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SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD
SEPTEMBER 21, 1997
Last weekend was a weekend of contrasts. It was my son, EJ’s, first experience with PeeWee Soccer. Saturday morning began with a bunch of pre-game festivities. There was a little soccer parade and a small carnival. The day concluded with a match-up, EJ’s team facing the Rebels. It was kind of funny watching EJ play soccer. He was so enthralled with his brand-new uniform that the ball would be on one side of the field and EJ would be on the other side just running, looking down at his uniform and watching it flow in the breeze. Time outs were hilarious. The kids would not go to the coaches, they would run to their parents! Obviously, I am talking about athletics at its lowest point, the entry level, PeeWee Soccer.
Well just 24 hours later I found myself attending another pre-game event, the chapel service of the Dallas Cowboys. While I was talking to some of the players, I said to myself, “What a contrast. Just 24 hours earlier, I am hanging out with the PeeWee Soccer team and now I am talking to some of the best professional players on the planet.” I thought, I can’t picture these guys so enthralled with their uniforms that they forget their plays. I can’t picture them running to their parents during time outs or half times. No, no. This is professional football.
What a contrast. What a contrast. Jesus Christ came along one day and told a story about contrasts. The contrasts Christ talked about are contrasts that we all deal with on a daily basis. These contrasts are much greater than the illustration I just gave. I am talking about the contrast of joy and jealousy and the contrast of forgiveness and bitterness. You see if the bold truth were known, most of us are playing around in the PeeWee fields of life watching our uniforms kind of blow in the breeze, instead of playing on the professional level, God’s level of living. So for the next few moments, I want to share with you from Luke 15, how to jolt our jealousy and jump for joy, then how to break the back of bitterness and fast forward to forgiveness. Contrasts. Contrasts.
Last week I talked about the Prodigal Son, a story familiar to most of you. A father had two sons, an older one and a younger one. The younger son walked up to his father one day and asked for his share of the inheritance. His father gave it to him. The Bible says that the younger son moved to a distant land and squandered his inheritance on extravagant living. Then the Bible says that the young son came to his senses, turned back to his father. His father welcomed him and threw a giant party for him. This story shows the forgiveness and the grace and the compassion of the father. We compared the father to God, and the lost younger son to those people away from God. Jesus, then, changed gears in the middle of the story. He moved the focus off the younger prodigal son to the older brother.
Most of the time the older brother is neglected. We rarely talk about him because we are always concerned about the younger prodigal son. But in my theological opinion, the older brother is the true prodigal son. That is where we pick up today and where we see our first set of contrasts, the contrast between joy and jealousy.
There is a party going on in the house. The father has welcomed the younger son back. The father has bought him a designer robe, some Doc Martin sandals and put a ring on his finger. He is throwing the biggest Bar-B-Que. His friends are there and everyone is having a good time because the lost younger son was found. Now we pick up this contrast. We have the joy thing going on at the party. Let’s look at the jealousy aspect. Now we look at the older brother.
Luke 15:25. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near (I like the word near), he heard music and dancing (I like the word heard), and he called (I like the word called) one of his servants and asked him what was going on.” What’s the deal? Why all the partying? The older brother began to have feelings of jealousy. The Bible says that the older brother became angry. And jealousy always manifests itself in anger. We don’t like to feel those feelings of inferiority. We don’t like to feel those feelings of jealousy so we leapfrog to another emotion, a secondary emotion which is anger. When we are angry with someone, jealous of someone, we do the same thing that the older brother did to his younger brother. We get near the situation. We don’t come in the house. We get near the house, in the vicinity of the house. Are you kind of near the house? Are you kind of near someone of whom you are jealous? We never want to get in and talk to them and hear the real deal. We want to kind of stay in the shadows and take those Lee Harvey Oswald type pot shots as we rip them apart behind their back. We get near the house.
We also hear things. The older brother heard music and dancing. We like to deal in deceit. We like to hear things about the person or the situation. We say, “Oh, can you believe that? I heard this. I heard that.” I want to give you some advice about critical people, about jealous people, about angry people. When someone comes up to you and says, “Sally, a lot of your friends have come to me and I have got to share this with you…..” You need to know that they are a walking billboard being critical of you. They are ripping you apart. I have dealt with a lot of situations in my life, in counseling, in talking with people, and I have never met all these “people” who are talking bad about the other individual. I have never known this individual to bring them to the forefront. Just know that the person saying this is stabbing you in the back. He came near the house. He heard the music and dancing.
Then the Bible says that he called one of his servants. Why didn’t the older brother just talk to his father? Why didn’t he talk to his younger brother? Instead he called one of the servants. And, sadly, the older brother spoke nicer to the servant than he could to his brother or his father. We are going to see that for the older brother, sorry was the hardest word for him to articulate. He just couldn’t say it. He was jealous.
