In Part 3 of our mini series, Dysfunctional Children, Functional God, we look at our last dysfunctional child - The Rule Follower. Now, rule following is usually a good thing - in fact, not following any rules, like we see in society today, can lead to lawlessness. But what happens when rule following goes bad? What happens when, like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, our rule following supersedes everything else. If "rule breaking" is sinful, how can "rule following" be sinful, too? And is there anyone who can manage to follow the rule perfectly and get it right every time? So much to discuss! Join us!
Episode 98 – The Rule Follower
Welcome back! We are on part 3 of our mini-series, Dysfunctional Children, Functional God, which is an in-depth study of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. So far, we have looked at the “The Self-Righteous Child” and “The Defiant Child.” Today will be the last episode we spend on the dysfunctional children. We are going to look at “The Rule Follower.”
And after we get through all the dysfunctional children, we will turn our attention to our very functional God. Being a “Rule Follower” can be a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll start by looking at it from the perspective of being a bad thing.
Chris, before we get into the text for this week, I can’t help but notice that almost everyone can probably see themselves in one of the 3 dysfunctional children we are looking at: The self-righteous, defiant, and the rule follower.
Yeah. We can all probably see ourselves in one of these. And hopefully, if we are Christians, we are being sanctified and see these characteristics less and less, but since we aren’t perfected on this side of heaven, we may see some lingering traits of these three dysfunctional children still in us. Some of us may wrestle with pride or thinking we know what’s best or are always right like the self-righteous. Or maybe we struggle with putting ourselves completely under God’s rule and want to make our own rules. Or maybe, like we are going to look at today, we are a rule follower. While this seems like, and can be a good thing, as we are going to see today, without the right heart attitude, it’s just as dysfunctional as the other 2 characteristics.
And I have an example of how being a rule follower can be dysfunctional. Several years ago, I had a friend that I repeatedly invited to church. Finally, one Sunday, her and her teenage daughter came. They each walked into the sanctuary with a cup of coffee and sat down next to me. As soon as the service ended, a woman from the church – who did not know my friend at all, made a bee line for my friend and informed her and her daughter that coffee was not permitted in the sanctuary. Now, granted, there was a small sign outside the sanctuary that said, please don’t bring food or drinks into the sanctuary, but I had spent weeks trying to get my friend to church. She finally came – and I think holding a cup of coffee made her feel more secure. So while technically, she broke a rule, this woman was so obsessed with following the rules, that she ended up running my friend out of the church, and as far as I know, she has never gone back.
That’s terrible. And an even more extreme example of rule following gone wrong, in many parts of the Middle East, following their rules of morality are so important, that non-conformity not only brings shame to the perpetrator, but to the whole family. In many instances, the rule breaker is killed. You keep the rules or you die!
And the opposite of extreme rule following, but just as, if not more destructive is lawlessness. And we have an example of that from the U.S. and many places in Europe right now where there really are no rules. You can be whatever gender you want, protest whatever you want, treat the police with disrespect whenever you want, loot and burn businesses in the name of justice whenever you want, call someone a racist, bigot, or accuse them of a crime without any proof whenever you want – basically, you can live your life however you want, regardless at whose expense or to whose detriment it is.
Okay, so we gave examples of the destructiveness of extreme rule following and lawlessness. So, Rose, let’s start looking at the parable of the prodigal son and apply some Biblical Truth to all of this. We said last week, that the defiant son – the one who takes his inheritance early and blows it on wild living is often the one people consider the lost one in this parable. If you recall, last week, we left off at Luke 15:20a, “And he (the younger son) arose and came to his father.” Just for context, we will read Luke 15:20b – 24, but we will actually delve into those verses in the next episode. Here they are, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Like you said, Chris, we are going to deal with the Father next week. This week, we are looking at the older brother and he shows up following the verses you read in Luke 15:25 – 32, “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
So much to unpack here! First, I want to point out something we talked about in the first episode of this series. Earlier, when Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, He said in Luke 15:7, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” And if you recall, we said that there is no one who has ever lived (except Jesus) that hasn’t needed to repent. Jesus is addressing those who think they are righteous on their own and therefore, have nothing to repent of. In contrast, the “sinners” as the Pharisees called them – those who did not keep the Pharisaical rules, knew they were sinners. Jesus is showing that sharp contrast here.
