August 26 2011

From a younger brother to an elder brother

This is a response to my brother’s post reviewing Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God.

Please first read it here:

This is my response. (for some reason his blog wouldn’t let me post it)


(for those other than Tony)
After posting his blog, my brother Tony sent me a text message that said:

“You’ll hate it – I don’t like it myself – but prodigal god is up”

Well, I don’t know what you were worried about Tony – I loved the blog. I agree with much of what you wrote and in principle, think you approached the passage in a way that more Bible College students need to. I’ll explain more of that a bit later.

First and foremost, I want to say I wholeheartedly agree with what you said in your introduction – It is true. I am intelligent and caring and humorous and ridiculously good-looking (hmm I may have read into your post more than what was there).

I also want to say, I haven’t actually read Time Keller’s Prodigal God, so I won’t be commenting on it or whether you are picking on poor Mr Keller unfairly. I have though read, studied, memorised and even performed Luke 15 in the past and so I wanted to comment on how I really like your reading and interpretation of it.

I agree that the main issue in the parable is the elder brother’s attitude towards the younger brother. As you point out, when put next to the earlier two parables the clear pattern is something is lost, something is found and then everyone celebrates. Jesus’ even explains this when he points out that “there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” So clearly, sinners are the things that are lost – like a coin, sheep or younger brother -, God is the one who finds – like a woman, a shepherd and a father – and everyone should be celebrating over repentance and restoration – like the neighbors, friends, angels in heaven and… wait a second! Here’s where the contrast in the last parable is evident and the real point of the parable is brought home to Jesus’ audience, the pharisees.

The older brother like the pharisees should have been rejoicing and yet they are focussed on injustice. As you point out, the main focus of the older brother’s outrage is that 1. the father is not giving the son what he deserves (rejection and condemnation) and 2. the father is not getting what he deserves (a son that has not treated him so disrespectfully).

I do think that the elder son has a sense of self-righteousness in his tone and that his indignation does expose the fact that he thinks that he is in a different category to the younger son and is not equally in need of just as much mercy and generosity. Jesus was often addressing this sense of self-righteousness among the pharisees and often used parables to point this out (see for example, my favourite parable in Luke 18:9-14).

Despite this, I agree with your basic conclusion, “There should be no doubt that what Jesus is saying is that the correct response to the restoration of a sinner to the family is rejoicing.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying that judgement is wrong or that sin is not actually sin and that’s why the father welcomes the son back. As if God doesn’t really have any problem with us and that’s why the elder brother needs to just get over his whole moralistic focus on justice and come join the party.

I think the message that sin is real is still very much part of the story. The sons rejection of the father and squandering of his inheritance is told with emotional weight and are supposed to be an apt parallel to what our sin is all about. We reject God and yet we want to use the things he gives us (life, our bodies, the planet etc.) for our own purposes and desires. The fact that Jesus repeats the point about how the celebration happens when “one sinner repents” is a clear message that sin is not imaginary. It must be repented of (turned away from and rejected). The younger son would not be welcomed home if he only came home to borrow more money so he could pay for more prostitutes. He needed to repent.

So the issue is not that the elder brother got sin wrong. What the elder brother got wrong was the character of the father. The father could have very rightly rejected the younger brother. Even the younger brother knew this as he didn’t come back expecting to be forgiven and accepted back into the family, but just to get a job. But the father put aside his rights and the judgement the son deserved and he welcomed him back with great joy. His heart filled with love and joy compelled him and this is the character of God.

The problem with the elder brother and with the pharisees is that they were waiting for God’s judgement and they did not welcome God’s mercy. It reminds me of Jonah actually (won’t go into that now. You’ll have to read it yourself).

Although the elder brother’s sin includes his lack of love for the younger brother, it can’t be ignored that the younger brother’s sin was against the father. It was real and it needed to be dealt with. The younger brother could not come back without acknowledging and repenting of his sin and this is the sin that Jesus is referring to saying that this requires repentance if you want to be cause for celebration. You can’t be “found” if you don’t acknowledge that you are “lost”.

