Sermon 01-27-13: “Timothy Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God,’ Part 2”

January 31, 2013

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In this second of two sermons on the parable of the prodigal son, I turn my attention to the older son: Why does he resent his father for forgiving his younger brother? I argue that it’s because of his mistaken belief that love is something that must be earned. Similarly, the widespread, if often unspoken, belief that we have to earn our heavenly Father’s love causes great harm in our spiritual lives.

If God doesn’t punish us, for example, when we repent of our sins and return “home” to God, why do we so often punish ourselves? I believe that we act like the “big brother” less often toward other people than we do toward ourselves. If so, Jesus is teaching us to cut it out.

Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

About a month ago, I was invited by a pastor friend to watch Monday Night Football at a Taco Mac with some of his friends. This was a “guys night out” sort of thing. I hadn’t met most of his friends before. Some of them were in ministry as well. I have a confession to make: when I’m around other men who are about my age, I sometimes feel insecure. I’m not saying I should feel this way, I’m just being candid. But I think to myself: Have I accomplished as much in life as they have? Do I make as much money as they do? Am I as good-looking as they are? Do I dress as well as they do? Am I successful enough? How do I measure up? What do I have to show for myself?

And on this particular night, I was feeling really insecure. At least a couple of these men had made names for themselves in their field—they were kind of a big deal, you know? And in the midst of my insecurity, one of the men told a story that began with these words—and I kid you not—“When I was on the Today Show last week…” And he didn’t mean that he was outside the big window at Rockefeller Plaza! He meant he was a guest on the show! And I’m thinking, “You win! I can’t compete with that!” I haven’t done anything to top the Today Show. All I could do was try not to act impressed when he name-dropped the Today Show. Someone said that I should have responded, “Is that still on the air?”

No, it’s very likely that nothing I do for the rest of my life will land me on the Today Show. And who cares, right? Except I do care, a little. Obviously. I feel threatened by this person’s success, his accomplishments, his fame. Why? 

I think I’ve figured it out: It’s because, like everyone else in the world, I desperately crave love. Love is what everyone in the world wants and needs more than anything else—although we often get confused and look for love in all the wrong places, as the old country song said. We sometimes think we’ll have this need for love met through the cheap imitations—thus the sins of greed and consumerism or premarital sex and adultery. But we all, deep down, are looking for love. And I don’t like to admit this in public, and I’m not supposed to say this as a Christian minister, but I secretly believe that love is like oil or diamonds or gold: it’s a limited resource, so there’s only so much of it to go around. I secretly believe that I’m in competition with other people to earn love. I secretly believe that love comes with strings attached.

If I prove myself worthy, then I will deserve love. So I’m frequently comparing myself with others—just to make sure that I measure up, that I make the grade, that I come out on top—or that at least I don’t fall too far behind. So I look at this guy who was on the Today Show and feel like, well… I’ve certainly fallen behind him. How can I be loved and accepted by this group of men at Taco Mac, for instance, when I haven’t done nearly as much as they have to deserve love?

Am I alone in harboring these dark thoughts and feelings? I doubt it.


“You love it when I have problems, so you can be the good one!”

Lisa and I saw a profoundly good movie last weekend called Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman named Tiffany, who’s a little crazy. Everyone knows she’s a little crazy. She knows she’s a little crazy. Early in the movie, Tiffany makes a scene during a dinner party at her older sister’s house. The two argue and then her older sister tries to sympathize with her—reminding herself that Tiffany has all these problems, after all. And Tiffany says to her, “You love it when I have problems, so you can be the good one!”

You love it when I have problems, so you can be the good one! Does that describe the older brother in the parable or what?

As long as the younger brother in the parable has all these problems, the older brother gets to be the “good one.” What happens when that family dynamic changes? What happens when the older brother watches his father welcome his younger brother back home—as if none of those problems ever existed? As if his father failed to appreciate all the damage that the younger brother had caused? As if his father weren’t keeping score? Do you think the older brother might feel anger, resentment, jealousy? “Unlike that no-good son of yours, Dad, I always did the right thing! I could have left home, too, you know? But I didn’t. Instead, I did everything you asked me to do. I certainly didn’t squander my inheritance on prostitutes. In spite of all that, you’re going to throw this big party for him? Are you kidding?