Jesus shows this contrast again in another parable He tells found a few chapters later in Luke 18:9 - 14, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
That parable you just read fits perfectly with this parable of the prodigal son. The younger son, who definitely sinned, came crawling back to the father asking forgiveness. The older son doesn’t even go to the father. He stays on the porch stewing in his self-righteousness. The father has to go out to him.
There is a lot going on with this older brother. As with everything, things are never simple. First, if you remember, we said that when the father gave the younger son his inheritance early, it cost the father a lot. The older son would have been given a double portion of inheritance, so in essence, the father gave 1/3 of his estate to the younger son as his inheritance. The remaining 2/3 that the father and the older son were using and living on, belonged to the older son.
So now, the younger brother comes back into the picture. The father welcomes him back as a son. He is once again part of the family. This means that any resources used for the younger son technically belong to the older brother. And more, now that he is officially a son again, when the father dies, the younger son will receive 1/3 of what’s left. Basically, the younger son just blew 1/3 of the father’s estate. It was gone, never to be gotten back, and by reinstating the younger son into the family, the father has wiped away any consequences for the younger son’s action. The younger son will get another inheritance when the father dies.
Of course, the older son would have known that, and it really ticks him off. The ring, the robe, the shoes, the fattened calf used to welcome back the younger son, not to mention the house, farm, and money by rights should belong to the older son, but now, his inheritance is diminished by 1/3 because his brother is back. This really exposes the elder brother’s heart.
There are a few reasons why he is so mad, but one big reason is greed. He put the time in working to build his share of the estate, and now his younger brother, who squandered his 1/3, is back and going to take some of what’s his. You can understand a little that this would be frustrating. But Jesus warns of this in Luke 12:14. He says, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. This was a major sin of both sons. Both coveted what the father had and saw it as rightfully theirs. They forgot that what the father had belonged to him and not to them! At least as long as the father was alive. Both are looking at the father only by what he had that they could get out of him. So, in essence, neither son wanted a relationship with their father, they wanted his stuff – the blessings he could give them. The younger son was more honest about it by just asking for this share, while the older son just put his time in waiting for his share to come to him.
And while it may look like the older son was more noble, staying with his father keeping the rules, and working for him, for both of these brothers, the father was a means to an end. Neither saw the father as their father, someone to be loved and adored; someone to pursue a real relationship with, learn from, gain wisdom from, truly serve (and not for selfish means, but out of love). So both boys started out at the same place – greed and with no desire for a relationship with their father. But things have changed. The younger son realized he was a sinner, and lost, and came humbly to the father asking for forgiveness – knowing he wasn’t worthy of it but relying on the kindness and mercy of his father. This parable clearly shows what 1John1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
So part of what ticks off the older brother is the fact that he now has to share what he considers his, but there is a lot more going on. Remember Jesus is telling this story to those considered “sinners” and to the Pharisees. The younger son definitely represented the “sinners.” For them, this parable is a story of hope. Jesus is telling them, no one is too far gone that they can’t be redeemed by God. In fact, just as when the sheep was found and the coin was found in the other 2 parables, there is celebration and rejoicing when someone lost is found. As 2Chron 30:9b says, “For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” Jesus also showed this physically by dining and associating with the “sinners.” So, for the worst of the worst, as defined by the religious leaders, this story has a happy ending.
But there are 2 sons in this story – and while both are equally lost, the story only ends happily for one of them. Besides greed, the older son has other issues. Look at what he says, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ This older son considers himself to be the good son. Remember, the pharisees were listening. Just as they looked down on some and considered them “sinners,” while they and others who “followed the rules” were righteous and good, this older son considers his younger brother the sinner, while he is the righteous and good one.
