Younger Son: Worldly Sinner
The younger son got tired of the routine at home. The thought of “being my own boss” without restrictions appealed to him. He claimed his rights and set out to seek pleasure and fulfillment. His attitude is a sad but true picture of the human heart. By nature we’re self-centered. We don’t like to be told what to do.
Seldom do pleasures live up to our expectations. When the excitement wears off we again become aware of our thirst. Like the younger son, we run after another experience. Some embrace this shallow existence and live it until they die. In this parable the younger son finally awakens in the middle of a serious crisis – he’s bankrupt, lonely and hungry. Again we see a real picture of our human heart that needs a crisis to wake up. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father” (Lk. 15:17-20).
Has the Lord allowed some crisis in your life? Are you feeling your emptiness, your sinfulness? Conversion is more than repeating a “prayer of faith.” True conversion starts with a sense of desperation. We are convinced that we are sinners and that we have offended the Holy God! This leads to repentance. Like the younger son we turn, confess our guilt and throw ourselves into the Father’s arms for mercy. And only then do we experience what this young man discovered: that the father is not angry, although He has every right to be. The father calls out: “‘Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (15:23-24).
Note that the repentant son returned alone. He did not walk home with his prostitute friends or some of the pigs. He did not seek to negotiate or set any preconditions for returning to the father’s house. True repentance leads to brokenness and humility. In time it will naturally show itself in a changed life.
Older Son: Religious Sinner
When Jesus told this parable, the older son represented the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He was busy working in the father’s field. Today he might represent the religious, those trying to do things for God and their fellow believers. Of course it’s positive that he was busy in the father’s field. But like his younger brother, he also had a serious problem: his heart was not right. The older son worked for the wrong reason, compared himself with others, and had an over-optimistic view of how well he was doing: “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” (15:29). Although this son lived near his father, he did not share the father’s heart. His dream was to celebrate with his “friends” and not his father. When his father was happy and rejoicing, the older son was bitter and angry. This is a sad picture of Christianity without grace. Do we rejoice when our heavenly Father rejoices? Always?
Our religious heart is deceitful. The fact that we work hard in the Father’s field – restricting our freedom and making sacrifices – sedates our conscience. We begin to feel that the Father should love us more than those who don’t work so hard. We might even be a little critical of those who are more relaxed or who work in a different way. As the years go by, we begin to think we know how things should be run. For the benefit of the Father and the field, we make a few “rules” for those around us. We make the Father look stricter than He really is, and soon we find ourselves not rejoicing when the Father rejoices!
Why did the older son refuse to enter the house and celebrate with his brother and father? Because he wanted justice, not grace. The younger son should be punished before being re-admitted. He should not be trusted until he showed fruit of repentance. To join the celebration would send the wrong message to his younger brother. He would be associating with what he judged to be unrighteous. Even the father’s pleading didn’t change his mind. Those who have no immediate need for God’s grace interpret the father’s actions wrongly. It looks too cheap, too easy. When we disagree with the way God works, it’s difficult to share in His joy when someone repents, asks for forgiveness and expresses his desire to be received.
I have learned that our Father showers His blessings on many persons, projects, situations – even on those He might not fully agree with! If He waited for perfection before blessing, He’d never bless any of us! Our Father knows when our heart is right. His grace is such that He not only blesses, but also celebrates even when there is still plenty of room for improvement! “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (15:32). This is not complacency. We want to be Bible based, holy and obedient Christians. But don’t let what’s missing stop you from celebrating what the Lord is doing. Join your Father and learn to rejoice, even when you see shortcomings and potential difficulties.
Salvation is a gift. When we repent and give our lives to the Lord, we are forgiven and immediately become children of God. We cannot contribute towards this salvation with our works; we humbly believe and receive. But after our conversion there is work to be done! “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard’” (21:28). This call was based on a relationship – a father asking a son. It was an order and not a suggestion. It involved work and it had a degree of urgency – “today.” The lessons of this parable are applicable to every Christian today.
First Son: Working Christian
How did the first son respond to the father’s call? “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went” (21:29). What possible reasons could this son have to refuse? Why do we sometimes refuse to do the Lord’s work?
- Authority: He didn’t like anyone telling him what to do. He had his own ideas.
- Task: He didn’t like to work in vineyards. He’d prefer a more respectable job.
- Relationship: Perhaps he didn’t get on well with his father, and without fellowship there is no desire to obey.
- Agenda: He was too busy to work in his father’s vineyard.
- Fellow workers: He didn’t like the others who worked in the vineyard.
- Doubts: Could his father’s words have a hidden meaning?
Whatever his reason, he said “no” and walked away. As he passed the vineyard and saw the great need for workers and the disappointment in his father’s eyes, he reconsidered. We are told that “later” he changed his mind and went.
Have you been resisting a call to work on some aspect of our Father’s vineyard? Is He calling you to help in a summer camp, to distribute gospel literature or to visit a new neighbor? Christian service involves obedience, a denying of our own tastes, ideas and opinions. When we hear our Father saying “Son, go” we should go. When He says “Work … in the vineyard” we should say “Yes, Lord.” And when He says “today,” we should stop dreaming about the future and act!
Second Son: Talking Christian
That father went to the second son with the same request. The son’s initial response must have been a joy to his father: “‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go” (21:30). Can you see the father’s smile turn to disappointment as the day went by?
The behavior of this second son speaks of spontaneous, impulsive Christians; to be more realistic, it speaks of us when we rapidly say “yes” to a call to serve but never seem to get around to actually doing it. Perhaps you recall those emotionally charged moments when you sang a sincere promise to obey and follow Him wherever, at whatever price, until the end of your life! Why did the second son say “yes” but then not turn up? Consider some possibilities:
- Sincerity: He said yes to keep his father happy, but he didn’t really mean it.
- Image: He said yes so that those who were listening would think he was an obedient and cooperative son.
- Sacrifice: He initially thought it was going to be an easy job, but when he saw that the task was hard, he changed his mind.
- Social: He later heard that his other brother was not going. Without him, the work would not be much fun. So he decided not to go.
- Justice: It would not be fair for him to work without his brother working.
Can you identify with any of these reasons? It is worth noting that unlike the first son, we are not told that the second son regretted, repented or changed his mind (21:29). We are only told that he did not go (21:30). If this omission is significant, then some reasons for not going to the vineyard could have been:
- Priorities: He was a busy man. He tried to do other good jobs on the way to the vineyard and then ran out of time or energy.
- Timing: Perhaps he waited for the threat of rain to pass. The ideal moment never arrived, but he still seriously considered helping later.
- Forgetfulness: He got distracted and forgot about his father and the vineyard.
- Consistency: Like most of us, he honestly meant to do what he said he was going to do. It is always easier to talk than to work.
Perhaps these are the same reasons which keep us from obeying our Father’s call to work in His vineyard. Turning to the chief priests and the elders of the people, Jesus asked them: “‘Which of the two did what his father wanted?’ ‘The first,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you’” (21:31). At the judgment seat of Christ each of us will “receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). If you’re still alive, there’s still work to do in His vineyard. What could you do today?
Do You Identify?
These two parables are each about two sons with similar opportunities reacting in different ways. One, with a humble heart, enjoys his father’s forgiveness and goodness. The other, with a self-righteous heart, protests against his father’s expression of grace. One, after some reflection, ends up working in his father’s vineyard. The other is still waiting for the right moment to go!
Do you identify with any of these four? If you are a child of God, His call is also for you: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org