“Abide in me, and I in you…” John 15:4
The concept of abiding has always seemed hazy to me. I, like many others, like things to be laid out in steps. That way I’ll know if I’m progressing, if I’m moving toward the goal. But abiding is about a relationship and relationships aren’t like building Ikea furniture. Step by step directions and checklists won’t suffice because relationships are organic things. But still, how does one exactly do this thing called abiding? Is there a way to see if we’re swinging wide of the mark?
Sometimes when we don’t understand a word, we can gain insight by looking at its opposite. To abide means to remain in a place, so the opposite would be to depart that place. Jesus specifically commands his disciples to abide in him, so to not abide would mean to depart from Jesus. If we then think more deeply about the metaphor of the vine and the branch, we realize that to abide in Christ is to remain attached to our life source. To not abide in Christ would mean we’re seeking nourishment elsewhere. And when he elaborates in verse 7 by saying this: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will done for you,” we understand that a major part of our nourishment comes from immersing ourselves in the Word. So if we neglect the Word of God, there’s a good chance we’re not abiding. That’s a good start but I wanted more understanding.
The other day I was hiking on a local trail, meditating on this some more. I began to wonder whether there were any examples in the Bible of a person who didn’t abide. My mind went to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son.
Most of us know this story and could retell it without much help. It’s a beautifully redemptive story of a young son who rejects his father and squanders his inheritance on immoral pursuits. Only when he’s left destitute, feeding pigs, does he come to his senses and return home. To his surprise and astonishment, his father has been looking out over the horizon for him this whole time and receives him back with lavish amounts of grace.
We rightly love that story, but what about the older son? Here is where I think we get a picture of what it might look like to not abide. See if you agree with me.
First, read these words again from Luke 15:
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘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.’”
Remember that this is the climax of three separate parables in Luke 15. And why did Jesus tell these parables? We’re told the reason in Luke 15:2. The Pharisees were grumbling at the fact that Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners, the lowest of the low. Jesus responds by telling them three stories with the same redemptive theme – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. It’s only at the end of the last parable, the last of these stories about something or someone being saved, that Jesus adds another character, and draws a comparison between this older son and the Pharisees. So what do we see and how might it paint a picture of not abiding?
The father has just made a fool of himself rejoicing over his lost son and proceeds to throw him an extravagant banquet. But where is the older son? Doesn’t he know the good news? No. He is in the fields. He’s in the wrong place. Shouldn’t he have been with his father, concerned over his younger brother, waiting and hoping for his return? His heart is in the wrong place too. He doesn’t share his father’s affections. Only someone who has hardened their heart would react in anger to the news of the return of their lost brother who was considered as good as dead.
We see more evidence of this hardness when the father comes out to his older son to entreat him to come to the banquet. Notice the merciful beseeching of the father! But it’s to no avail. His response to his father’s entreaties reveals a self-righteous heart and a grave misunderstanding of what a relationship with the father is all about. He thinks his works are deserving of merit, that his relationship with the father is a quid pro quo – he’s done a good job all this time, so why didn’t he earn a banquet? But his father shows him his error. His relationship to his father was always secure and everything the father has already belonged to him. It had always been about grace!
By finishing the story like this, Jesus reveals the true heart of the Pharisees and I believe gives us a picture of someone who had failed to abide. If the Pharisees had been abiding in God and had truly understood his Word, then they would have had the same affection for sinners as Jesus. But they were like the older son, unable to rejoice in the free offer of salvation to the most undeserving.
If the Pharisees had been abiding, they would have realized that their source of life and righteousness came from God, not their works. But like the older son, they thought their works made them deserving of the blessings and salvation of God, when all along, it was only ever about grace.
If the older brother is a good example of not abiding, we see that someone can look like they’re doing the right things, when all along there is no relationship. For the branch to continue in the vine and bear fruit, it must get its nourishment from the vine. It’s silly to think that a branch can produce fruit apart from drawing life from its source. But we do this all the time when we seek to find life in other things but Christ.
I think I have a much better understanding now of what it means to abide. Do you?