When you’re a pastor you get used to hearing excuses for why people avoid church. Far too many of those excuses don’t really come to the main truth: that there are a lot of people out there who have lost faith in the institution of the church.
In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus says that the world is really made up of two kinds of sinners: the humble sinner (the younger brother), and the proud sinner (the older brother). Only one person in the story doesn’t seem to have any dealings or problems with sin, and that’s the “Father” in the story.
And so the story goes that the younger brother told his father to die so that he could get the inheritance that was due him. His father not ready to die decided he would go ahead and give his two sons their inheritance. The younger one, of course, went out and squandered his wealth on wine, women, and song (at least that’s the country version I heard).
Once the money ran out he was desperate. There was no government assistance, no soup kitchens, no benevolence programs, and he was very hungry. The Bible even says that no one was giving anything to him. He must have burned a lot of bridges. So he got a job feeding pigs. Now Jews aren’t supposed to eat bacon, much less handle and work with them. This is about the lowest point possible that one could imagine for this once rich Jewish heir.
But in his hunger, (and probably after he tasted a bit of what the pigs were eating), he came to his senses. His thought process wasn’t I know dad will accept me back. I know he is a push over. No, he realized that by asking for his inheritance, he had basically told his dad to go have a heart attack and die. His state of mind was one of repentance, his heart was broken, and maybe for the first time in his life…he was humble.
If you know the story, then you know that the younger son had rehearsed this speech over and over on the long walk home about how he wasn’t worthy to be his dad’s son, but if he could just be his dad’s servant then that would be enough. He would eat well and survive. But his father ignored those words that came out of his son’s mouth about being a servant, and brought out a robe, sandals, a ring, and he threw a party for his youngest boy. His older brother was ticked. He didn’t think it right that his father would be so welcoming to this jerk of a son who had literally taken his father’s money and used it with prostitutes. The older brother was self-righteous, entitled, angry, judgmental, embittered, jealous, envious, and full of slander. Now here we have two kinds of sinners. One realizing his need for forgiveness. One who can only realize other peoples’ sins. One sinner is humble, and the other is proud. One asks to be a servant and no longer a son, and the other refuses to even go in to see him.
The church is a place for broken people, for people who used to live their lives in pride, but who have decided that it’s no longer worth it to go hungry. The church is a place for the penitent. The proud have their excuses, but the humble never try to make excuses for what they’ve done. They don’t blame God. They don’t blame the institution of the church. They don’t blame the culture. They don’t blame their raising. They don’t blame people.
For far too long, pastors and churches have appeased the “older brothers” by telling them it’s ok that you are angry, proud, arrogant, self-righteous, and unforgiving. But the Father seems to have left his older boy outside, steaming in his unforgiveness and pride. The church is not an institution, like some people think. It’s not a club or an organization. It’s not something that even entered into the mind of man to create. It is the place God made for people who believe that they are indebted to Him. It is for people who realize that they are sinners. They hate that their sins have separated them from the Father, and they no longer desire to wallow in the mud and filth of this world’s corruption. Simply put: the church is for prodigals. Perhaps it’s time, for many of us, to come back home.
Rev. Brian Taylor is pastor of Forest Avenue Baptist Church in Sherman.