Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.
Whenever we hear this story, it seems to come with the object lesson of the prodigal son and the father. You can always come back, God will always forgive, and you will be restored to the kingdom.
For much of my life I related to the prodigal son. I spent years rebelling against God and getting tangled up in my own pig field. There were many returnings and much rejoicing.
I believe in the extravagant God who welcomes the prodigal, but I really can’t imagine a father like the one in this parable. I simply have no context for this. In my experience, fathers abandon you, deny you, hurt you; they are marked by an emotional lability that instills fear into young hearts.
I’ll always have a bit of the prodigal in me. But after 20 years as a Christian, I don’t find myself in the first 14 verses of this story anymore. I don’t sin as dramatically as I used to, I’m not in as much danger of falling away. The real and present struggle for me is what C. S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy: not ceasing to believe in God, but coming to believe “such dreadful things about him.”
This is where the older brother comes in. This is where I come in.
I’ve served God a long time and I’ve put in an unimaginable amount of work, a ridiculous amount of prayer, and an embarrassing amount of confession. I have a strong will and I use it to do the right thing.
The older brother believed dreadful things about his father. He believed his father purposefully withheld good things from him, that he preferred his younger son when he was the one who deserved to be celebrated for his steadfastness and dependability.The older brother was a grumbler, like me, like the Israelites before him. “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me.”
The basic fear beneath all the grumbling is that we’re not getting what we want. Someone else is getting what we want, what we deserve, what we think we need.
Henri Nouwen, in Return of the Prodigal Son, writes: “Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.”
I have those same resentments, deeply hidden, and sometimes erupting, in an unfair judgment, a harsh criticism, a disdaining comment. Timothy Keller in The Prodigal God understands that “the targets of this story are not ‘wayward sinners’ but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them.”
Many of us relate to the moral insider, even if we’d never confess it out loud. It’s a harsh truth to admit, to let people in on.
Are we willing to see our blindness and narrowness?
“Neither son loved the father for himself.” Keller continues. “They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”
Keller is not denigrating obedience, but rather asking us to consider what motivates us: fear or love?
I want to serve and obey God not because I fear his wrath, but because the magnetic character of God draws me toward him with joy.
A little too careful for my own good
It was just like living life in the dark, yeah
Till something jumped up and it grabbed my heart