Speaking of sibling rivalries, a twin brother says, “I finally realized my father favored my brother over me. It hit me when they asked me to blow up balloons for his surprise birthday party!”
If this parable were a play and we were sitting in the audience watching it for a second time, knowing the older brother is really upset because his father not only welcomed his younger brother home but threw him a party as well, how would we respond when the older brother appears in this final scene? How many of us might have been tempted to boo the older brother’s boorish behavior as he makes his way to center stage? On the other hand, how many of us would tend to sympathize with him?
Could it be that there’s a little of the older brother in all of us?
My premise for today is that, for the same reasons the older brother did, we have this inbred tendency to struggle with the concept of grace. And if we are not careful, that struggle can keep us from living in freedom.
First, we struggle with grace because we can’t quite accept the idea that something as good as grace is free.
Hearing that younger brother had been welcomed home by their father with a party, older brother responds with, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to” (Luke 15:29a).
Like the older brother, many people today labor under the illusion that we must work to earn God’s blessings. Ask the average joe on the street, “How do you get into heaven?” and he will quickly answer, “Be good.”
A Sunday school teacher had been teaching his 7th graders for several weeks about receiving the free gift of God’s grace. “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?”
“NO!” the children all answered.
“Okay, if I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?”
Again, the answer was a resounding, “NO!”
“Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my wife, would that get me into Heaven?”
Again, they all answered, “NO!”
“Well, then he continued, “Then how can I get into Heaven?”
And little Larry shouted out, “YOU GOTTA BE DEAD!”
But you know it is natural for us to believe that if we do all those things that Sunday School teacher mentioned that God will accept us based upon those good deeds. When a person works an eight-hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for his time, we all agree that person has earned a wage. When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his performance, we all understand that he earned that prize. When a person receives appropriate recognition for his long service or high achievements, we all agree that he earned that an award.
But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award, yet receives such a gift anyway, we have a hard time with that. But that’s what we mean when we talk about the grace of God.
Some wise sage wrote, “Justice is when we get what we deserve. Mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve. Grace is when we get what we don’t deserve.”
That’s why for many people grace is not only amazing, it is unbelievable.
Second, like the older brother, we have a tendency to think that grace is not fair.
“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time, you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (Luke 15:29-30).
He’s thinking. ‘He didn’t even have to pay back the money he lost; that’s not fair!’ Sound familiar?
Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat! (Matthew 20:12).
That’s not fair! What employer in his right mind would pay somebody who showed up for the last hour of the day the same as the guy who worked a twelve-hour shift?
I recall wild Bill Blackheart, a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, whiskey-drinking barroom brawler who never once in his 82 years darkened the door of any church. His daughter, one of my parishioners, asked me to visit him on his deathbed. When I asked him if he was prepared to meet his maker, he confidently, almost braggingly, told me in no uncertain terms that he was surely going to hell. But a few moments later when I told him how Jesus promised paradise to a repentant thief being crucified alongside Him, and they too could be accepted by God at the last minute, he began to bawl like a baby as he asked Jesus to forgive him.
And some of us may be thinking, ‘That’s not fair, for 82 years he lived apart from God so he should get what he deserves, and that certainly is not heaven. Especially not at the last minute like that.’
Or how about Ohio born, Samuel Little, 79 years old, who made the news this past week for confessing from his prison cell that he kidnapped, beat and strangled 93 women over a 30 year period. If this week or next, we would see his face in the evening news for having just accepted Christ as His Savior, how many of us would respond by saying something like, ‘No that would not be fair, he made his bed and now let him lie in it; he deserves to rot in hell for what he did.’
But Jesus replied to those workers and us: “Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” (Matthew 20:13-15).
Related to “It’s not fair,” some of us have a hard time with grace because we are worried that grace grants permissiveness.
Though he doesn’t verbalize it, the older brother must be thinking after the way my father is treating my wayward brother, he’s going to think he can get away with it again.
Some of us are worried, that the preaching of grace seems to say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay to do all kinds of terrible things, God’s got you covered.’
D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing their German. He writes:
Once a week or so, we had had enough, so we went out for a meal together and retreated to French, a language we both knew well. In the course of those meals, we got to know each other. I learned that his wife was in London, training to be a medical doctor. He was an engineer who needed fluency in German in order to pursue doctoral studies in engineering in Germany. I soon discovered that once or twice a week he disappeared into the red-light district of town. Obviously he went to pay his money and have his woman. Eventually, I got to know him well enough that I asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’d kill her.’
‘That’s a bit of a double standard, isn’t it?’ I asked.
‘Where I come from, the husband has the right to sleep with many women, but if a wife is unfaithful to her husband she must be killed.’
‘But you told me you were raised in a Christian mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that.’
He gave me a bright smile and replied, “God is good. He’s bound to forgive us; that’s his job.” 1
While we may be worried that grace seemingly gives permission to behave badly, Jesus apparently wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation.
It is not our job to worry about how people will handle God’s grace; that’s God’s prerogative.
