The prodigal son trudges up the path. His pig stink makes passersby walk wide circles around him, but he doesn’t notice. With eyes on the ground, he rehearses his speech: “Father”—his voice barely audible—“I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” He rehashes the phrases, wondering if he should say more, less, or make a U-turn to the barnyard. After all, he cashed in the trust fund and trashed the family name. Over the last year, he’d awakened with more parched throats, headaches, women, and tattoos than a rock star. How could his father forgive him? Maybe I could offer to pay off the credit cards. He’s so focused on penance planning that he fails to hear the sound of his father…running!
The dad embraces the mud-layered boy as if he were a returning war hero. He commands the servants to bring a robe, ring, and sandals, as if to say, “No boy of mine is going to look like a pigpen peasant. Fire up the grill. Bring on the drinks. It’s time for a party!”
Big brother meanwhile stands on the porch and sulks. “No one ever gave me a party,” he mumbles, arms crossed.
The father tries to explain, but the jealous son won’t listen. He huffs and shrugs and grumbles something about cheap grace, saddles his high horse, and rides off. But you knew that. You’ve read the parable of the gracious father and the hostile brother (see Luke 15:11–32).
But have you heard what happened next? Have you read the second chapter? It’s a page-turner. The older brother resolves to rain on the forgiveness parade. If Dad won’t exact justice on the boy, I will.
“Nice robe there, little brother,” he tells him one day. “Better keep it clean. One spot and Dad will send you to the cleaners with it.”
The younger waves him away, but the next time he sees his father, he quickly checks his robe for stains.
A few days later big brother warns about the ring. “Quite a piece of jewelry Dad gave you. He prefers that you wear it on the thumb.”
“The thumb? He didn’t tell me that.”
“Some things we’re just supposed to know.”
“But it won’t fit my thumb.”
“What’s your goal—pleasing our father or your own personal comfort?” the spirituality monitor gibes, walking away.
Big brother isn’t finished. With the pleasantness of a dyspeptic IRS auditor, he taunts, “If Dad sees you with loose laces, he’ll take the sandals back.”
“He will not. They were a gift. He wouldn’t…would he?” The ex-prodigal then leans over to snug the strings. As he does, he spots a smudge on his robe. Trying to rub it off, he realizes the ring is on a finger, not his thumb. That’s when he hears his father’s voice. “Hello, Son.”
There the boy sits, wearing a spotted robe, loose laces, and a misplaced ring. Overcome with fear, he reacts with a “Sorry, Dad” and turns and runs.
Too many tasks. Keeping the robe spotless, the ring positioned, the sandals snug—who could meet such standards? Gift preservation begins to wear on the young man. He avoids the father he feels he can’t please. He quits wearing the gifts he can’t maintain. And he even begins longing for the simpler days of the pigpen. “No one hounded me there.”
That’s the rest of the story. Wondering where I found it? On page 1,892 of my Bible, in the book of Galatians. Thanks to some legalistic big brothers, Paul’s readers had gone from grace receiving to law keeping.
I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who in his love and mercy called you to share the eternal life he gives through Christ. You are already following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who twist and change the truth concerning Christ.… (Gal. 1:6–7)
Joy snatchers infiltrated the Roman church as well. Paul had to remind them, “But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work” (Rom. 4:5).
Philippian Christians heard the same foolishness. Big brothers weren’t telling them to wear a ring on their thumb, but they were insisting “you must be circumcised to be saved” (Phil. 3:2).
Even the Jerusalem church, the flagship congregation, heard the solemn monotones of the Quality Control Board. Non-Jewish believers were being told, “You cannot be saved if you are not circumcised as Moses taught us” (Acts 15:1 NCV)
The churches suffered from the same malady: grace blockage. The Father might let you in the gate, but you have to earn your place at the table. God makes the down payment on your redemption, but you pay the monthly installments. Heaven gives the boat, but you have to row it if you ever want to see the other shore.
Your deeds don’t save you. And ychromour deeds don’t keep you saved. Grace does. The next time big brother starts dispensing more snarls than twin Dobermans, loosen your sandals, set your ring on your finger, and quote the apostle of grace who said, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10 NKJV)