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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