and asks what is going on. The text allows the object of his enquiry be either a servant or young boy. Given that the servants would have been helping with the party it seems more likely that he enquired of one of the young lad's hanging about (also a servant might have been expected to say 'my master' rather than 'your father'). He was told that his father was getting ready to eat with his younger wayward brother. The father was doing the same thing that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were criticising Jesus for doing - he was forgiving and accepting people who had morally failed.
The young lad tells the older son, 'your brother has come/returned/arrived.' The verb is the same one that is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, to translate the rich Hebrew word 'shalom' (peace). 'Your dad has been reconciled to your younger brother and made peace with him. He has been restored.'
Billy Graham wrote a book entitled 'Peace with God.' This is the gospel. Our sin is so serious that nothing less than the death of God's own son could bring us peace with God, and God has done just what was needed. Because of the cross of Christ sinful rebels can experience forgiveness. Because of the cross of Christ enemies of God are accepted into his family. Because of he cross of Christ the morally bankrupt are dressed in the robes of Christ's righteousness.
3. The gospel calls us to joyous
In that culture the eldest brother would have been expected to serve the guests. The elder brother would have to act as head waiter. This custom was designed to compliment the guests by saying, 'you, our guests, are so important that our son is your servant?' But he couldn't bring himself to serve at a party for his brother. People who don't get grace aren't willing to serve undeserving people. They think people should only get what they deserve. Jesus called us to be the servant of all (Mark 9:35).
The eldest brother publicly insults his father by refusing to come in and preform his duties. In that culture nothing was considered worse than shaming someone. Everyone at the banquet would have felt tense when they realise what this son was doing. They would have assumed that the older son should be ignored until the guests are gone and then dealt with very harshly. People who don't get grace think that people should get what they deserve but the elder son failed to see that he deserved the father's punishment.
Think of those that Jesus was telling this parable to: the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They did not see how dreadful a thing it is to oppose God the Son, criticise his actions, and argue against his message of grace. Proud people don't want to face the truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
For the second time that day the father shows the most incredible grace. He goes out to plead with this lost elder son. Ken Bailey writes, 'it is almost impossible to convey the shock that must have reverberated through the banquet hall when the father deliberately left his guests, humiliated himself before all, and went out in the courtyard to reconcile his older son.' Onlookers, including the gang of slagging young lads, would have gathered to watch. the whole thing is humiliating to the father. But he does not go out to threaten the son or punish the son, he goes out to beseech the son. We have been given a similar ministry: we are to beseech people on behalf of Christ, 'be reconciled to God' (2 Corinthians 5:20).
It is noteworthy that this son further insults the father. He deliberately omits the father's title. He does not address him as 'father' as he begins his complaint. 'All these years I have I have served you ...' There is no sense of joy or privilege, just a striving to earn what he thinks his good deeds deserve. He has not acted like a loved son but a resentful slave. He has failed to see the loving-heart of the father. People who don't understand grace thinks that God owes them.
Finally, note his attitude towards his brother. He does not say, 'my brother' but 'this son of yours.' He has an attitude of contempt towards the forgiven son and the father who made peace with him. 'Who has devoured your property with prostitutes.' Who told the older brother anything about prostitutes? It was hardly like the son was writing home telling them what he was up to. Maybe this is what the older brother would have liked to do if he had gone off to a foreign land. Love hopes all things; it does not speculate about the awful things a person might be doing; it is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. But graceless people assume the worst.
God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
Have we ever been proud or arrogant? Have we resisted thinking of ourselves as morally bankrupt? Have we boasted about good things we have done? Have we thought ourselves better than others? Have we ever failed to accept God's forgiven people? Have we refused to serve one another? Have we resented God's lavish kindness to others? Have we let our Christianity be obligation and chore rather than privilege and delight? Have been more concerned with what people think of our actions rather than what God thinks of our hearts? Have we failed to be thankful for grace? Have we forgotten that God has not treated us as we deserve (thank God)? Have we not hoped all things but assumed the worst of others? There is more than a little of the elder brother in us.
But the amazing father loved the elder brother. He addresses him as 'son', using a special word that indicated love and affection. Even though this son insulted his grace and humiliated him in public. Similarly, Jesus looks at his Pharisee and teacher of the law critics and speaks to them of the father's grace. The story is left unfinished. It ends leaving us wondering whether the elder son will listen to his father's plea and join the party. What will the Pharisees and teachers of the law do? Will they see their need of grace and come into a real relationship with our Heavenly Father? Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. Will the critics of grace come and join the party?