“What about me? Unlike him, I’ve been on the Today Show! Unlike her, I followed God’s call into ministry. Unlike him, I focused on making good grades in school! Unlike her, I sacrificed a career I loved in order to be a stay-at-home mom! Unlike him, I took care of Mom and Dad when they were old and in poor health! Unlike her, I didn’t get hooked on drugs or alcohol. Unlike him, I made something of myself. Unlike her, I didn’t leave my husband when he cheated on me. Unlike him, I never ran up all that credit card debt and filed for bankruptcy. Unlike her, I had to pay my way through school. Unlike him, I go to the gym six days a week.” All these years of competing and comparing and complaining. The older brother thought his father’s love was conditional. And he thought all this time that he was earning it: “If I do these things, and avoid doing these other things, then I’ll deserve my father’s love. I’ll earn his love through obedience and achievement and hard work.”

I can relate to the older son. I grew up in a family in which I was constantly trying to win my father’s love. For years I played all kinds of sports. I didn’t like playing sports—I was really into music and guitar. But my dad wanted his son to play sports. So I did. I played football in high school. I didn’t like playing football—I wanted to be in the marching band. But my dad wanted his son to play football. So I did. I went to Georgia Tech after I graduated. I didn’t want to go to Georgia Tech. But Dad was a lifelong Tech fan. He wanted his son to go to Georgia Tech. So I did. I got a business degree and went to work in sales for a large company. I didn’t want to be in sales, but my Dad was in sales. He loved it, and he wanted his son to do that. So I did.

By my mid-twenties, I’d finally had enough. I was so unhappy. I thought, “If I have this job for the rest of my working life, I will claw my eyeballs out.” Some people are cut out for that type of work, but it wasn’t for me. Finally, with the love and support of my wife, Lisa, I decided to make a change: I would begin by going to a community college at night—take some calculus classes while I continued to work full-time during the day. As soon as we could afford it, I would transfer my credits back to Georgia Tech and pursue an engineering degree. Which I did.

When Lisa and I made this decision, my father was in the middle of his last year of life. He quit work and was at home with terminal cancer. I decided to break the news to him about my career decision the next day. When I told him what we had planned, he said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Brent. I really think you have a great career now. You’re working for a great company. And I don’t think you’d be happy doing something else.” I was devastated. Here’s my dad—dying—and, once again, I felt like I’d let him down. What kind of son am I? You know? So I went home, depressed, dejected. He hadn’t changed my mind, but I felt horrible.

When I saw him the next day, he pulled me aside and said, “Brent, I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday, and… um… I think you should do it. I just want you to know how proud I am of you, and how much I love you. You’re going to do great!” Hearing my hard-to-please father speak those words to me was nothing less than one of the highlights of my life! I spent my life imagining that Dad wouldn’t love me unless I did this, this, and this. And here he was, telling me that no matter what I did, he’d love me anyway. It was liberating!

So I can relate to the older son… But the younger son in the parable also thought he had to earn his father’s love. That’s what all this bargaining in his head was all about: I’ll tell him, “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. So just make me like one of your hired hands, and I’ll happily accept my punishment.” Imagine how liberating it was to him to discover that there would be no punishment. On the contrary, the father wouldn’t hear of it! He doesn’t even let the younger son get the words out of his mouth before he’s ordering his servants to fetch the best clothes for his son, to put a signet ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, to slaughter the fattened calf and throw the biggest party imaginable.

Can we let that idea sink in for a moment?