Tony, I very strongly disagree that seeing sin as primarily (if not only) a vertical issue means in practice that “if we want to treat someone with absolutely no regard we merely have to declare them God forsaken”. That is implying that sin being a vertical issue compels us to twist whether God loves or hates in order to allow us to love or hate as we choose.

On the contrary, anyone who sees sin in this way will be compelled by God’s example of love, forgiveness and generosity. Unless they totally ignore the whole gospel story (which sadly some so-called “Christians” do) they will not be able to ignore God’s example. The flow on effect from seeing sin as a vertical issue which then goes to horizontal is that forgiveness and love travels in the same way. As Paul says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13) and as John says, “Since God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:11) or as Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

This is the rebuke to the elder brother and to the pharisees. God has shown grace and forgiveness. He has welcomed the repentant sinner and so who are we to withold our grace and forgiveness when he has been so generous?

The parable is not just about the elder brother’s response to the younger brother in a vacuum. It is about his response in the light of the generosity of the father. The parable is a beautiful declaration of the character of God and the wonderful time that we are now in. As Paul says, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

The day of Judgement is still coming. Jesus spoke about that in great detail and so it can not be ignored if we want to get his teaching correct. But today is not the day of judgement. Today is the day of salvation! That’s what the pharisees were missing out on. That’s what the elder brother couldn’t accept.

Tony, you set out the challenge of seeing if anyone could find Jesus in the parable. For me, I see Jesus in the party. Jesus is in the robe and the ring and the fatted calf. Jesus is in the running of the father to meet the repentant son.
Jesus (and what he was about to do in dying for sin) is the only reason why today is the day of salvation.

The coming of Jesus declared a new era. A time when sinners could come to God and be welcomed with celebration rather than condemnation. As Jesus said in Luke 4:17-19 part of his message was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”.

As with all parables, this is only part of the story, and though we shouldn’t squeeze what Jesus did on the cross into the story if it isn’t explicitly there, I think it is a necessary element of the whole gospel story and makes sense of how judgement and mercy can co-exist.

Lastly, I want to say that I love that you avoid reading more into the parable that is there. A lot of bad teaching is done when people do that, and although as an evangelical Christian, I expect that I completely agree with Keller’s understanding of the gospel, I am confident that if we read the entire gospel as you have done – with honesty, in context and avoiding presuppositions – we will come to the same gospel, without having to do hermeneutic backflips.

Love you bro


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Posted August 26, 2011 by Simon in category "Christianity


  1. By tony c on

    You basthard. 🙂 It took me weeks to write what I wrote and you’ve knocked up something as good in what, a day?
    Seriously I agree it would be a misreading to construct a “There is no such thing as sin” message from the text, for all the reasons you mentioned.
    I’m less sure I agree about the vertical-only definition of sin not being dangerous in implications. And also being isolating (by giving other people the moral significance of similcrums) as I mentioned in my blog. I think however I may be making too much of a dry biscuit of your word “flow”. If by flow you mean something like how we are informed of peoples and animals truest reality or inspired to love then our differences vapourise. I mentioned in my blog the radical siblinghood of theism which may be what you mean. If however you mean that people and animals only have the moral worth selectively given by God I get concerned.
    You could argue Gods opinion is firmer ground to base morality on than our own subjectivity. Yet something about our subjective perception of other beings as real is more perennial than right doctrine even if it bears less certainty.(note- I’m reading Huckleberry Finn at the moment).
    Anyway its a fine point and if in practice the horizontal and vertical are simultaneous then perhaps its just a question of style of life? Further if you’re meeting God in others then even that difference is hard to find.
    I do recognize that independent horizontal sin makes problems for atonement theology.
    Thanks for all your kind words… keep writing.

  2. By Simon (Post author) on

    I realize I probably wasn’t very clear with how the vertical relates to horizontal.