All we can do is marvel at the father’s words to his older son:
Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found! (Luke 15:32-32).
I think it worth considering that Kenneth Bailey notes that Jesus doesn’t conclude his story by telling us how the older brother responds. “Jesus is pointedly saying, ‘Your brother awaits you in the banquet, what are you going to do with him and Me?’ And thus, Jesus invites his listeners to provide the ending to the story.” 2
There are really only two endings to this story. The second is the subject of next week’s message. But for today, the message is if you haven’t accepted the grace of God, then this would be a good day. And I close with an illustration that points in that direction.
David Morse, American missionary to India, became best friends there with a pearl-diver, Rambhau. Many an evening he spent in Rambhau’s cabin reading to him from the Bible and explaining to him God’s way of salvation. Rambhau enjoyed listening to the Word of God, but whenever the missionary tried to get Rambhau to accept Christ, he would shake his head and reply, “Your Christian way to heaven is too easy for me! I cannot accept it. If ever I should find admittance to heaven in that manner, I would feel like a beggar who has been let in out of pity. I may be proud, but I want to deserve it, I want to earn my place in heaven and so I am going to work for it.” Nothing the missionary could say would sway Rambhau’s decision.
One evening, Rambhau knocked on Morse’s door. “Could you come to my house, I have something to show you.” As they neared his house, Rambhau said: “In a week’s time I start working for my place in heaven; I am leaving for Delhi, and I am going there on my knees.”
“It’s 900 miles to Delhi, and the skin will break on your knees, and you will have blood-poisoning before you even get to Bombay.”
“No, I must get to Delhi,” affirmed Rambhau, “and the immortals will reward me for it! The suffering will be sweet for it will purchase heaven for me!”
“Rambhau, my friend, you don’t have to do this; Jesus suffered and died to purchase heaven for you!”
“You are my dearest friend on earth, Sahib Morse. Through all these years you have stood by me in sickness, in want. But even you cannot turn me from my desire to earn eternal bliss; I will go to Delhi on my knees!”
Rambhau left the room to return soon with a small but heavy English strongbox. “I have had this box for years, and before I go, I have something for you. I once had a son.”
“A son! Why you have never before said a word about him!”
“No, Sahib, I couldn’t. My son was a diver too; he was the best pearl diver on the coasts of India. He had the swiftest dive, the keenest eye, the strongest arm, the longest breath of any man who ever sought for pearls. My boy always dreamed of finding the ‘perfect’ pearl and one day he found it! But even when he finally spotted it, he had been underwater too long. That pearl cost him his life, for he died soon after.”
The old pearl diver bowed his head. “All these years, I have kept this pearl, but now I am going, not to return, and to you, my best friend I am giving my pearl.”
The missionary looked up quickly with a new thought: Was this not the very opportunity and occasion he had prayed for; to help Rambhau understand the value of Christ’s sacrifice? So he said, “Rambhau, this is a wonderful pearl, an amazing pearl. Let me buy it. I will give you ten thousand dollars for it.”
“Sahib! What do you mean?”
“Okay, I will give you fifteen thousand dollars for it, or if it takes more – I will work for it.”
“Sahib,” this pearl is beyond price. No man in all the world has money enough to pay what it is worth to me. I will not sell it to you; you may only have it as a gift.”
“No, Rambhau, I cannot accept that. As much as I want the pearl, I cannot accept it that way. Perhaps I am proud, but that is too easy. I must pay for it, or work for it.”
The old pearl diver was stunned. “You don’t understand at all, Sahib. Don’t you see; My only son gave his life to get this pearl, and I wouldn’t sell it for any money. Its worth is in the life-blood of my son. I cannot sell this, but I can give it to you. Just accept it in token of the love I bear you.”
Morse gripped the hand of the old man: “Rambhau, don’t you see? My words are just what you have been saying to God all the time.”
The diver looked long and searchingly at the missionary, and slowly, slowly he began to understand.
“God is offering you salvation as a free gift,” said the missionary. “It is so great and priceless that no man on earth can buy it. No man on earth could earn it; no man is good enough to deserve it. For it cost God the life-blood of His only Son. In a million years, in a hundred pilgrimages, you could not earn it. All you can do is to accept it as a token of God’s love for you – a sinner.
“Rambhau, of course, I will accept the pearl in deep humility, praying to God that I may be worthy of your love. But won’t you accept God’s great gift of heaven, too, in deep humility, knowing it cost Him the death of His Son to offer it to you?”
Great tears were now rolling down the cheeks of the old man. The veil was beginning to lift. “Sahib, I see it now; now I understand. Some things are too priceless to be bought or earned. Sahib, I will accept His salvation!” 3
1 D. A. Carson, “God’s Love and God’s Wrath,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October 1999),
p. 387; submitted by Aaron Goerner, New Hartford,
2 Bailey, Kenneth. Jacob and the Prodigal. [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, © 2003]. Page 115.
3 Stories for the Faithful Heart. Compiled by Alice Gray. [Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Publishers, © 2000]. Page 121. Author Unknown.