We're weeks away from launching a new disciple-making initiative at Granger Community Church. We're ramping up for a life-long journey of new normal, not merely a three-semester classroom of teaching. We're currently training guides who'll journey with others, extending grace, understanding, and encouragement.
I helped with the training last week and my assistant, Julie, reminded me of the story of "the Prodigal Son" (as we church peeps tend to call it). It's a beautiful and challenging picture that helps us in our role of guiding, helping, coaching others with whom we journey.
I had a college professor who taught that the parables of Jesus had one and one point only. It was wrong to try to read too much into the details of Jesus' stories. Take the ever-popular story of "the prodigal son". Point: God the Father is a forgiving, unconditional loving God. According to my prof, the story's elder son character was merely added in to round out a great story. I think he may have missed a point or two in the parable.
Several years ago Tim Keller's, The Prodigal God helped me gain fresh appreciation for the genius story-telling of Jesus. In fact, he helped me see Jesus in fresh light. I'll not try to give a book report on Keller's fine work - you should read the book for yourself. Here are a few of my takeaways...
- The story is about two sons, not one. And both brothers have issues of control. They long to control their own destiny, make life work the way they believe it should work. The younger son leaves his father to own his own way. The elder brother seeks control through his moral uprightness, doing what he believes his father expects. By doing so he believes he'll gain the outcome he desires from his father. The father's role is then to "bless", cooperate, make life happy for the son.
- I've had my share of elder brother syndrome. Blaming God for not making it work. More proud of my rule-keeping, than humbled by God's grace.
- Churches are unfortunately filled with elder brothers. Elder brothers who seek God's favor more than they seek relationship with God. Elder brothers who self-righteously criticize, ignore, and reject younger brothers. Jesus' primary audience when telling this story were "elder brother" Pharisees. Keller writes: "...the main barrier between Pharisees and God is 'not their sins, but their damnable good works.'
- Even now, I'm more prone to think with some level of disgust about the "other people" I know who behave like elder brothers. In doing so I wonder what amount of "elder brother" still lives in me.
- The younger son made a laundry list of his sins to own and confess to his father upon his return home. The elder son - in his arrogance - had no such list. Keller observes,"To become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right." What makes you faithful or generous is not just a redoubled effort to follow moral rules. Rather, all change comes from deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the gospel restructures our view of God, our own motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.
- I first became aware of this sin of idolatry - sins of ill-motivation - several years ago. The fact that it was years ago doesn't make me a saint today; it only means I have more experience being aware. My motivation matters. And I'm too easily motivated by selfishness. I've done lots of "right" stuff over the years - not always for the right reasons.
- Jesus knew the Torah. He understood the Jewish concept of being "my brother's keeper." Keller points out that a compassionately motivated elder brother would have gone to look for his younger brother. Jesus leaves out of this story the character he actually was in flesh and blood - the true elder brother. The elder brother who gave up what was his; who didn't bemoan the Father who reinstated the younger brother (thereby giving away what was now rightfully the elder brother's share of the estate); the elder brother who lived, died and rose again to point the way Home to the Father.
- My elder brother, Jesus - he paid the price. He came after me. He was - and is - the way home to the Father. I want to know more of this intimate relationship with God. I want to continue to capture the fresh, simple complexities of scripture, including the parables with all their points.
Keller is spot on. It's the elder brothers (and sisters) in the church who often miss the opportunity to appropriately care and encourage "younger brothers" (and sisters).
I still have control issues. I'll bet you'll uncover a couple of your own.
Let's join the party Jesus is throwing and appreciate people right where they are!