When the younger son returned home to his father, he imagined that the best-case scenario was that his father would be very angry with him; that his father would make him grovel for forgiveness; that his father would punish him and only very reluctantly give him what he was asking for. That was his best-case. His father might reject him entirely and the younger son would hardly be surprised if that happened. What does it mean, then, that none of what the younger son feared took place? What does it mean that exactly the opposite of what the younger son feared took place? What does it mean that nothing the younger son had done—the sin, the foolish decisions, the great harm that he’d caused his family—would prevent his father from loving him and accepting him and forgiving him? Nothing he had done and nothing he could do would change that now that he’d returned home?

What does that mean for us—when we return home to our heavenly Father?

“You mean, God isn’t going to punish me?” No. “Even though I’ve sinned so badly, even though I’ve been the worst hypocrite, even though I’ve been a lousy Christian, if you can even call me one, even though I’ve made a mess of my life.” No! Not only will God not punish you, God will throw a party when you return to him. God wants you to return to him, remember? He loves you, remember? And God’s love isn’t something you have to earn. God’s love isn’t a condition of our good behavior. God’s love doesn’t come with strings attached. God’s love is a given, and nothing—neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from it.[1]

So… to say the very least: God isn’t going to punish us for our sins when we return to him. And if God isn’t going to punish us, then why do we punish ourselves? Did you hear that? If God isn’t going to punish us for our sins, then why do we punish ourselves? God isn’t beating us up for our sins, so why do we? Do we know something God doesn’t know? In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller said he came to the realization once that the mean, hate-filled, unloving things he says to himself, about himself, in his mind, are things he wouldn’t say to his worst enemy.

See, I think most of us act like the “big brother” less often toward others than we do to ourselves! “You’re no good,” we say to ourselves. “God doesn’t really love you. Why would he? Look at you: you’re a mess. Even if God will forgive you, he’ll only do so reluctantly. He’ll hold it over your head. He really wants to punish you.” Do you ever hear that voice of the big brother inside your heart? Don’t listen to it. That voice doesn’t know what it’s talking about! The Lord is telling us here to stop listening to it!

Look, it’s true that we don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. What’s your point? As I’ve been saying this entire sermon, God’s love and forgiveness aren’t a question of what we deserve. And here’s why: Because Jesus Christ, the one and only true Son of God, willingly “became the prodigal son for our sake. He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country”—our world—“gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God.”[2] And so we can rejoice with our heavenly Father, because Jesus, our true prodigal son, was dead and is alive again. And through his resurrection, we have  resurrection and new life and forgiveness and salvation.

Amen? Amen!

Now we also have something else: We have a mission. Because, according to this parable, notice that every human being in the word is either lost or found—is either away from their heavenly Father’s home, or is at home with their heavenly Father. But in order to be lost and away from home means that you have to have a heavenly Father to begin with, and you have to have a true home to return to. Which means there’s not a single person alive on whose life God doesn’t have a prior claim. Everyone in this world, no matter how lost, no matter how rebellious, no matter how great their sin, belongs at home with God.

May the Holy Spirit empower us to do all we can to guide them back home, where they belong.

[1] See Romans 8:38-39 NIV.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Image Books, 2004), 55.

8 Responses to “Sermon 01-27-13: “Timothy Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God,’ Part 2””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I certainly agree that we can’t “earn” God’s love, but I have difficulty with balancing out God’s love and God’s wrath. Obviously the “God of the Old Testament” (who is the same God as in the New Testament) poured out his wrath on the children of Israel repeatedly. He even gave Miriam leprosy when she challenged Moses! And what about David with Bathsheba? Nathan said that God had forgiven his sin, but because of it, various very bad things were going to follow. And in the New Testament, Paul himself says that because of the way some were treating the Lord’s Supper, many among them were sick, and some “slept.”

