Last blog I ended by highlighting that in the story of the Prodigal Son, the younger brother ‘leaves home’ by literally departing, but also by the way he then goes on to live (his ‘badness’). But, the older brother also leaves by carrying out slavish goodness. He’s driven partly by fear but also by hope of getting wealth rather than by any kind of love for his dad or family. It’s all about tit for tat with him – total justice.
Timothy Keller notes a number of ways in which a tendency to be like the older brother can be recognised (ouch!). The first is a deep sense of anger and resentment when life doesn’t pan out the way you might think it should by rights. Questions like, ‘what have I done to deserve this? Where did I go wrong? Have I displeased God?’ get asked.
The second is a slavish mentality. ‘All these years I have slaaaaaaaved for you’ says older brother. Duty through and through, no joy or love or pleasure in seeing the father pleased. It sounds like he feels forced and pushed into what he’s doing. Like a slave, his motive to do good is fear (any bells ringing? Definitely some for me). Tim Keller again:
‘It’s one thing to be honest and avoid lies for your sake, but it another to do so for God’s sake, for truth’s sake, and for the love of people around us…..Honesty born of fear does nothing to root out the fundamental cause of evil in the world – the radical self-centredness of the human heart…….(Elder brothers) are not really feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, they are feeding and clothing themselves’.
The third characteristic of elder-brotherness is a lack of assurance of the Father’s love. Life going wrong leads to questions about ‘what I’ve done wrong’. Criticism is devastating not just unpleasant. Unrelenting guilt is prevalent. Prayer is dry and more like a conversation with a business partner than a lover. Prayer happens to try and control the environment rather than to get more deeply into an on-going relationship. Is it any wonder the younger boy wanted to get away? Most of us would probably think ‘I’m not as bad as all that, I don’t have all those issues’! True, true. But I know first hand it’s possible to be older brother-ish!
Even though both sons are wrong, the father cares for them both (yes, even the older son) and wants them back in the family. He pleads with his son. What a word for God. Can you be more vulnerable or seemingly pathetic, and less dominant? How humiliatingly loving and patient, to plead.
In order to come back to the Father truly, what was needed was not just a ‘sorry’ for a list of specific wrongs. I guess the younger son could have said sorry and then gone away again and lived a fairly moral decent life somewhere else. I’ve always wondered how the story would have gone if the young son took his inheritance and then went and lived quite a nice good life in another city? What if he hadn’t wasted it and lived a scandalous life? Would Jesus have had a point? I mean, it’s not a choice of ‘with the Father = good life’ and ‘without the father = bad life’ is it? Or maybe it is? I guess (from the story) what God sees as being ‘saved’ is being a living active part of his family, sharing in it’s daily life and love rather than simply being good. Maybe without that love and living connection, all goodness eventually dries up and becomes loveless and empty anyway? To truly become Christians we must not just repent of things we have done wrong but ‘must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right’.
It reminds me a little of the parable of the workers where, at the end of the day, those who started work first get paid the same as those who started 3 hours later and those who started 3 hours later still. HOW UNFAIR!! Yes, it truly is. This story used to get my blood simmering just a little 🙂 But now I’m seeing a bit more that God wants everyone in his family and enjoying the blessings that that brings, and it doesn’t matter to him at what point they decide to join in, as long as they do. And if those who are already adopted want their siblings to receive less because they joined later, then they have never fully understood what it means to be part of that family themselves. But it can be a terribly bitter pill to swallow sometimes.
In the days when Jesus told this story, it would have been expected that the elder son should go out and search for the younger son to bring him back to the family in such a situation. But he didn’t. But Jesus (our older brother) did go out from the father’s house to search and find and bring home. In fact, in doing all this he paid what was necessary to make it happen. Personally, I think it’s sooooo important that this payment is not seen as a payment by Jesus to God on the cross to deal with God’s standard of fairness/holiness or worse still, God’s anger. In the story, what did the elder brother pay? Well, he had to accept that half of the original family estate was gone. Then he had to accept that his little brother now was an heir to half of what was left (rightfully his) and use some of his rightful property to give him a feast and reclothe him. Plus there was, I’m sure, a huge cost to his reputation. He paid a lot. How else could his brother be a true family heir again? It was completely unfair. No wonder he didn’t want it to happen.
But Jesus didn’t mind at all. He cared more about his family than the stuff. Although in his case, there was a lot more to suffer than some lost stuff. Therefore it’s also important to realise that there’s never forgiveness and reconciliation without someone paying for it. But it’s not the kind of ‘paying’ we tend to think.
By the way, don’t you just love the father’s sentence, ‘My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours’? It’s one of my favourites in the whole bible. It’s as if, in the middle of pleading, the father is confused and incredulous (and hurt?) to realise that the older son thinks it’s all about ‘things’. ‘All my things are yours anyway, what are you worried about? You could have had any of it, why did you think I was withholding it? That’s not the point at all, you’re brother’s back!’ When I’m struggling to like God and see him as selfish and glory-loving, I think of this sentence. ‘It’s not about me, it’s not about stuff. It’s about our family’. Actually, if the father had insisted on justice, the older brother in the story (not just the younger) might have ended up with a lot less than he could have had, had he left the father to his generously un-just ways.
Interestingly, at the end of the story it is the older son who shuts himself out of the party. It is not the father who closes the doors. And this tallies with a point that people often make, one that sometimes tries to pull the rug out from under my feet when I’m feeling confident in God’s love. How are we ever going to be motivated to make progress in the task of becoming like a true family member without the fear of hell and the reward of heaven? I mean, maybe the motivation of religion was a bit negative but at least it seemed to work! If you want the rat to make it through the maze, you have to show it the cheese! Timothy Keller again………..
‘But if, when you have lost all fear of punishment (or hope of reward?) you also have lost all incentive to live an obedient life, then what was your motivation in the first place? It could only have been fear. What other incentive is there? Love’.
(NB – Steve Chalke, founder of the charity Oasis and ex GMTV presenter amongst a huge number of other things (including ‘man who used to live down the road from me’) has written a great chapter on forgiveness in his book ‘Apprentice’, which includes discussion of justice and fairness. He has also written a fantastic, easy-to-read article about the meaning of the cross and the problem of the penal-substitutionary model, which I mentioned here. It seems to fit well here with some of the ideas about justice so if you fancy reading it, you can find it at www.adrianwarnock.com/chalkeoncross.pdf I personally breathe a sigh of relieved relief when I read things like this!