“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Instead of responding to his words as the good news they are, Jesus’ hearers are offended. They buck at the idea that anyone has to set them free. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:31–33).
We bristle much the same way Jesus’ hearers did when confronted with the good news that Christ sets us free. “We live in the land of the free. How is that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Like them, we don’t believe we need saving because we believe we were never enslaved.
But God’s word of law exposes that sentiment for what it truly is, an illusion, and it reveals the chains which shackle us. Jesus’ parable of “The Forgiving Father” in Luke 15 demonstrates the difference between our illusions of freedom and the freedom found in the gospel.
The younger son’s offense cannot be overstated. In effect, he says to his father, “Just die already and give me what’s mine.” Ignoring the insult, the father realizes what his younger son really wants: freedom. Instead of driving him away, he graciously brings him closer. He divides the inheritance between his two sons. No longer are they “trapped” under their father’s judgments and decisions. Now they live freely alongside him as co-owners of the blessings he earned for them and freely gave to them.
The “Freedom” of the Younger Son
The younger son fails to see that his father has brought him into the freedom he longs for. He assumes freedom is found outside his father’s house, apart from his father’s name. For the younger son, true freedom comes by making a name for himself — by propping up his name with his success. All he has to do is exercise independence and do what he wants. Said another way, for the younger son, true freedom is the ability to serve himself first.
The independence the younger son thought would bring him freedom actually brought him servitude.
The younger son heads off to a far country, ungrateful and seemingly ignorant of the fact that he owes everything to his father, including the seed money for his misadventure to find the freedom he already has. There, in his “freedom,” he squanders his property in reckless living, doing what he wants when he wants, serving himself first. After spending all his inheritance, a famine forces him to attach himself to a Gentile citizen of the far country.
The independence the younger son thought would bring him freedom actually brought him servitude. His father gave him everything he needed and more. In the younger son’s freedom, he received nothing. It turns out his independence was tied to his resources and his power over them — which, remember, were both given to him by his father. When his resources ran out, so did the freedom he thought he had.
We, too, seek freedom outside our Father’s house in our independence. We tie our liberty to the finite. We believe if we have enough power, pennies, possessions, and prestige to go anywhere and do anything, then we are truly unrestrained. But money, recognition, and belongings are limited goods, and our ability to attain them has a shelf life.
The “Freedom” of the Older Son
The younger son is not alone in failing to recognize the gift of freedom he received. His older brother fails too. By the younger son’s offense, the older son received the same gift: to be a co-owner with his father and his younger brother.
But he too turns his freedom into slavery. His “freedom” doesn’t come by making a name for himself. His freedom is a wage earned by his obedience to the father — a reward for living righteously by his own name.
“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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:25–30).
The older brother believes himself to be what the younger son desired to be treated as when he conceived his confession in the far country—a hired servant (Luke 15:19). While his brother sought freedom outside their father’s house, he looks inside himself for his. But he has enslaved himself too, not by tying his freedom to limited resources, but by tying it to a resource that doesn’t exist: his own righteousness.
He’s been keeping score when his father hasn’t. That’s why he treats his father with such contempt. According to the older son, the young son earned exactly what he got in the far country: nothing.
The older brother craves the same thing his younger brother did: the freedom to serve himself first. And, he thinks his father should foot the bill too. He feels justified in that demand, righteous even. He’s more than earned it, especially in comparison to his deadbeat brother.
We get just as outraged as the older brother. Lord, how can you welcome these addicts and adulterers, felons and fiends, liars, and lowlifes. They’ve done nothing but crap all over every chance you’ve given them. But, me? I’ve made the most of everything you gave me! I’ve done most everything right! And you haven’t even noticed.
The True Freedom of the Father
The father sees through his sons’ faulty philosophies. The freedom he gave them was a gift. The younger turned it into an excuse to abandon his neighbor and to disobey his father. The older turned it into a weapon of self-righteousness to wielded against his neighbor and a salary owed to him.
But it’s the scandalous nature of the father, his graciousness in the face of blatant dishonor and disrespect, that makes this parable what Jesus intends: a testament to the love God displayed most clearly in Christ. They forsook the father’s gift of freedom, yet he continues to pour it out on them amid their sin.
The younger son remembers the kindness of his father and decides to return home, where he has every intention of telling his father how it’s going to be upon his return. “You’re going to make me one of your hired servants and I’m gonna earn my way back into your favor.” The father scuttles that plan, not with rebuke, but with an act so gracious it offends everyone.
“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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:22–24).
The older son publicly humiliates his father by arguing with him in the sight of their guests and refusing his role as host-steward so his father can be a proper host. He accuses his father of being unjust and unfairly kind. The father levels the older son’s self-righteousness with the same outrageous grace he showed his younger son.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31–32).
The father had every right to walk out in anger and punish his older son. Except, he doesn’t. The father graciously reminds his older son of their relationship. Whatever belongs to the father is his. The older son failed to see that he didn’t need a goat from his father to celebrate. His father’s goats are his goats.
This is the kind of freedom God, in his grace and mercy, has given us to live in. Like the younger son, we can return to our Father every time our sinful hearts rebel against him. Like the older brother, we can complain and lament to our Father without fear of being destroyed.
Our Father gives us a freedom we could never earn, and we don’t have to strive to keep it.
Through water and his word, God declares us free from sin, death, and the devil. But we don’t want this kind of declared freedom. To the old self, that’s not freedom; it’s too weak. We sinners prefer something more glorious. We want a freedom we fight for, a freedom we earn by making a name for ourselves— one that justifies our innate desires to put ourselves first in every matter.
Our Father gives us a freedom we could never earn, and we don’t have to strive to keep it. He roots our freedom in the irrevocable, historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He delivers that freedom to us by his word attached to ordinary water in an irrevocable event in our history: our baptism.
But baptism is not a mere past event. It is also here and now. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). We are free now. Christ has freely given us his life and his righteousness now and in perpetuity. This means we are free to serve: Free to serve our families amid our mistakes, free to serve our neighbors in their hour of need without worry for ourselves, and free to lose our reputation in the eyes of the world as we serve those made in the image of God.