BUT – WAIT A MINUTE – ARE RELIGIONS, GENERALLY SPEAKING, EVEN CAPABLE OF LEADING US TO GOD AT ALL?
Religion is a system of rules, such as: what we should wear, what we should or shouldn’t eat and when, where and how to perform odd external customs. But do religions, whichever they may be, have the capacity to change our hearts and eventually lead us to God?
One of the most famous parables in history is called “the Parable of the Prodigal Son”. It is a 2000 year old parable, which was told right here in Israel by the most famous Jew in the world: Yeshua. A parable which is documented in the New Testament. Gathered around Yeshua were two types of people: Religious men and sinners. The religious men were arrogant, conceited and condescending people, who believed that, on their own, thanks to rules and customs which they themselves invent and abide by, They can reach God.
The sinners were the people who had no interest in God whatsoever. All they cared about was enjoying life as much as they could and earning as much as possible, even if their profit came at the expense of others.
“A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ ” [Luke 15:11-12]
An inheritance is something you get after someone dies. Asking the father for the inheritance whilst he still lives is insulting. It is just as if he would have said to his father: “as far as I’m concerned – you can go ahead and die” “I don’t want you; but only your possessions.”
“So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.” [Luke 15:12-15]
A Jew who lives with pigs and would gladly eat their food. You can’t reach a lower, more humiliating point.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father.” [Luke 15:17-20]
The younger son acknowledges the fact that he has been sinful and rebellious. That he is unworthy of being with his father, and plans to beg his wealthy father to let him be a simple servant, if he should even let him anywhere near his estate. By the way, the hired help don’t live in the house, but rather outside the estate, and come to work every day. The younger son hoped that he could earn and repay his debt to his father bit by bit.
“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” [Luke 15:20]
In the ancient Middle East, it was beneath a wealthy father to run like a child. Children run and play, landowners do not. Let alone those whose children have humiliated and sinned against. But this father was special. And, against all odds, he ran, kissed and hugged his young son.
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. [Luke 15:21-22]
The people who heard this parable probably expected the father to say something like: “You haven’t showered in two weeks. You smell of pigs. Go clean yourself up, and then come and talk to me. Or, as would probably be said today: “You wish to repent? Go, put on Tefillin, wear a yarmulke, keep the commandments, go to synagogue for a few weeks, prove your commitment and later we’ll talk and see what can be done.” However, that wasn’t the case with this father. Not only did the father refuse to let his young son become a servant he wouldn’t even let him finish his sentence.
Instead, he demanded that his servants fetch him the best robe.
Who does the best robe belong to?
The father himself, of course.
And that robe was to be put on the filth, stench and sludge of his young son. Landowners wore robes. Kings wore robes. Robes represent the honor, majesty and splendour of the people who wear them.
In other words, the father chose to cloak the sins of the past, using his own power and authority.
His son’s rebellion and filth were covered with the cleanest, most luxurious robe he owned.
“And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again;he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” [Luke 15:22]
The father threw a party in order to celebrate his son’s repentance.
WHAT DOES REPENTANCE REALLY MEAN? The word “repentance” today has been given a different connotation than its original meaning. Nowadays, it refers to external actions, such as wrapping leather straps around one’s arm, or wearing a round piece of fabric on one’s head. But the word’s original meaning is “regret”. A true, honest and deep regret which comes from the heart for the choices and wrongdoings we have undertaken.
Through the way he treats his young son, we can perceive the father’s grace, mercy and love. A father who is willing to forgive and atone for past trespasses himself.
If the young son thought that he would be working outside and slowly earning his way back in the house, by throwing the celebration, the father was essentially saying: “No way. You cannot buy me. You have no chance of earning your way back to me.I will be doing it for you. I will be bringing you back to the family.”
In the same way, we, imperfect people, have no chance of “earning” our way back to God. Only God himself, in his grace, can grant us that gift. It makes no difference how many difficult or complex rules we invent for ourselves.
RELIGION IS NOT THE ANSWER“. Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in.” [Luke 15:25-28]
The older son may have been in physical proximity to the father, but he had an entirely different way of thinking. He was proud and conceited, just like those pharisaic rabbis gathered around Yeshua who heard the parable. The older son had the audacity to be angry.
