Can you think of a time when you needed a second chance (or maybe a third or even a tenth chance)? For most of us, such moments quickly pop to mind -- messing up on a driving exam, having a misunderstanding with a friend, getting a bad grade on a test… In the moment, we know we could have done better. If only we had one more shot, we could make things right. But what if we know that we don’t deserve a second chance?
Luke 15 tells the story of a man with two sons. The younger son makes a mess of his life when he takes his inheritance early, moves to the big city and squanders all his money on “wild living.” When a famine hits, he is left completely penniless and is forced to find employment on a pig farm. He has hit rock bottom and is in dire need of a second chance. Having run out of options he begins the long trek home, hoping that his father will have pity on him and give him a job as a servant in his house.
As he reaches his village, an unexpected sight awaits him. He sees his father running toward him in the distance. He begins his prepared speech, asking his father for pity, and he is abruptly stopped. His father embraces him and restores him to the family, no questions asked. He throws a huge party for him.
Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Here the father extends both mercy and grace to his son. He does not get what he deserves (mercy) and gets everything that he does not deserve (grace). He gives his son a second chance.
But not everyone in the family believes that the younger son deserves a second chance. When his older brother finds out what the father has done, he refuses to enter into the party. Why should his father throw a party for a son who has disgraced him and squandered all of his wealth? If anyone deserves a party, he does. After all, the older brother has worked hard and tended to his inheritance. As he stews with anger outside the party, his father comes to reason with him, inviting him to join in the celebration.
In the father’s eyes, it is not just the younger son who “failed.” The older son also failed. He failed to be a good older brother. He let his brother run away and did not go after him to look for him. Instead, he remained home, prioritizing his work over his lost brother, harboring anger and bitterness toward him. Upon his brother’s return, he failed to extend mercy and grace. He disgraced his father by not coming to the party for his brother. But most importantly, he failed to see himself as a son in his father’s house. Instead, he saw himself as a slave – working for his father.
You see, both sons in this story are lost. Both sons want things from the father, they don’t actually want the father himself. They are not looking for relationship. They are using their father to get what they want. Both sons want to be servants who work for their father as opposed to sons who are loved by their father and work together with him. The younger son wants to come back to the family as a hired help. The older son calls himself a slave. He is working to earn something.
But notice the father’s invitation to both sons. He invites both of them to a banquet. In the midst of their mess and their failings, he invites them to come and to celebrate -- to be with him.
This is the gospel message, this is the good news: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is in the midst of our failure, in the midst of our sin, in the midst of us not measuring up that God meets us.
The younger brother did not have to get his act together before he came to the party. It was when he was completely filthy that the father gave him a robe, sandals and a ring and invited him into the party. It was while the older brother was stewing and angry that he was invited into the party.
This can feel foreign to us, just as it was for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They did not understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners. Why he would eat with them? After all, they were not deserving.
We often feel like we have to get our act together to come to the party or to meet with God. God’s only prerequisite is that we accept his invitation, that we enter the party just as we are. Tim Keller writes: “The humble are in and the proud are out…the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know that you need it” (Prodigal God 45). While the invitation is extended to both brothers in this story, only one receives the invitation and enters. The other is too proud.
God’s response to our failure is not the response of the older brother. It is not to give us what we deserve. Nor is it to ask us to work harder. It is the response of the father to both of his sons. It is a response of mercy and grace, freely given. It is an invitation to relationship with him. The question for us is, will we take him up on his offer? Will we receive God’s mercy and grace? Will we enter the party or will we remain outside? Will we receive Jesus’ offer of a second chance? The only pre-requisite is: are we willing?