Sinner or Pharisee?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Which son are you? Are you the sinner or the Pharisee? It’s a simple question, and your past and present testify for you. Those who lean toward the sins of the younger son are those who say, “I am going to enjoy life, even when it means departing from God’s Word to enjoy it.” That may mean indulging in all sorts of sins which bring us sinful delight, comfort, or security. It may mean despising the Sacraments for things you would rather be doing. It won’t feel all that bad, and you’ll get the praise of friends and the world. That's a good feeling.
The sins of the older brother are attractive to others. These are the sins of pride and contempt. For many, it is a constant temptation to measure their Christian life by the good that they do, by the offerings they give, by the sins from which they abstain. We all ought to do good things; but pride eventually leads to contempt for those who do not do as much, and a feeling of self-righteousness that sees no need for Christ. That won’t feel bad, either, as you get praise of other law-and-order types, and you'll even be held up as an example of one who works hard in service to others. That’s a good feeling, too.
But note this truth about both kinds of sinners: they are both outside of the Father's house. They are both outside the Father's care. Neither of them is open to the Father's love. If you pursue the sins of the younger son and delight in all sorts of pleasures, you will only say, “I have sinned too much to be forgiven. God couldn’t possibly still love me and forgive me.” And that sin is far worse than all the others that got you there, because it accuses God of not keeping His promises. It accuses Jesus of not having died for all of your sins. That is what keeps you out of the house: it is simply that you do not believe that Christ would for give you.
If you pursue the sins of the older brother, pride and self-righteousness will gradually wear away your faith, too. Despair will not be your fatal temptation, but vanity. You will say, “I am not afraid of death, for I have lived a good enough life for God to welcome me in.” But that calls God a liar: you deny your sin, and you deny that you needed Christ to die for your sin. Just like the parable, sinners run away from the Father, and Pharisees don’t want to go into the house on the father's terms, especially if He's letting sinners in. Jesus warns against the sin of believing that God loves you because of the good work you do. If you believe that God loves you because of the good work you do, then when you do sin, you will believe that God doesn’t love you; and when you manage to keep the Law least on the outside, you’ll believe that God loves you more than He did before. If you believe any of that, you deny the Gospel.
The truth is, God doesn't love you because of the good work you do. God loves you because of the good work that Christ has done. Christ has borne your sin to the cross. On the cross, God declared His Son to be the unworthy sinner and damned Him for your sin. On the cross, God the Father forsook His Son, who was taking your place when He was forsaken. Because the Son has suffered God's wrath for your sin, God the Father is now your loving Father, the one you see in the parable. He runs to you in His Word and Sacraments. He runs to you! You honestly confess, “I am not worthy to be called your son,” and He cuts you off right there. He clothes you in the best robe, the spotless baptismal robe of Christ’s righteousness. Rather than count against you His gifts you have wasted, He declares to you, “You are always with Me, and all that is Mine is yours.” The kingdom of heaven is yours, for you are God’s beloved, baptized child. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.