We are going to get to the older son thinking of his younger brother as the sinner in a minute, but first, let’s look at the older brother thinking he is the good one, or righteous one. Romans 3:10, which is quoting Psalm 53 says, “There is none who does good.” Like the pharisees, the older brother thought that following the rules made him good and righteous. Also like the pharisees, his rule following wasn’t joyful service, but instead, joyless servitude. He says, “Look, these many years I have served you.” The Greek word Jesus used here was one used for a slave’s work. This son found no joy in working for his father. It was a burden. He was just hanging in there, doing it all until his father died. The graceless service of the self-righteous person is more hard duty than it is a joyful service to God.
And that’s exactly what I saw in that woman from my church I told you about. She was so bent on “following the rules” and making sure everyone else did, there was no joy in her. She couldn’t find joy in seeing 2 new faces in church. She only saw the cups of coffee in their hands, and went ballistic because it violated a rule. She was a Pharisee. Instead of seeing 2 people who could possibly come to Christ, she saw 2 sinners who didn’t keep the law. I want to quote something from John Sartelle from Ligonier Ministries on this. He says, “Self-righteousness cannot exist without producing an attitude of moral superiority, a lack of mercy, and a joyless servitude. The elder brother of the prodigal in Jesus’ parable is a living picture of these characteristics that always suckle at the breast of self-righteousness.”
Self-righteousness and joyless rule following really boils down to pride. It’s pride in your ability and superiority to keep the rules over those who don’t. And as we often say, sin is sin as far as all is deserving of condemnation, but there is definitely a difference in the severity and consequences of sin. And one of the most deadly sins of all is pride. And part of that is because unlike other sins, you often don’t know you are guilty of it! You don’t see it. The younger brother clearly saw that he squandered his money and was living in filth due to his own decisions. But the older brother only saw that he had stayed and slaved away for his father. No sin in that, right? But his prideful self-righteous is a very dangerous sin. As C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”
No doubt the older brother thought of himself much better than his younger brother. You could almost picture him sneering as he worked every day thinking at least I am not like my brother, just like in the parable Jesus told of the Pharisee and tax collector that we read earlier. Like the Pharisees, and maybe some of us, having someone else to look down on as worse, gives us our value and our worth. The first sign that we may have an elder brother spirit is how we react when things in our life don’t go as we want. It’s not that we are just sorrowful or maybe a little disappointed, but, instead, we are angry and bitter because we didn’t get what we think we deserve.
And even further, we can’t stand to see someone who we consider much worse than us getting good things. This may be what the Apostles were feeling at the beginning when Paul got saved and Jesus made him one of them. They definitely didn’t trust him, but maybe it was deeper than that. You can almost hear them saying, seriously, Jesus? You are letting this guy be an Apostle after what he’s done? It’s how many reacted to Chuck Colson. Chuck Colson was an attorney and the “hatchet man” for President Nixon. He was at the forefront of the Watergate scandal. When the scandal broke, Colson was a new Christian. As a result, he voluntarily pled guilty to obstruction of justice in 1974 and served seven months in Alabama’s Maxwell Prison for his part in the Watergate crime. A sentence way too light according to some.
Colson emerged from prison with a new mission: mobilizing the Christian church to minister to prisoners. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship, which is now the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. In recognition of his work among prisoners, Colson received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993. He has written many books and was a leading speaker and preacher of the Word of God.
But there were still many who looked at him and only saw the corrupt man who aided Nixon in a crime. How dare he teach and write about the Bible!
But as Jesus often did, He turns that belief system upside down. By the father welcoming the younger son back into the family, and by Jesus dining with the “sinners,” He is showing that these deplorables belong in the family of God, as opposed to those who drudge along daily, following every rule being their own Savior. This would have been a severe blow to the pride of the pharisees.
