All good people go to heaven don’t they? Luke 15.

1-3; 11b-32 28 March 2010
This is a great question to discuss because it takes us right to the heart of people’s thinking – like the other questions to God in this series this really is a question people ask - and at the same time right to the heart of the bible’s message. My answer will make two assumptions: o first, that – John Lennon permitting – there is a heaven o and second, that people would prefer to go there than the other place One thought I would like you to run in the background during my talk is how often the questions people ask of God are culturally related e.g. why do people suffer. It is the same with today’s question. It assumes that the majority of us are basically OK – a fairly relaxed view then – but other people, in other times and places, have taken a diametrically opposed view. The Mission

I. The Question of Sin
The first thing the person who believes that all good people go to heaven needs to consider is their definition of good. I would suggest that, on average, people who say this sort of thing think a bit too much about themselves and a bit too little about their shortcomings. It is a common failing and one from which even clergy, maybe even Popes, are not immune Quote the comments of NTW on Romans 3 IB Part of the reason I chose our reading is that the story wonderfully illustrates the variety and depth of human failings.

On the one hand, there is the younger son, the ‘prodigal’. He is the sort of person most of us probably think of when we think of sin – sinners are people who live a life of flagrant, reckless and usually drunken debauchery. It’s the stuff of daytime TV and a certain sort of magazine which I’m sure you wouldn’t possibly read – the sort which would doubtless has a picture of Cheryl Cole on the cover 


The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. 13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

On the lash…. o On the other hand, there is the older brother, who most of us, if we know and understand the story, realise we mustn’t approve of, because he is little aloof and rather tight fisted, but, if we are honest, feel a little bit sorry for and certainly don’t place in the same category as the younger brother. He’s the sort of slightly grumpy Christian who probably makes up the majority on most PCC’s And yet, the older brother’s his sin is, I want to argue, as great as that of the younger brother.

What is that sin? It is the sin of a refusal to forgive. It is the sin of lacking mercy. It is the sin of not loving the other as one loves oneself.
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in.... So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, '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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

Sins of omission rather than commission, but sins nevertheless. As I said at the start, there are varieties of sin. But, in case you are in nay doubt, we still we haven’t plumbed the full depths of the two brothers’ sin. For in each case, what lay at the heart of their wrongdoing was not so much wild living on the one hand and a lack of forgiveness on the other, it was their attitude to their father. Each failed to give him what he had every right to expect, particularly in the culture in which the story is told. Each refused to respond to what he was rather than what he could give. o In the case of the younger son, once again, the failure is more obvious – asking for your inheritance ahead of your father’s death was the supreme insult!
As Kenneth Bailey writes: “In Middle Eastern culture, to ask for the inheritance while the Father is alive, is to wish him dead. The request would therefore have been a disgrace to the family name, because of the younger son’s extraordinary disrespect for his father.

o In the case of the older son, once again, the failure is less obvious, but no less real for that – a refusal to join the party for which your father has killed the fatted calf and the questioning his generosity within his own household equally insulting.

"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, '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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

Consider further attitude that underlies the rebellion of each son.
The two sons look very different, on the surface. One runs off and lives a dissolute life, one stays home and obeys and serves his father. Yet at the end, the older son is furious with the father and humiliates him by refusing to go into the great feast. This is the older son’s way of saying that he will not live in the same family with the younger son... Why? The elder brother objects to the expense of what the father is doing, as we will see. He shows that he has been obeying the father to get his things, and not because he loves him, since he is willing to put him to shame. Both the older and younger sons love the father’s things, but not the father. Tim Keller

At its heart this is what sin is. A refusal to appreciate or even acknowledge the love that God has for us. A failure to relate to Him for who He is rather than what He may or may not give. As Martin Luther put it so memorably, sin is ‘man curved in on himself’. Thus, having considered both the variety and the depth of sin we are forced to conclude that there is no one good enough for heaven. All of us, by nature, are in state of alienation from God. All of us have rebelled against His love and goodness. All of us have failed to love Him for what He is and to love others for His sake.
We contribute nothing to our salvation except the sin from which we are saved


The Question of God

But there is a further dimension to this story. On what basis were the two sons accepted by their father in the first place? Or to put it another way, what was it they had to do to earn his love in the first place? The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing. The father loved each of his two sons simply because he was their father. This truth was eventually grasped by the younger son but, as far as we know, not by the elder son, which is worrying given that the story is directed at religious people like us. Let’s see, then, the way in which the father expresses his love to each of his two sons. o Even whilst he is in the distant country, the father’s love ‘goes out’ to his younger son. He watches – presumably every day – waiting for the moment his son might begin his journey home. He sees him and is filled with compassion. He runs – faster even than Gary in the WHM – quite something for an old man. He throws his arms around him and kisses him. There is no penance necessary here. He is unconcerned with the form of his son’s apology. He urges that the robe, ring and sandals – the signs of belonging and family status – slaves went barefoot – be brought quickly. He orders that the fattened calf be killed and a feast celebrated.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

o And the older son? The father in an equally dramatic manner ‘goes out’ to him also. He pleads with him – entreats (c.f. 2 Cor. 5) – an action as surprising and counter-cultural as that of running down the road to meet the younger son. He reminds him that he too is dearly loved – ‘my son’(v.21) – and that his resources are just as much available to him as his brother.
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him…. 31 " 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

Having considered, then, this second dimension to the story – the question of God – we are brought face to face with the distinction between merit and grace that runs throughout the NT, not least in the parables recorded by Luke. We do not have to in any way earn or merit God’s love. It is available to us simply as a matter of grace. Though, we must add, grace in the bible is never cheap as an imaginative leap of understanding with regard to the father’s pain and costly actions will reveal. Far from lacking any concept of the cross of atonement, this story is replete with it.
He was the only One that knew the weakness of the beings for whom He died. He that searches the hearts of sinners died for them. His eyes alone had searched their hearts, ay, was searching at the time He came. He knew what was in man; yet he did not abhor man on that account - He died for them. It was not for any goodness in man that He died for man - He saw none. It was not that He saw little sin in the heart of man. He is the only being in the universe that saw all the sin that is in the unfathomable heart of man. He saw to the bottom of the volcano - and yet He came and died for man. Robert Murray McCheyne

People have a misguided notion that we have to do something to earn God’s love and favour and so they make going to heaven a matter of merit, relating it to something we do or do not do. In truth, going to heaven relates to nothing of the sort. Going to heaven is simply coming home or going in to the Father’s love whether we are located I the ‘distant country’ or standing just outside the door. Repentance is nothing other than, to quote Margaret Taylor, ‘allowing God to love us’. Quote Helmut Thielicke p.26 To seek to justify ourselves – to earn out way to heaven - is then not only to ignore the depths of our sin, but also the heights of God’s mercy and love. There is no place for such self-righteousness in the kingdom of God.

III. The Question of Easter
As we come to the end of our time, let’s leave the story told by Jesus, wonderful as it is, and enter the story that is told about Jesus. Back in the ‘real’ world, the reason Jesus told this story was twofold: o because people were critical of his leniency towards ‘sinners’ (vv.1,2) o because he wants even those who are scheming against – the Pharisees = the older brother - to know God’s love also. There are no goodies and baddies our here then either. Which is why, on Palm Sunday as we enter Easter Week with its intrigue, its scheming, its violence and its evil, we recall the all conquering and all embracing love of God, Father and Son

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