But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him...
You’ve likely never heard their names: Mike Hoare, Simon Mann, Bob Dennard, Robert C. McKenzie, Patrick Sarsfield. They would’ve preferred that, because they weren’t doing what they were doing for notoriety; they were doing it for money.
They were mercenaries—cunning, resourceful individuals without personal, moral, philosophical, or ideological allegiance to those they serve. Financial gain is their only abiding interest, regardless of the geopolitical havoc they’re paid to wreak.
John Calvin employed the same term to refer to some people’s love. “Mercenary acts,” he said, “are of no account in the sight of God. Not that he absolutely condemns all acts of kindness which are done in the hope of a reward; but he shows that they are of no weight as a testimony of charity; because he alone is truly beneficent to his neighbors, who is led to assist them without any regard to his own advantage, but looks only to the necessities of each” (Calvin’s Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists). One’s ostensible love for another, Calvin says, may be anything but love if all exertions are for one’s own gain.
The older brother of Jesus’ parable exemplifies precisely what we should fear. He displays a kind of allegiance that has all the appearance of noble devotion. He is faultless in compliance, steadfast in restraint. Yet this allegiance is mercenary because it is not driven by love for his father, but by his own desire for gain—as Sunday’s sermon reminded us.
If it had been for love he obeyed, would he not have looked with sorrow and pity upon his profligate brother, rather than scorn? You mourn for those whose folly keeps them from good if you yourself are the beneficiary of that good. But consider also his response to his father’s joy. If he loved to do his father’s will, would not contentment rather than envy have been his response to the celebration of his brother’s return?
In that light his obedience is even more obscene. A true mercenary knows his only allegiance is to himself. The older brother only thinks his allegiance is to his father; he doesn’t realize where his true affections lie. His younger brother was self-deceived to think he could find his good apart from his father. The older brother was no less deceived to think that it was for his father that he labored.
Can you see why we must fear this older brother’s version of allegiance? How easily can we drift into a self-serving servitude. Like a virus, it can subtly and thoroughly infiltrate every thought, affection, and action. We can comply with a great deal of what the Lord commands, but when we revile others for their folly, when we crater under the weight of our own failures, when we find it difficult to rejoice in the noble accomplishments of others can’t celebrate in their restoration after they’ve fallen, when we tend to view life as one big competition of surpassing and impressing—any of those manifestations reveal we’ve drifted into the older brother’s mercenary love. They all indicate we no longer trust the Lord’s estimation of us. We’ve made ourselves the object of our own affections, and crowned ourselves capable of securing our significance.
Fortunately, the infection of mercenary love reveals itself to the discerning eye. The scorn for his brother and the envy for his father’s magnanimity unmasked the older son’s true motives. The father perceives that and, as Pete noted, revealed to his eldest what he’d been oblivious to: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Irrespective of how disingenuous his son’s compliance had been and of how loveless his heart still seemed to be, the father had withdrawn neither himself nor his provision. No show of obedience could impress him enough to love; no display of ingratitude could subdue that love.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus unmasks our delusions and reorients our affections. The cross reveals how deep our corruption lies and how incapable we are of obtaining the love our hearts naturally war against. The cross reveals how unshakeable is that love for those who see their folly and turn to God for reconciliation and renewal. When we see those twin truths, we leave the inclination for mercenary love behind, and at last begin to genuinely love God.
David Brainerd, a missionary to native American Indians in the 18th century, noticed the mercenary spirit in his own obedience when he wrote:
“I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, pretending, and indeed really thinking sometimes that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness.... the whole was nothing but self-worship, and an horrid abuse of God.” (The Life and Diary of David Brainerd)
Where has the mercenary spirit infected you? In what ways have you made yourself the object of your own affections and aspirations? In what ways have you sought to crown yourself capable of securing your significance and salvation? Ask the Lord to reveal that as clearly as the father did for his older son. Then the gain you seek will be God Himself.