Continuing in Luke 16, Jesus goes on telling another parable about being a trusted servant. And after that, we see Jesus deal the final blow to the Pharisees, and give us a warning, too. Luke 16:14 – 15 says, The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him(Jesus). 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
And Paul backs this up in Romans 10:3, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.” John, too, in 1John 1:8 - 10, when he said, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
And there are even more warnings when self-righteousness leads to pride. Prov 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” And James wraps this whole parable up in a ribbon when he says in James 4:6, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
And true to their self-righteous, rule following persona, the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead. How dare a carpenter’s son from Nazareth tell them that they have God’s Word wrong and aren’t included in the family of God! Who does He think He is?!
Well, He’s God, that’s who He is, but they were blinded from seeing that by the coldness are hardness of their hearts. Therefore, to them, He was just a radical insulting them and threatening their way of life by making “sinners” think they are better than they are and making the “righteous” think they are worse than they are.
And this is the exact mindset of the older brother. And this leads to his other big problem. He says to his father, “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ The older brother doesn’t even consider the younger son his brother. He refers to him as “this son of yours.” And why is that, well, yeah, he’s mad about his inheritance, and yeah, he thinks he’s better than his brother because he stayed and followed the rules, but it’s even deeper than that. The older brother thinks that after what his brother has done, he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven!
Chris, we alluded to his in the first episode of this series, but this was exactly what Jonah’s problem was. God told Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Even though they hadn’t yet conquered the northern nation of Israel, they were still Israel’s hated enemy. Like Rome was to the Jews of Jesus’ time and like those who hate and persecute Christians are to us today. Jonah didn’t want to preach to them because he was worried they would repent and God would save them. He didn’t think they deserved to be saved. In an object lesson, God has a vine grow overnight to give Jonah shade from the scorching son. Then He sends a worm to eat the vine which makes Jonah really angry. God says to him in Jonah 4:10, “You pity the plant for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
Just like Nineveh, the older brother didn’t think his younger brother deserved to be forgiven and received by his father. He thinks by following the rules, he has the right to tell his father how to dispense his grace. Jesus is showing us that while the common definition of sin is “disobeying God,” there is another definition. Someone who thinks they keep all of God’s laws is still be guilty of sin. First, because regardless of what someone may think, nobody keeps God’s Law. Sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord and Judge. Both sons sought to override the authority of the father and be their own masters.
Both of these brothers were sinners, both were running from and avoiding God. One did it by flagrantly opposing the rules and living life on his own terms. The other one did it by keeping the rules, and by doing that thinking he had “rights." We call fall into this, too. We may think God owes us answered prayers, a good life and a ticket to Heaven because we do everything “right.” We go to church, we serve, and we follow the rules. The problem with this is that this translates into that you don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, because you are your own Savior.
Makes me think of funerals I have been to where people say, “He was such a good person, I know he’s in a better place.” We don’t mean to sound harsh or cruel, but if we are thinking there is anything we can do to merit our salvation, we need to completely eradicate that thinking! The Pharisees, this older brother, and some of us divide the world into good people (like them) and bad people (like younger brothers). But Jesus doesn’t divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Everyone who does not know Jesus is seeking to use God or other means to save themselves and / or for obtaining power and control. I have heard people say, we should find a balance between the older brother and younger brother. That we should be good, but not be self-righteous. But that is missing the point of this parable entirely! It is not about being good yet not being self-righteous. Scripture says everyone is sinful. And for those saved by God, we need see that everyone is in need of a Savior.
The only prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is knowing that you need it! In the early 1900’s, a newspaper once published a question and invited readers to respond to the question, “What is wrong with this world?” Noted theologian, G.K. Chesterton wrote this: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.
I know we said everyone can probably identify with one of the brothers, and we probably can. But the most important take away from this parable is not seeing yourself in one of the brothers, but truly seeing yourself as a sinner in need of your Father’s grace, and in need of saving. You need to know that have a great need and have absolutely nothing to offer in return except that need.
You know, Rose, I think these two brothers would have benefitted greatly if they had another brother, another elder brother. The same is true for us.
Look at you smoothly transitioning so smoothly into our next section! Well, Chris, they did have another brother, and so do we. He is the true elder brother of all who belong to Him – Jesus!