    So, while I believe once a person is saved, God never “turns his back” on the Christian (unlike some, who, with tons of scriptures, believe you can “fall from grace”), he nevertheless can become “displeased” and act accordingly. Just look at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation! I don’t know whether to call this a “difference of love” or what, but I at least think how we act can “displease” God (as with David). And we don’t want to displease God, so we do have to concern ourselves with how we behave to be, as it were, in “God’s good graces.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree with you about God’s wrath, but I tried to be careful to say that God doesn’t punish us “after we repent.” I might have said “punish us anymore.” Suffering the consequences of sin is one way God uses to bring us to repentance. The fact remains that the prodigal “deserved” punishment, and it wasn’t forthcoming as both sons expected.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I think the parable in general is directed to begrudging the salvation of those who are “sinners” in some notable manner (parable told to the Pharisees), thinking that is reserved for the “righteous.” I don’t know that we can read into this brief account a lot more than that. For example, it is likely the younger son would not “get his inheritance back” if we took the parable a “day longer.” The Father was just happy to have his son back! Received him with open arms! And so should we as to our brother!

        My point being, I don’t think we are freed up from “punishment” just because we repent. Again David is the most notable example. As I said, “Nathan said that God had forgiven his sin, but because of it, various very bad things were going to follow.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        Suffering the natural consequences of sinful choices isn’t, in my view, the same as punishment—or at least the same as God directing additional punishment our way. I understand the risk of universalizing the message of this or any parable, but I wonder if you risk trivializing this incredibly profound message of forgiveness. I disagree with you about what happens on “Day 2.” I (along with the most Bible scholars, I think) believe the younger son will get his now-reduced share of the inheritance back. The father’s actions toward the younger son have great symbolic meaning: they say, “You are now fully restored as a member of my household, with all rights and privileges thereunto appertaining” (as my college diploma reads). The older brother is likely well aware of this—that his father’s magnanimity came at the expense of “his” share of the inheritance. His father is quite literally correct when he says, “All I have is yours.” The older brother is now underwriting his father’s generosity.

        Again, by all rights, the father “ought” to have punished the younger son. This is the shocking truth on which the parable hinges. We identify with the older son, because we perceive the unfairness of it. There’s no hint of punishment here. On the contrary.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, first, I disagree with the impact of “All I have is yours” to the older brother. To me he means, “Look, you will still get all of my inheritance.” Second, I don’t so easily distinguish between “consequences” and “punishment.” When Nathan says, on behalf of God, “Because you have done this, …”, I see that as punishment. Third, however, I agree that we can obsess over our failings and doubt God’s LOVE for us. But, simultaneously, “whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” We can’t avoid that we “displease” God when we sin (as with David). Nevertheless, as I believe it says in the Psalms somewhere, God does not punish us as much as our sins deserve; otherwise, who could stand? God is still “for us,” even while sometimes disappointed.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Besides, do you disagree that we sometimes needlessly punish ourselves? That we have a hard time receiving forgiveness that God offers us? That we have the same unloving attitude toward ourselves that the older brother has toward the younger? That is my main point.

  3. brentwhite Says:

    I think “disappointment” is an overly human way of describing the effect our sin has on God, and it risks reinforcing the problem of feeling guilty and beating ourselves up. How is it possible to disappoint God? Disappointment implies an element of surprise: God expected you to behave one way, and you did something else, and therefore God is disappointed. God knew everything we would do before he created the world. Every future moment is already present to God because God stands outside of time.

    If we imagine that we have the power to provoke this kind of response from God, then how can we not walk around feeling like horrible sinners all the time? Because don’t we sin all the time? Are we continually disappointing God?

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      If we just went on “God already knows everything,” I think we would have a hard time with a lot of God’s emotions. Whereas, “It repented God that he had made man” in Noah’s day. When it gets to that point in history, God has that emotion, regardless of what he knew in advance.

      Perhaps I can liken the matter somewhat to our own parent-child relationship. I love both my children, but I am still disappointed in them and feel obliged to punish them (although primarily for their benefit) when they disobey me, even though I continue to love them. It is one thing to not worry about disappointing simply because of following a different path than the parent might have preferred–it is another not to worry about disobedience.

      I appeal to the letters to the churches in Revelation as to how God feels.

      However, I still feel the tension you suggest and don’t mean to suggest your point is simply invalid. We don’t ever, if we are his children, need to feel that God no longer loves us. But I simply don’t think we can escape the fact that we render God either happier or sadder by how we behave.

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