For Good Persons Only
Normally I use this column as a preview for what I plan to say on Sunday. But this week I’m going to follow up on what I said last week. You may remember the story I related to you last week about a young man named “Toby.” He’s the guy who murdered his father because his father refused to give him the money he needed to buy some speculative property in Las Vegas. We look at somebody like that and we say, “Now there’s somebody who clearly has a heart problem.” We think the same thing about the prodigal son in the famous parable. But not all heart conditions are this easy to spot. Sometimes the ones with the most serious heart problems are the ones who seem to be the cleanest living people around.
What many people miss when they read or hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, is that the part of the story about the selfish, younger son is actually a set-up for the true target Jesus was aiming at—those who identified with the elder brother—those who believe they are good persons.
Most of What we are hearing here is the heart-cry of a person who for years has been "the good child" in his family. The older brother hasn't colored outside the lines his father has laid down for him. He hasn't rebelled in any of the visible ways that his wayward sibling has. He has appeared to be working faithfully, even heroically, for his father's interests, never asking for anything. It is for this reason that many of us, when we read this parable, feel some genuine empathy for this elder brother. We can understand his outrage and hurt, his sense of the utter injustice of his loser brother suddenly getting all kinds of blessings when he has done nothing to earn them, while the older brother has done so much.
But look closer at what the older brother is saying here. He considers the work he's been doing in his Father's household an act of slavery, rather than the natural act of being a son. He stresses the fact that he "never disobeyed" his father's orders, rather than describing how he's sought to live after the father's heart. He is upset that his father "never gave him even a goat" so that he could party with "his friends," apparently unconscious that he has had all along the greatest reward of all—the gift of his father's presence with him. Rather than viewing the returning son as "this brother of mine," he distances himself from his brother by referring to him as "this son of yours," feeling that his brother was getting the blessing he himself deserved.
Do you see the irony in this tirade? Up to this point, the elder brother has appeared to be the exact opposite of the younger one. But how different is the older brother, really? Does he really care for his father's heart more than his younger brother? Does he desire to know his father and serve him any more than his younger brother? The answer is "no." Both of them are primarily interested in Dad for what they can manipulate out of him. The only difference is their strategy for getting it. The younger son tries to get Dad's stuff by being very bad and the older son tries to get Dad's stuff by being very good. Each wants Dad's blessings on their own terms, and each gets resentful that it takes so much effort to get Dad to shell out.
The heart of the younger son burns with an obvious selfishness. But the heart of the older son is afflicted with something much harder to detect and much tougher to root out. It's the cancer of self-righteousness. The older son believes he is good. He secretly congratulates himself on how good he is. He stews on how much he deserves for being so good. He fumes at all the people who get breaks and blessings despite the fact that they are not very good. And this very self-righteousness blinds him to seeing that when it comes to taking in the true grace and goodness of his father's heart and reflecting it to others, he is every bit as abysmally lost as his brother.
In his profoundly important book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller contends that the primary problem facing the church of Jesus Christ today is that we are blind to this second kind of lostness. Many churches, Keller bluntly contends, are congregations of elder brothers. In spite of the fact that we have been surrounded by the gospel of God's grace, many of us have refused to enter into the Father's house and heart. Every person needs a savior—even good persons.
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