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The Prodigal God: A Book Review (3) – The True Elder Brother


In the introduction to this book, Timothy Keller wrote:

In the first five chapters I will unlock the parable’s basic meaning. In Chapter 6 I will demonstrate how the story helps us understand the Bible as a whole, and in Chapter 7 how its teaching works itself out in the way we live in the world. [THE PRODIGAL GOD: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, Penguin Group USA, copyright 2008), p. xiv.

Part one of this review looked at chapters 1-3; part two, at Chapter 4 – “Redefining Lostness;” this part looks at Chapter 5 – “The True Elder Brother.”

What We Need

Both of the father’s sons were lost. One was in open rebellion against all the father stood for. The other stood aloof in self-righteous pride. His lostness was not apparent until his younger brother left home and returned, a broken man.

The gospel begins with the premise that each of us is also lost. What do we need to be found?

First, we need a father who has love that reaches us in our lostness. We see that in the parable. The father went out to each of his sons. He ran to meet the wayward prodigal when he saw him coming in the distance. When the older brother refused to join the festival welcoming his younger brother home, the father went out to beg him to come in. The father loved both sons and reached out to them in their lostness.

In the parable, Jesus pleads with his religious enemies, the Pharisees. Yet, “He is not a Pharisee about Pharisees; he is not self-righteous about self-righteousness. Nor should we be. He not only loves the wild-living, free-spirited people, but also hardened religious people” (pp. 74-75). Jesus lets us know that God seeks us. He takes the initiative.

Second, we need deep repentance for more than individual sins that may be on the surface for all to see. The younger son had a list of sins he came confessing. “Repentance is not less than that, but it is much more, because the list approach isn’t sufficient to address the condition of the elder brother” (p. 76).

What sins were on the list of the elder brother? He told the father, “I have always obeyed you;” the father did not contradict him.

When Pharisees sin they feel terrible and repent. They may punish themselves and bewail their weakness. When they finish, however, they remain elder brothers. Remorse and regret is just a part of the self-salvation project. Pharisaical repentance doesn’t go deep enough to get at the real problem. (pp 76-77)

The elder brother’s problem was his pride in his goodness. It was his pride that kept him out of the feast – not remorse. He used his “righteousness” to say the father owed him something. He tried to put God in his debt because of his goodness. To find salvation, the older brother must not only repent of the “things” he has done wrong.

To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must learn how to repent of the sin under [sic] all our other sins and [sic] under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord. (p. 78)

Who We Need

Jesus told three parables to the Pharisees who muttered because He accepted sinners. The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Two Lost Sons (as Keller calls it).

There is a striking difference between the last of these and the first two. That difference is not, Keller says, accidental. In the first two, someone went to look for what was lost – into the wilderness or into the dark crannies of the home – until it was found. Then, rejoicing with the friends and neighbors followed.

In the final parable, no on goes out to look for the lost younger son.

The omission is glaring.

Who should have gone?

Jesus – and His hearers – knew the Bible. They knew of the conversation between Yahweh and another elder brother. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain’s sullen reply was, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (See Genesis 4:9.)

Who should have gone looking for the younger son? The elder brother should have said:

Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go and look for him and bring him home. And if the inheritance is gone – as I expect – I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense. (pp. 81f)

Keller points out that the younger brother could be restored to the family only at the expense of the older brother. The inheritance had been divided. The father told the older son that all left was his. If the younger son returns to the family as an heir, it will only be at the expense of the older son. Redemption does not come without a cost to someone. Forgiveness always costs the person who does the forgiving. It may be a free gift to the person receiving, but not to the one giving.

But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.

But we do not.

By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.

And we have him. (p. 84)

We have an older brother who bore the unimaginable cost of going into the far country to bring home all who are lost.

This, in the wisdom of God, is the only way to melt the heart of the lost elder brothers, as well as the straying younger brothers. He can change, in deep repentance, the heart “from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude…. You need to be moved by the sight of what it cost to bring you home.” (pp. 85f)

The key difference between a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus is inner-heart motivation. Pharisees are being good but out of a fear-fueled need to control God. They don’t really trust him or love him. To them God is an exacting boss, not a loving father. Christians have seen something that has transformed their hearts toward God so they can finally love and rest in the Father. (p. 86)

Younger brothers and elder brothers alike need to see that heart-transforming something. If a younger brother returns home where he is received lovingly, he could still turn into an older brother who is proud of his return. Keller closes this chapter by saying:

We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ. (p. 89)

In my estimation, this chapter, by itself, is worth the price of the book ($14.99 at www.christianbook.com).

Part One: The Prodigal God – A Book Review

Part Two: The Prodigal God – Redefining Lostness

Part Four: The Prodigal God – Redefining Hope

Part Five: The Prodigal God – The Feast Of God

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