The Scandal of Respectable Sins

Another day, another headline about a scandal so sordid the details would earn at least an R-rating if it were made into a movie. I’m not going to name the person or specifics involved in this particular scandal, because I’m sure I could shelf this post for six months (or six years), and my opening sentence would be as relevant as it is today. Sordid sins make headlines and keep comment sections buzzing.

But some sins aren’t egregious enough by the media’s standards to make headlines. They may be classified as culturally respectable, acceptable and justifiable sins (spiritually, there is no such thing). While these sins don’t make headlines – or even the sermon notes – they can be just as, if not more, destructive.

One of my favorite parables in the Bible is often referred to as The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). I say, “referred to” because Jesus didn’t title the story at all, that’s just what we call it. Had Jesus titled it, He might have titled it “Two Lost Sons,” “The Prodigal Son and His Bitter Brother,” or something along those lines. We call it The Prodigal Son, but there were two sons – both in need of changed hearts.

When referring to the story in sermons or discussions, somehow the focus is predominately (or solely) on the salacious scandal of the younger prodigal son who squandered his father’s money on wild living. When the younger son has absolutely nothing left, he decides to go back to his father’s house and beg to be a hired servant. In a beautiful act of love and grace, the father receives his wayward son in an embrace, clothes him and throws an impromptu feast in honor of his younger son returning. It truly is a beautiful story of redemption in which so many people can relate. However, while we usually end the story there, Jesus doesn’t. He has more to teach us.

Before we get to the rest of the story, let’s ask the question we should always ask when reading scripture: What is the context of this story? Jesus was talking to a crowd filled not only with tax collectors and “sinners,” but also Pharisees – the religious elite of the time (vs 1-3). The Pharisees held themselves on a pedestal of self-righteousness. They saw themselves as superior due to their strict observance of laws. They looked down on the tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus knew the tax collectors and sinners in the crowd needed to hear about the Father readily forgiving, lavishing love and forgiveness upon his wayward younger son. Jesus wanted them to know they could not out-sin God’s ability to love, forgive and restore them. Jesus also knew the Pharisees in the crowd needed to hear a story that day, too. The story of the elder brother. The one often and ironically left out of many sermons and discussions regarding Luke 15.

The second act in the story involving the elder brother, who so far has been in the background, begins when he comes in from working in the field to music, dancing and celebrating. He has no idea what’s going on, so he asks a servant about the celebration. The servant – probably joyfully – tells the older brother, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

Upon hearing the reason for the party and that his brother was back home safely, scripture says the elder brother became angry. He’s not thrilled that his brother came back. He’s indignant that his father had the audacity to celebrate this no-good, irresponsible brother who squandered his inheritance. The elder brother refused to go into the party. This is a big deal. Given the social constructs of this 1st-century parable, the oldest son would not only be expected to join the party but serve as co-host. His refusal to go in is a humiliating rejection of his father – not unlike his younger brother’s rejection when he left home to pursue fulfillment in every scandalous way.

And just as the father ran to meet the younger son (vs 20), the father leaves the party to bring his elder son into the celebration (vs 28). But the elder son was not finished humiliating his father as he barked in verses 29-30, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But this son of yours (doesn’t even call him his brother) who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, “I have never disobeyed you. I’ve kept your rules. You owe me.” His words are dripping with bitterness, resentment and self-righteousness. He says he’s been “slaving” for his father, not serving him out of love and respect. And I think many of us read the reaction of the elder brother and can relate. We put ourselves in his shoes and we’d be angry, too. If we had a sibling who was only irresponsible, wasted money on every indulgence and came back to the father when he was broke, we’d be indignant, too. But a sin doesn’t become less of a sin because we can relate to it, understand it, or empathize with it. Which is why we so desperately need the lesson Jesus told about the elder brother. His sins may not be as lewd as the younger brother’s, but he’s just as lost. He may have stayed home, but he’s just as far from the father.

We need both brothers to get the full lesson Jesus conveyed in the parable. They both wanted their father’s gifts without having a relationship with him. We see it so clearly with the younger son, and while it may not be as overt with the elder son, it is no less damaging. We need the younger brother as a searing reminder of sin, our need for repentance and how much we owe to divine grace. We need the elder brother to warn us of how easily self-righteousness and religiosity can masquerade as faithfulness. Jesus didn’t just want to redeem the headline-making sins of the younger brother, He also wanted to uproot the heart-tanking sins of the elder brother.

The parable ends with the father inviting the elder brother into the celebration. Would the elder brother see his arrogance and self-righteousness and join in celebrating his brother’s return to their father? We don’t know. Jesus intentionally ends the story with the invitation as if to convey the open call to the Pharisees to join in the celebration when the lost come home to the father.

As those who walk under the banner of “Christian,” we must flee from the temptation to elevate ourselves above others. We must deny the urge to resent sinners who dare to come back to the Father (see also many Christians’ elder brother-esque reactions to Kanye West’s return to the Father). The “respectable sins” – bitterness (Eph 4:31-32); discontentment (Hebrews 13:5); unthankfulness (Psalm 106:7); pride (Proverbs 16:5); gossip (James 1:26); etc. – need as much repentance, forgiveness and grace as the sordid sins of the prodigal son.

The real scandal is that we would ever believe – or lead others to believe – there is any such thing as a respectable sin.

Lord, thank you for lavishing Your grace on me. And thank You for reacting to my sin with an invitation to Your Party. Please embed my need for You on my heart. Keep clear my need for redemption for sins that may not shock; they are just as egregious next to Your perfection. Lord, please refine me and weed out what’s in me that’s not of You. In Jesus’ precious Name, Amen.

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