Thus far in the parable, there are 2 paths that can be taken. One is living life on your own terms, and one is keeping the rules so you get what you deserve. Both may temporarily seem to offer happiness, but both will lead to your life being no better than pig slop. Thankfully, there is a 3rd way!
There is an elder brother, and he’s not like this elder brother in the story. He is a true elder brother. In the previous 2 parables Jesus told, the shepherd went looking for the lost sheep and the woman went looking for her lost coin. But in this parable, no one goes looking for the lost, younger son. In that culture, it would have been the job of the elder brother to go looking for his brother. The elder brother took on much of the responsibilities of the family.
The problem is that the elder brother in this parable is a pharisee – he’s too busy being self-righteous and good to concern himself with his brother whose lost. This directly mirrors what was going on around Jesus. You may remember we talked about it in the first episode. The Pharisees were happy to condemn those they thought of as sinners, but they didn’t give a flip about them or their spiritual condition. They had no interest in bringing them to a saving knowledge of God, only in condemning them. And when his brother returned, he was more concerned about what it was going to cost him than he was about his lost brother coming home.
This was the point Jesus was making. The younger brother in this parable, as well as the “sinners” listening, as well as every human being who has ever lived needs a real elder brother. One who understands that it’s His job to save his brothers and sisters and has the power to do it! As Hebrews 2:11 says, “For he who sanctifie,s and those who are sanctified, all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
And Romans 8:29 which says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This story should make us long for a True Elder Brother; one who does come looking for us regardless of the cost. One who would leave the comfort of Heaven, and come to earth to find us. And He did this at the cost of temporarily giving up His glory, subjecting Himself to temptation, persecution, and torture. And ultimately paying with His own life. All so He could reconcile us to the Father. Our Heavenly Father is not only loving and merciful, but He is also just. He is perfectly holy and cannot leave sin go unpunished. Our True Elder Brother paid our debt on the cross, in our place.
Unlike the elder brother in the parable, we need to totally take it to heart and fully believe that Christ has fulfilled all of the law, paid all of the debt we owe to God for our sin through His death on the cross, and has rescued us from Satan and death by His resurrection. We can bring NOTHING to the table. It’s already finished.
To fully and totally believe that the God of the universe loves us this much, and that we don’t have to do anything for Him to love us any more than He already does, nor can we do anything that will make Him love us any less, is the true freedom the younger son was looking for! And the grace and mercy we find at the feet of our Savior is the true reward the older son was looking for.
So our question is do we live in that kind of freedom? When we sin, and maybe sin horribly, do we repent, lay it at God’s feet and ask for forgiveness, then walk away knowing God has forgiven us and we can put it behind us or do we wallow in guilt? Or on the other side, are there things we are doing “for God” or “to be a good Christian” that feel empty, enslaving, or never leave us feeling joyful, but we feel like we “owe it to God” to do them, or are we joyfully serving our Lord and His people knowing its not an obligation we have, but a privilege we get to do?
Our True Elder Brother did not die for you to wallow in guilt feeding pigs, nor did He die for you to live in drudgery trying to be a good Christian. When we see and understand what He has done for us, we find that we don’t have to fear, we don’t have to try to measure up, we don’t have to strive. We just need to recognize our need and sin, and repent of both our bad things and our “good” things that are done with the wrong motivation.
We said that we all need to know we are sinners in need of a Savior. But that is impossible for us to do on our own. The Pharisees, the older brother in the story, the younger brother – none of them had the ability to understand that were born dead in their sin and needed saving. And none of us will, either, until the Holy Spirit gets hold of us. As Eph. 2:1 – 9 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And that’s where we are going to wrap up for this week. Join us next week for the last episode in our series Dysfunctional Children, Functional God. And check out our social media pages for daily posts and excerpts counting down to the release of our new book, The Bible Blueprint – A Guide to Better Understanding the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, releasing on Aug. 17. Have a blessed day, everyone!
 "The Story of Two Older Brothers by John Sartelle." Ligonier Ministries. Accessed July 24, 2021. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-story-of-two-older-brothers/.