An elder brother responds to Prodigal God (Part 2)

I feel like my thoughts are just tumbling around over and over in my head right now.  I spend way too much time listening to my own thoughts, but it’s kind of hard to get away from them, you know?

Since I can’t untangle what I’m thinking about now, I figured I would try to go back and continue something I was writing about a while ago, a response to reading Tim Keller’s book, Prodigal God.  Since my church is currently working through another of Keller’s books during adult Sunday school, some of these issues have continued to be on my mind from time to time.

As I said in my earlier post, Keller sees the two brothers in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son as representing two basic ways that people relate to God.  The younger brother rebels against his father very openly by breaking all of the rules.  The older brother keeps all of the rules, but in the end, his refusal to honor his father and come into the party shows that his obedience has really been rebellion all along.  Just like the younger brother, he wants the father’s riches but not the father himself.  In fact, at the end of the parable, the younger son is restored, but the older son’s outcome is left hanging:

“Although the sons are both wrong and both loved, the story does not end on the same note for each.  Why does Jesus construct the story so that one of them is saved, restored to a right relationship with the fathe, and one of them is not?  (At least, not before the story ends.)  It may be that Jesus is trying to say that while both forms of the self-salvation project are equally wrong, each one is not equally dangerous. […]

Because the elder brother is more blind to what is going on, being an elder-brother Pharisee is a more spiritually desperate condition.”

This is the scariest thing about the story for me– the idea that you can be deceived your whole life, thinking you are in a right relationship with God, only to find in the end that you have missed it totally.  It may not be a logical reaction to a character in a parable, but as I read Keller’s statements about the older brother, I find myself trying to defend him, asking if it is fair to judge him by one statement he made in anger.  The older brother says,

“Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

Not only do these words condemn the elder brother just as surely as the younger brother’s actions did– they also reveal all of the elder brother’s obedience throughout his life to have been selfish and worthless.  It’s very scary.  Will I some day come to a point that reveals my faith in God was empty?

I am really at Jesus’ mercy.  It is not the strength of my faith that saves me– if Jesus were not upholding me every step of the way, I would have no hope.  One of the things about Jesus that can be both comforting and scary at the same time is that he knows the weaknesses of our hearts.

Once, a rich young ruler came to Jesus.  Like the elder brother in the parable, he thought that he had kept all of the rules perfectly.  Still, he wanted to be certain.  He asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.  You would think that for something like eternal life, no matter what Jesus told him to do, he would at least try to do it.  But Jesus said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  And the man went away sad, because he was very wealthy.

That was all it took to make the rich young ruler give up on eternal life.  I’m sure there are things Jesus could say to me that would make me give up– I am not that strong.  If he wanted to, he could make me walk away.  But thankfully, he is merciful, and he has promised to keep me through to the end.  It may seem precarious from my point of view, but in fact, Jesus’ grace is the surest thing there is to rely on.

I have lots more to say about Keller’s book– the frustrating thing is that it seems to cause me to doubt, and I have to keep reminding myself that my salvation is because of what Jesus did, not anything I did.  Maybe that’s what it’s meant to do?  I don’t know.

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