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  • Writer's pictureMaria Whittaker

The Prodigal God : Part III

"The True Elder Brother."

So begins Chapter 5 of The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. After reading all about the nasty person that the elder brother in Christ's parable really is, and sadly, identifying with most of his sins, this title immediately caught my attention. Of course, that must refer to Jesus, and my heart filled with hope that the story isn't over and that, as always, God has an answer to the hypocrisy and self-reliance that people like me struggle with.

God's Initiating Love

Keller begins by pointing out that the "first thing we need is God's initiating love" (82). Sure, He goes out to meet the younger brother and reaches out to his sinful state. But He also leaves the party to meet the angry and embittered elder brother. "This picture is like a double-edged sword," writes Keller. "It shows that even the most religious and moral people need the initiating race of God, that they are just as lost; and it shows that there is hope, yes, even for Pharisees....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" (83-84).

Repentance Must Go Deeper than Regret for Individual Sins

If you look closely at the story, when the younger brother comes back, he "has a long list of wrongdoings for which he must express repentance" (85). Which could make it seem like repenting is confessing each sin and asking for forgiveness. But as Keller points out, the elder son has no such list. He has lived a morally clean life. In fact, when he has sinned, he most likely has punished himself with self-hate and extreme remorse. The real problem is his pride and the fact that he bases "his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault" (87). Though this has its place, instead of repenting for individual sins, "To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right...the roots of our righteousness..." (87).We must learn how to repent of the underlying sin--seeking to be our own Savior, to justify ourselves by ourselves.

The Elder Brother's Role

At this point, Keller made an observation that was truly insightful and honestly new to me. He pointed out that the parable of the "lost son" comes right after two other parables about "lost" things. First, Jesus talks about the shepherd that lost his sheep, searched for, and found it. Second, He talks about the woman who lost a coin, searched for, and found it. Last, He tells the story of the lost son. Shockingly, especially because a human is so much more valuable than a sheep or a coin, no one goes out to search for his lost soul. "It is startling," Keller writes, "and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing the three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: 'Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?' Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly and he knew...another story of an elder and younger brother--Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother: 'You are your brother's keeper'" (91). Jesus is implying that the elder brother should have gone out to search for his lost sibling.

The True Elder Brother

A truly righteous elder brother should have said, "Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go 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" (92). Keller points out that of course it would have had to have been at the elder brother's expense. The younger brother's inheritance was spent and all the money remaining belonged to the elder brother. Honestly, this truth right here is why I couldn't cut end Prodigal God posts without writing one more. I needed to write about this. The realization I made at this point truly changed my outlook on God and then on myself, as a Christian sent out to let a fallen world know about God's redeeming grace.

The Cost

Jesus is the true elder brother. Not only does He call Himself our brother (Hebrews 2:11-12), I hope it hasn't escaped anyone's attention that He actually did say and do what the elder brother should have. His younger brothers had been fools and ruined themselves. But He would go out and bring them home. The inheritance was gone, but He would do it at His own expense. It was this idea of the cost that brought me to tears. His own expense. The cost was huge--His priceless life. But He paid it.

I know Jesus died for me. But I guess it never really fully clicked for me how costly it was until that moment.

God used a painful experience in my life to bring this home. I teach at a school where my students struggle with a lot of behavior issues. And they are in sixth grade, if you know what I mean. I work hard to have a clean and engaging space for them, to prepare interesting lesson plans, to show up with a positive attitude. But they tear up my room. They throw their books, and my books around and trample them. Papers I have prepared are torn and crumpled on the floor. They come to class with nothing to write with. They steal and destroy my things. They talk and disrupt class and make it impossible for my lesson to move forward. Not only that, but they treat me with disrespect, contempt, blame their mistakes on me, threaten me. They are not all bad, and in fact have some amazing qualities--I'm presenting the negative aspects to make my point. The thing is, I love them. I care about them. I daily pick up after them, fix broken things, sigh and throw away the unfixable, buy them pencils, give them my attention, try (TRY) to react kindly and patiently to disrespect, continue to plan good lessons, continue to try. I don't give up on them. And slowly, slowly, things improve, a little, and I know in the long run, that many of them will become amazing adults that will succeed in life. Or not. The main thing is that I did my job and loved them.

However, at the end of the day, when I feel like steamroller has run me over and they are all packed up and on their way home, something rubs me the wrong way. I realize now, it is a feeling of injustice. They have gotten all the benefit, and I have gotten all the pain. I've paid the cost for them to flourish.

Reading that that is what Christ did for me crushed me. I understood, finally, what it meant that He paid the cost. It means I got all the benefit and He got all the pain. He paid the cost for me to flourish. To be honest, that niggling sense of injustice has often been why I have rejected God and tried to be my own Savior. It just didn't seem fair. How can it be that I get to make mistakes and indulge in sins and never suffer the huge consequence of going to hell? How was it fair that Jesus was put through hell for something I did.

He was. And it balances out, since someone got the punishment. But the truth remained. I flourish, and He paid the cost.

I've been struggling with feeling grateful to God and praising Him. But in the face of this realization, my heart just exploded with thankfulness to Him. I honestly cannot understand why He would choose to love me. But I recognize it when I see it. That's love. Suffering pain so someone else can benefit---there's no other reason why someone would do that other than pure love. That's what He offers you and me daily--His pure and sacrificial love. He is our true elder brother and for what He did? There's no one more completely deserving of praise.

Carpe the Diem He gave you!



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