Who is easier to get into heaven – a good person or a bad person?
That was my opening line for a talk given recently. The occasion was a lunchtime concert held at my church. We were halfway through a recital of Gilbert and Sullivan’s finest and I was given 5 minutes to speak.
I left the question hanging in the air and then answered it: “Obviously a bad person. It’s easier to get a bad person into heaven than a good person. And if you want proof you only need to read Jesus’ most famous parable – the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). There a father has two boys, a baddy and a goody. And who ends up at the final feast (which represents heaven)? Who receives the forgiveness and welcome of the father? The bad son. And who is left outside the feast, furious and refusing to go in? The good son. So there you are! Proof that it’s easier to get a bad person into heaven than a good person.”
Imagine their faces. Cultured people. Well, fans of light operetta anyway! They were expecting a few moral epithets, some mildly interesting cultural observations. And there I was shutting the gates of heaven in the faces of “good people.”
One woman piped up with great indignation: “I suppose we should all become bad then!” It echoed around the church. I had expected some kind of response. I wasn’t expecting heckling. But that’s what happens when the message of Jesus goes out.
As we saw last time, this parable, usually known as “the prodigal son”, actually concerns two sons. And it mirrors the way the world is divided into sinners and slaves. When we see the younger and elder sons relating to their father we are watching how the un-righteous and the self-righteous relate to Jesus. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, and the self-righteous are livid. They get so mad they even start doing things respectable people don’t do – like yelling in church.
So how do we respond? Well here’s what I said to the woman: “We don’t have to become bad do we? If we follow the story of the younger son we can all see our own sin in his.”
See if you can’t identify with the younger son as Jesus tells the story:
“And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” (Luke 15:12)
“Dear Dad, You know all that money I’m getting when you die. You seem to be taking your time. Frankly I can’t stand it any longer. Must I put up with another day in which I endure the presence of you and the absence of my inheritance? I’d like it the other way around. I wish you were dead. Give me the fruits of your death now. I want your things so I can get as far away from you as I possibly can.”
That is the essence of the younger son’s request. And it makes us realise – the younger son is not “a rough diamond”, he is not “a loveable rogue”. He is scum. Especially when you realise the generosity and love of his father. This sinner is appalling. But then, we must hold up the mirror to ourselves for a second.
Isn’t this exactly what you and I have said to the Lord of heaven?
“Dear Lord, I quite enjoy your stuff, I don’t want you. I’ll take your blessings, I don’t want your presence. Give me your things, but I don’t want a relationship.” This is the default mode of the human heart.
As I said to the heckler, it’s not a case of “becoming” bad. We only need to realise that we are bad. We have all said to the Lord “I want your things, I don’t want you.” The difference is, this boy is bold enough to voice it. Slaves would never say it out loud. The older brother would never be so brazen. But notice what happens in verse 12:
“And [the father] divided unto them his living.”
The older brother also takes the father’s things. He didn’t come out and ask for them, but he takes them nonetheless. And, as we’ll see, the older brother also has a disastrous relationship with the father. Neither sinners nor slaves want the Lord, they only want to use the Lord. The sinners take His blessings and run to “the far country.” The slaves take His blessings and build their reputation in “the field.” But both of them are bad sons. Both need to be reconciled to the father.
But did you notice what kind of father he is? In stark contrast to his grasping children, he is incredibly generous. He gives his ungrateful children what they want. He agrees to the younger son’s demand and hands him over to his wicked and foolish desires. It breaks apart “his living” – it tears open his very life – but that is the kind of father he is.
What will the younger son do with the money?
“And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.” (Luke 15:13-16)
It’s a familiar story isn’t it? This sinner tries to throw off the shackles but he gets mired even deeper. He goes for riches, he ends up broke. He goes for freedom, he ends up enslaved. He goes for feasting, he ends up starving. He goes for “riotous living”, he ends up in a pig sty.
If the “far country” is beckoning you, look carefully at this story. “The far country” is a mirage, the pig-sty is the reality. We think we will find ourselves by leaving Home. But as we depart from Home we only lose our selves. The far country will not liberate us. True liberation is found at home, in the love of the Man who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”
Recognise that you too are a sinner. You too seek His fortune but not His face. But there is no country too far from His welcoming love. He remains the Friend of sinners.