    The concept I got sort of got distracted by was one that I find very challenging and shapes my life as a Christian.
    It’s the idea that the how we relate to people should be empowered and inspired by how God relates to us. It may be true that there could be reasons why we should love each other due to reasons outside how God loves us (ie. the intrinsic value of each person, the desire to care and bless rather can hurt and curse etc.) but scripture often points us to how God loves us because it is the greatest and most potent example of agape love.
    It often also talks about it in terms of hypocrisy – as in how hypocritical it is for us to want and enjoy God relating to us with love and mercy, if we are not willing to extend the same generosity to others.
    Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
    Or this convicting passage from 1 John 4:7-11,19-21.
    “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…
    We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

    It’s a powerful message and an incredible rebuke to Christians who seem to be so ready to spew out words of hate. Just go on any chat room and you’ll get someone claiming to be a Christian screaming “You’re going to rot in hell!!” to someone they disagree with.
    If we are to take the words of scripture seriously, then I think we are compelled to presume that these people aren’t actually Christians. No one who has come to see his own sin and helplessness and has turned to Christ for hope and mercy and then derives his deepest joy from God’s generous and undeserved love, can not bear fruit of love and generosity towards others.
    People who call themselves Christians who do not love are either people who have forgotten the wonder of the gospel, or they have never experienced it in the first place.
    Jesus told a truly terrifying parable about this whole theme in Matthew 18:21-35.

    Now in regard to whether we should love people because they have a value outside of the value God gives them, I’m not sure. You may see it as devaluing people to say people only have value because God gives them value, but your fear seems to stem from the idea that you will possibly value people MORE than God and what would you do then?
    The idea that you would love people and see their truest value more than God shows how highly you think of your own ability to be moral and makes out that you might see things about people in your finite position that God can’t in his infinite position.
    In the end, the question is about who decides what is valuable? You or God? In the end, the question is who rules? Who is God?
    It is the great question of life and the two answers are as far apart as heaven and hell.
    For me, I trust that God is good and a lot more good than me. Because of this, I am very happy to allow God to define value and guide me as to how I should love and even who I should love.
    This would be of concern until you actually asks how and who God asks us to love.
    He asks us to love not just our friends (who we in our finite position naturally value) but also our enemies.
    He asks us to love others in a way that is selfless and self-sacrificial, which defies one of our greatest natural values, our love and preoccupation with ourselves.
    In the end, God’s love – both the love he shows me and the love he commands me to show – is always greater than what my meager, flawed and finite attempts at empathy could ever accomplish.

  3. By tony c on

    Just one example of why I would encourage someone to develop their meagre empathy over their adherence to the word of God lies here.

    All it takes is for a compelling teacher to say “brother” means fellow Christian not fellow human and the consequences for compassion are huge.

    Basically where you contrast empathy with Gods opinion, I contrast empathy with our opinion of Gods opinion. In my contrast empathy looks good.

    Also I think the following is a bit harsh:

    “If we are to take the words of scripture seriously, then I think we are compelled to presume that these people aren’t actually Christians. No one who has come to see his own sin and helplessness and has turned to Christ for hope and mercy and then derives his deepest joy from God’s generous and undeserved love, can not bear fruit of love and generosity towards others.”

    If I go and make a joke at Gods expense then that overwhelmingly grateful-to-God Christian is possibly going to respond with rage as the very consequence of their gratitude. Peter chopped of the soldiers ear, right? Us mammals are hot blooded beasts and you can be Christian and short tempered.

  4. By Simon (Post author) on

    I agree that if all we have is our opinion of empathy or our opinion of God’s truth, then the toss up is up to which philosophy is better or less dangerous. I think both are dangerous as our capacity for empathy and our subjective guessing of the will of God is colored by our own prejudices, which can be limited, flawed or even, downright evil.

    The only way trusting revelation is a better is if revelation has actually happened. If you don’t believe God exists or if you think God may exist but he is silent, then naturally my philosophy will never seem preferable.

    I have to point out that I don’t believe God has revealed everything. There is heaps of encouragement in scripture to use wisdom and empathy (“do unto others as you would have them do to you” for example). For a Christian, the important question is what exactly has God revealed and what does he want us to work out for ourselves?

  5. By Simon (Post author) on

    Tony, on your last comment, I agree it is harsh to say the a Christian won’t lose his temper. I don’t think that’s what I meant though.
    My point is that once someone truly experiences the life-transforming grace of God, it will create a difference in the person’s life. If this difference is in no way evident, then I think you can legitimately question whether they have actually been saved.

    There is not an expectation of perfection. We are always a work in progress. But even though this is true, there is always an expectation that the fruit of salvation will be evident.

    “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 7:16-21

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