I wish you would do something for me right now. If you have a pen or a pencil, I want you to take out your bulletin and write the word jealousy. I will write it myself. Now after we have written it, let’s say it together on the count of three. We can’t write it and we can’t say it without the word lousy. Jealousy shows its hand. When we live a life of jealousy, we are going to have a lousy life. And the older brother lived a lousy life. He was jealous that his father received his younger brother back home. He was jealous of the party going on. He was jealous of the new wardrobe, jealous of the ring, of the Bar-B-Que. Yet the older brother owned two-thirds of his father’s estate. Unbelievable.
Jealousy does two lousy things in your life and my life. It did two lousy things in the life of the older brother. First, jealousy breeds discontent. This older brother couldn’t understand the blessings he received because he was so enamored by what his younger brother was receiving. It breeds discontent.
Over the last couple of months my family and I have been researching dogs because we are going to buy a brand new puppy. We have gone through a number of breeds. The breed that we have kind of camped out on is the bullmastiff. We love big dogs and the bullmastiff male gets to be about 150 to 160 pounds. I called breeders that I located through the newspaper. I had never really talked to dog breeders before. They are an interesting breed themselves. They love animals. Of course, I love animals a lot. But some of these dog breeders seem to like their dogs better than their spouses. I called one woman last week and she was talking to me about her puppies. She was saying, “You know the father of these puppies is just handsome. Max is so intuitive, so sensitive. He has such a wonderful expression. I am looking at him right now.” Then I heard her husband say a few words in the background and she said, “Shhhh, be quiet. I’m talking about Max to someone on the phone.” Anyway, then she went on to talk about the breeding process, how everything was clean and pristine. She wants to sell her puppies and to show them. She wants to breed the ultimate bullmastiff. I am going to tell you something. Jealousy is in the breeding business. And the pick of the litter is discontent.
My mind rushes to Matthew 20. One day Jesus told a story about a wealthy landowner who hired a bunch of workers. The first worker he hired at 6:00am, the next at 9:00am, the third at 12 Noon. The others were men he hired at 3:00pm and 5:00pm. The wealthy landowner promised all these men a day’s wages. At the end of the workday the landowner returns and does something rather countercultural. He paid the person he hired last, first. The person he hired first, he paid last. And he paid all of them the same amount. Well, the people who had been working all day went on tilt. They began to mummer and gossip and backbite. Those are always the offspring of jealousy. Then Jesus said the landowner asked the ones he hired first why they were jealous. He wanted to know why they were envious of his generosity. It’s a tough question, isn’t it? When someone is blessed, when someone does something well, when someone has ability or a talent, why can’t we thank God for what they are receiving. The reason is that we are so concerned about what they have that we forget what we have. God is a generous God. He is going to bless certain people. We can’t explain it. We can’t make it work out mathematically. It just happens. Are you living a life filled with discontent? That is what jealousy does. It breeds discontent.
Jealousy also does something else. Jealousy silences applause. The older brother should have been applauding for his younger brother. He should have been applauding for the grace of his father. But he wasn’t because jealousy silences applause.
During the introduction of my graduation from seminary, our President stood up before a packed church of 3,500 people. He said, “While these graduates are walking across the stage, do not applaud, do not show any kind of emotion. This is a very holy time. Just listen to the organ music.” The music played sounded a bit like a dirge to my ears. I watched as graduate after graduate walked across the stage in that very holy environment. Well, I had to wait a very long time since my name is Young. Finally, I was just getting ready to walk across the stage when a close friend of mine came in late to the graduation. He had not heard the explanation from the President of the Seminary. The President called out my name; Edwin Barry Young, Master of Divinity. The organ music began to play. My friend stood up and shouted, “Yea, yea, yea. All right, Ed. Let’s go.” When that happened, 3,500 Baptists full of hair spray and dressed in polyester, collectively turned their heads toward my friends and said, “No, shhhhh, no.” They silenced his applause.
What is your first reaction when the person who works next to you but not as hard as you or as long as you or as diligently as you gets the corner office promotion? Do you applaud or do you let jealousy take over and say, “No, shhhh, no.” What do you do when you take a tour of your college friend’s custom home, what is your first reaction? Do you say that you are so happy for her, or do you let jealousy take over and say, “No, shhh, no.” Feelings of jealousy, feelings of envy, feelings of discontent, feelings that we cannot applaud the successes of others. We can’t worship God because He is generous to others. We are so enamoured with what others have that we don’t receive and worship God for what we do have.
I Samuel 18 tells the account of David and Saul. After David experienced his upset victory with Goliath, after the ticket tape parade, the Bible says in I Samuel 18:9, “King Saul had a jealous eye toward David.” Why? Saul was not jealous because David was a great poet. He was not jealous because David was great with a slingshot. He was not jealous because David knew a lot about nature. He became jealous when David fought the battles that Saul should have fought. We are not jealous of people above us or below us. We are jealous of people right next to us, aren’t we? Doctors aren’t jealous of lawyers. They are jealous of other doctors. Homemakers aren’t jealous of actresses. They are jealous of other homemakers. Pastors aren’t jealous of salesmen. They are jealous of other pastors. Jealousy will lead you to a lousy life. It will breed discontent. It will silence your applause. And every time we refrain from applauding, we are just slapping God in the face. We are saying, “God, you are not a generous God. You are not a gift-giving God, not a blessing God because I want it just for me.” See the contrast between joy and jealousy? There was joy going on in the house but the older brother stayed outside the house in jealousy.
