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Stay the Course Through Self-Righteousness
March 29, 1992

LUKE 15:11-32

How many of you are the oldest child in your family, the first born? I’m the oldest in my family. My younger brother is the middle child and my younger sister is the baby. There's one school of psychology that contends birth order has a significant impact on personality and ways in which we deal with other people. The first born in a family is often either the most responsible and serious, or the least responsible and a flake, one extreme or the other. In Jesus’ story, the firstborn was the righteous one, the most responsible, the good child. Jesus, the master storyteller, told this story in response to righteous Scribes and Pharisees who were criticizing him, attacking him for associating with tax collectors and sinners, the social outcasts of that day.

This Lent we are talking about persistence and perseverance with the theme, Stay the Course. Beware of the pitfalls. Beware of the barriers and obstacles that prevent us from deepening our spiritual lives. Beware of those attitudes that keep us from God, one of which is self-righteousness. Stay the course. Persevere through the barrier, through the obstacle of self-righteousness.

Jesus told this delightful story of two brothers. The younger one took his share of his father's properties, sold it, went into a foreign country and squandered it on partying and loose women. When he found himself working on a farm where the pigs were fed better than he, he decided to swallow his humiliation and go home. His father had heard of his son's misfortune and his father watched, waited for him, watching at the gate. When the father saw his son coming in the distance, he ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged him, welcomed him. He ordered, “Bring out new clothes for this boy! Put a ring on his finger! Put shoes on his feet! Butcher the fatted calf and let's have a party!” The fatted calf was the calf reserved for special occasions and it was tasty. The other cows lived on grass but the fatted calf was grain fed. Japanese feed their special calves beer, which serves the same purpose.

When the elder brother came home, he heard music, laughter, dancing. He asked, “What's going on?” A servant said, “Your brother has come home and your father has killed the fatted calf.” There was dead silence. The elder brother was dumfounded. Then he exploded in anger. Their father came out to talk to him and to beg him. Notice it says he begged him to come into the party. “No way!” shouted the older brother. “No way! I have worked for you all these years. I've never disobeyed your orders. I've been a good boy. And yet, you never even gave me a goat for a feast with my friends, not even a goat. And this son of yours (notice he was so mad he didn't even say “my brother”), this son of yours turns up after wasting your money, after losing your money on women. And you kill the fatted calf!” Can’t you just see his lower lip hanging out and his self righteous nose up in the air?

The firstborn have a difficult time. It's hard to be the firstborn. Let me tell you it's hard to be the firstborn, and have your place in the family usurped by this new baby. When our second son Tim was born, Jack was two years old. He was reprimanded one day, stuck out his lower lip, looked at this new baby being fed by his mother, pranced into the kitchen, took a bottle of baby formula, stormed upstairs and drank it! It’s hard to be the first born. As the firstborn in my family, I was so righteous I made myself sick, as the saying goes. I was the good boy. I was the good student, I was the one who got the A's. I was the only one in my family who went to church. I was “saintly”. You don't believe that now! In high school, I was a rabid fundamentalist with all the correct theology and all the answers, even the questions that nobody asked. But my parents were very patient and supported me.

Beware of self-righteousness, it will keep you from God's party. What Jesus likens to the kingdom of God is most often a description of the kingdom of God as a party. Beware of self-righteousness. It may keep you from that party. If you've got any sign of self-righteousness in you, identify it, repent and stay the course through it so you may experience the fullness of God. In case you aren't sure if you have any self-righteousness in you, let’s look at three characteristics of self-righteousness as epitomized by the elder brother in this story. Check these out in your life.

Number one. The self-righteous have an overriding concern and passion for justice. The elder brother had a keen sense of justice. “It's not fair,” he cried. It's not fair for the younger brother to squander his share and then come home and cut into the elder son’s inheritance. Is that fair? Not only that, but his father didn't even teach that boy a lesson. He just welcomed him, hugged him and threw a party. Where was the judgment? Where was the justice of it all? There was no mercy in the elder brother’s value system—no forgiveness, no compassion, only justice. Justice without mercy is heartless.

The second characteristic: The self-righteous are great accountants and make great CPAs. They keep excellent ledgers. They count. They take inventory. They keep track and make sure they get what's coming to them—nobody gets any more than they do. And when they feel they have been shortchanged, they are angry, resentful, and feel sorry for themselves. The elder brother stormed at his father, “You never even gave me a goat. Yet this son of yours gets the fatted calf. It's not fair.” He kept track. The second characteristic—they keep track.