At the fact that the fatted, expensive calf was killed in honor of his brother. What truly upset him was that now he would have one less calf as his inheritance.
“Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” [Luke 15:28]
The older son is standing outside, whining and making a scene in front of everyone, and refusing to join the celebration. The father puts his pride aside and steps outside to try and convince his older son to join the celebration.
“So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad,for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’” [Luke 15:29-31]
The only thing that was important to the father was the acknowledgement of sin and the repentance for it. But that couldn’t convince the older son, who was pious and proud. He thought that he was perfect. He claimed that he was righteous. “I never transgressed your commandment at any time”.
The irony in the parable is that the younger son, who had sinned, DID return home and to his father’s heart, as he had acknowledged his sins. Whereas the older son was left on the outskirts of the celebration, on the outskirts of the Kingdom of God. Far from his father’s heart. It wasn’t the older son’s wrongdoings which distanced him from his father, but rather his good deeds. His pride. His self righteousness. The elder son didn’t truly love his family. He was there for their possessions. He kept the laws and rules so that he might one day have the power and control. He was actually using his father.
‘You waste a calf and throw a celebration for the young son? You haven’t even slaughtered a goat in my honour!’ ‘and I have obeyed you my whole life! I was righteous!’ ‘I behaved myself and followed your every rule to the letter. It isn’t fair!’
The older son cannot grasp his father’s love for someone who has sinned against him.
All the elder son had to offer was religious fanaticism and condescending sanctimoniousness. He was certain of his perfect righteousness.
YESHUA DIVIDED MANKIND IN TWO:
The younger son represents those of us who rebel against God, enjoy his creation, but have no interest in Him. He probably looked at his older brother his whole life and thought to himself: ‘You and your friends are pious, fanatic, judgmental, and think only of yourselves. You have narrow, primitive minds. You are all that is wrong with the world.’
Whereas the older son represents those of us who are far away from God’s heart. Because we think that they are good enough on their own. That we are righteous. That we have “won over” God, thanks to various customs and rules invented and religiously kept by us. Perhaps, on the outside, he seemed perfect. However, on the inside, his heart was evil and spoiled.
Without a doubt, Yeshua had bitter accusations towards our nation’s religious leaders.
He taught that the kingdom of God could only be entered by those who recognised their own weaknesses and sins. Yeshua claimed that, if you think that your piety, the rules you invent for yourself, can grant you entrance into the kingdom of God – you are mistaken.
Yeshua labels all religions in the same way: Religions generate pride and arrogance, since they make us believe that we are earning something of God. That, through customs and rules we create for ourselves, we impress Him and win points with Him.
According to Yeshua, religions cannot open the door to the perfect kingdom of heaven for us. And that is precisely the message that Yeshua and the New Testament teach us. A message which was demonstrated by Him when He gave up his life for us sinners and criminals. A message which meant bad news for the religious leaders, as the power and control were no longer theirs, because now there was no more separation between Jews and Gentiles, sinners and “righteous” men, between men and women, slaves and freemen, or between the rich and the poor.
Through Yeshua, everyone has access to the kingdom of God. The bottom line is that we are all far away from our father’s heart in heaven.
We are all what is wrong with the world.
That is why Yeshua taught us that we are to be reborn. Meaning, we are to acknowledge that we are all either the younger son, running away from God, or the older son, thinking we are righteous and perfect. But none of us are perfect. We are all sinners, and our imperfections prevents us from making perfect decisions. Therefore, we cannot be our own solution. We need the perfect Messiah to atone for our sins. Only He himself can let us into the kingdom of God. We can’t do it on our own.
And it makes no difference which race we belong to, what we wear, or how many daily hours we spend studying thousands of complex rules, which don’t really change our hearts for the better anyway.
To summarize, God has already put in the work for us. He has revealed himself to us as the Messiah, clothed us with his most luxurious robe, and was left on the cross naked to die for us and atone for our sins.
Thus, he provided us with the key to the perfect kingdom of God.
When we acknowledge the fact that we didn’t earn this by our own merits, but rather that God did it for us, we will see that we have no right to patronize or look down on anyone else because we are all in the same boat. And rather than building walls between ourselves and others, we will strive to love others. Not out of fear or coercion, or out of trying to gain anything, but because HE LOVED US FIRST and gave His life for our sins.