Let’s look at the next contrast. It is the contrast between forgiveness and bitterness. Forgiveness and bitterness. The older brother was jealous and angry and that led into a feeling of bitterness. Yet the father was forgiving. Let’s pick up the text. Luke 15:28. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in….” He couldn’t even face his father or his brother. You know what the father did? The same dad who had earlier run to meet his younger son and then thrown him a party, went outside the house and pleads with the older brother, “Son, come in. Son, don’t miss the celebration. Please come in.” I can almost hear him saying to his older son, “It’s sad. It’s a sad, sad situation and it is getting more and more absurd. Why can’t we talk it over? It seems to me that sorry is the hardest word for you to say.” If only this older brother had apologized to his father, to his younger brother, look at the freedom, the adventure, the excitement that he could have experienced. But he stayed near the house, just hearing stuff and calling people, maybe on his cell phone.
To put this in modern day vernacular, the older brother was tripping. He was just tripping. He took two trips that we always take when we deal with jealousy and bitterness. I take them and so do you. The first one is the ego trip. He just couldn’t stand it. We become really self-righteous, really stuck on ourselves, we begin to tell everybody how good we are, what we deserve. Look what he says in verse 29. “All these years I have been slaving for you and I never disobeyed your orders. (There is no exaggeration here, is there?) You never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” Oh, come on older brother. You already own two-thirds of this wealthy man’s estate. All he had to do was ask his father for a party. The father would have thrown one just like that. But he went off on an ego trip. Then after the ego trip we do another thing. We get into a guilt trip. We take the guild trip. We begin to confess the sins of the person we are jealous of. Aren’t we good at doing that? We will just tear them apart. Look what he says about his brother. “But when this son of yours (he wouldn’t call him his brother) who has squandered your property with prostitutes…” Let’s stop right there. Prostitutes, where did that come from? Nowhere in the Bible did we see that the younger brother went with prostitutes. He could have been. But I believe that the older brother began to exaggerate, to elongate, to pontificate. We do this when we get into the guilt trip. We talk about the other person’s sins. We think that as we tear other people down, it will build us up. That is usually the sign of a poor self-esteem. When I am tearing other people apart, I am trying to make myself look good. That is a game we get into, a game of bitterness.
Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 6:15. “If you do not forgive men of their sins, your Father will not forgive you of your sins.” Because the older brother was harboring and nursing jealousy and bitterness, because he couldn’t forgive, say that he was sorry, the father could not forgive him of his sins. A strong word, to your life and to mine. So where are you? Are you on an ego trip or a guilt trip? Are you dealing with feelings of jealousy? Just think about that person in your life that you struggle with, that you really want to tear apart. Think about the person you are fighting feelings of jealousy about, that you are bitter toward. It could be an ex-spouse, a competitor, maybe a boss. Maybe a neighbor, maybe a classmate, maybe a teammate, maybe a brother, maybe a parent. You know the person.
Let’s look at the reaction of the father. After he heard all of the ego stuff and the guilt stuff, you would think that he would just take his older son and body slam him. But he didn’t. This shows the grace and mercy of God. The father represents God. And if you remember the people that Jesus was talking to, the listeners. They were sinners and Pharisees. The older brother represents the Pharisees. The Pharisees couldn’t get it that the Father was forgiving of sinners. That is a whole other sermon in and of itself. Look at verse 31. “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” What a statement! “We had to celebrate (in the Greek, an urgency to celebrate) because this brother of yours was dead and is alive, he was lost and now is found.” The older brother could have experienced this, but he didn’t.
I think that it is fascinating that Christ never completed this story. He never told us what happened to the older brother. That is up for debate and speculation. We see ourselves often in the younger son, turning back to God, but how about the older son? How about the jealousy, how about the bitterness?
I have been in the ministry for 15 years. Over the years I have seen a lot of older brothers and sisters, people who preferred nursing and taking care of their jealousy and bitterness as opposed to loving and forgiving. I have seen these people systematically cut themselves off from friends, family members and even the church. Always taking pot shots, telling people what is wrong in other’s lives and never talking about the things that they struggle with, it is always the other person’s fault.
You know what God is saying to you and me? Our loving and gracious and forgiving God is saying, “Come clean. Tell Me that you are sorry. Tell others in your life that you are sorry. Quit playing on the PeeWee field looking at the uniforms blowing in the breeze. It is time to hit the professional level and to say that you are sorry when you need to.” How about you? How about you? Is sorry your hardest word?