Thirdly, the self-righteous cannot empathize. The older brother could not feel or identify with his brother's pain and humiliation. Nor could he share his father's suffering who agonized over his younger son's predicament. The elder brother was not capable of walking where his brother walked or feeling how his father hurt. Christians who are reared in the church tend to be elder brothers because they never had a dramatic conversion. It's difficult for those reared in the church to understand and appreciate those who were wild, like the younger son, and have had a dramatic conversion and turn about. Church folks sometimes fail to appreciate what the converted have gone through. And sometimes they are jealous because they haven't had an experience like that. It is likewise difficult for those who have never lost a job, who have never stood in an unemployment line, or worried frantically about their future or watched their savings dwindle, it's hard for those to appreciate and identify with those who have lost their jobs.

Sometimes the righteous even blame the victim, believing that somehow they deserve to lose their jobs. It's very difficult for elder brothers who have comfortable homes, job security and savings to understand how some people live on the street, and how other people live just one paycheck from the street. If they lose one paycheck, they can't pay their rent, they can't make their mortgage payments, and they live on the street. The self-righteous tend to pull into their shell, say it's not their problem and somehow blame the victim. It's not fair for the righteous to share their hard earned money with those who live on welfare. Elder brothers resent people who live on welfare.

The older brother angrily told his father, “This son of yours wasted all your money. It served him right to lose everything and live with pain.” The older brother could not empathize. He had a keen sense of justice. He kept a ledger and he could not empathize.

Perhaps some of you are not getting my point. Perhaps some of you agree with the elder brother that his younger brother’s reconciliation with his father was unfair. Perhaps you agree that it wasn't right for him to get the fatted calf and a party. It wasn't right for the younger son to get more than the older. Perhaps you agree that indeed the younger son was getting what he deserved until his father unfairly forgave him and gave him a party.

Well, let's go on with the story and see the result of the elder brother’s sense of justice—keeping track of who gets what and his lack of empathy. The result was he missed the party. Even if you think he is right, he missed the party. Do you hear that? Even if he's got all the right systems on his side, he missed the party. He could not enjoy the party. He couldn't even enter and participate because he was sulking, pouting, angry, resentful, and bitter. Any virtue can become a vice. If practiced to perfection, justice can become heartless. Honesty can become cruel. Knowledge can become condescension. Frugality can become miserliness if anything is pushed too far. A church meeting was deteriorating into disagreement, unlike any meeting we have, of course. Finally one man stood up with his fist clenched and shouted, “I will put up with a good deal. But one thing I will not put up with, I will not let you put anything over on me. I must have my rights.” Well, an old man who was hard of hearing came to life, stood up and said, “What’s that you just said about your rights? You say you want your rights? If you got your rights, you'd be in hell. All that any of us deserve is hell.” Except for the grace of God you and I also.   

Paul agreed and said that all our righteousness is like filthy rags. The elder son's righteousness was filthy rags for he ended up with nothing, nothing of what life counts—love, mercy, fun. He missed the fun! For our closing hymn today I selected an old hymn with excellent theology,  Rock of Ages. Listen to the third stanza.Nothing in my hands I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress,

Helpless, look to Thee for grace:

Foul, I to the fountain fly,

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

All our righteousness is nothing.

Finally, where was the father at the end of the party, the forgiving father who rejoiced that his squandering younger son returned, the father who represents God in Jesus parable? Where was he at the end of the story? He was outside. Isn't that something! The story ends with the father outside with the older brother, outside with all of us elder brothers. The father left the party. The father left his younger son as his younger son had left him years before.  The father left the younger son in a party, even though it was partying that brought him to poverty and humiliation. The father left him and went outside to be with his good boy, with his self-righteous, angry, resentful elder son and he begged, he pleaded with him to welcome his brother and join the party.

And God, like that father, never gives up on us. Did the father ever return to the party? Did the elder brother eventually join the party? Did the elder brother break through the barrier of his self-righteousness to enjoy the love of his father and brother? Was the elder brother ever able to reconstruct a relationship with his brother? Was the elder brother able to stay the course—God’s course—and go through, go beyond his self-righteousness? Or he was forever barricaded, imprisoned in his narrow, pitiful, small, shriveled world where he could not even let down and enjoy a party?

How does Jesus’ story end in your life?

© 1992 Douglas I. Norris