The legalist that is in all of us believes that we have to earn God’s favor. We might never say it out loud, but our tendency is to feel like this. The two sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son also had that mentality.
The first son, the Bible says, went to a far land in a distant province and there squandered his money on wild living.1 A while later, while he was feeding pigs, he reflected on his sad state, the result of his own choices. He came to the logical conclusion that he did not deserve anything from his father. He had wasted all his opportunities and had done it knowingly. He had nothing to offer. If he had a little money, he might have been able to invest it and go home with as much or more than he had when he left. Sure, his life had been shameful in every way, but at least he would not return home empty handed.
So he figured that he had forever lost his privileged position as a son. He decided to ask his father for a job, the only possibility left for someone who had been such an idiot for so long a time, someone who had “spent everything”.2 Even so, it was not a sure thing that his father would give him a job. He had been so irresponsible that he did not deserve anyone’s trust at all.
The other son reacted when he saw his father extend unmerited grace. (Yeah, yeah, I know that grace is unmerited favor, but this is unmerited grace!) Grace is only given to those who do not deserve it.
The legalistic mindset made the older brother react against that unmerited grace that his father showed. He saw an extraordinary love and forgiveness and he was offended. He had worked there for a lot of years and had “never disobeyed”. He now reproached his Father saying “you have never even given me a kid goat to have a party with my friends. Then this jerk of a kid of yours who has wasted all your hard-earned money on harlots comes home and you don’t kill a goat, you kill the fatted calf!”3He didn’t want to see a party. He wanted to see punishment.
He felt that he deserved the blessings of his father more than his brother because he had “never disobeyed”. He was a better son. The other had been despicable and spent half of the estate on prostitutes. It would have been incredible grace to let him back into the family, but to also throw him a party was way overboard.
The father’s answer to the older son shows us both the heart of the father as well as the error of the son. The elder son’s way of thinking (and it is our way of thinking, too) was wrong. He did not have to earn the right to have a party with his friends. He could have any party he wanted. He not only could have killed the fatted calf for his party and his friends, he could have killed off the whole herd for it was his. We do not have to earn that which is already ours by birthright. We are sons and daughters.
Let us get rid of this legalistic mindset. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make Him love us less. He is not interested in the kind of relationship that depends on our behavior. (Our behavior, even on our very best day, would not cut it.) We are His children. He loves us just as we are. He has given everything to us, not because we have been so exemplary, but because we are His children and He loves us.
So, let’s love Him back. Let’s not be motivated by what we can get out of the relationship with Him. Let our desire be to see Him smile, to make Him happy, because we love Him.
1- Luke 15:13 2- Luke 15:14 3- Luke 15:29, 30