Was the older son really the “good” son?

June 30, 2017

The older son from Rembrandt’s painting.

In my second of two sermons on the Prodigal Son last Sunday (I promise I’ll post them soon!), I preached on the older son. He was, as I said on Sunday, at least as lost as the younger son. Yet we usually consider him the good son: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”

Is this true? Was the older son truly serving his father? Tim Keller doesn’t think so, and he uses the following story to illustrate why:

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot–what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”[†]

The older son, of course, was serving himself—giving to his father in order to receive. It was as if he were saying, “Because I’ve been faithful to my father—unlike my no-good brother—my father ought to reward me. I deserve to have the fattened calf killed; I deserve to have a party.” So when he hears that his father has instead thrown a party for his wayward brother, he’s filled with resentment: “What has he done to deserve that? Why not me?”

As I said in an earlier blog post, I am the older brother. Resentment and self-pity have harmed me badly over the years. They still do.

These feelings long predate my answering the call into ministry. But I now see that in answering the call, sin seized the opportunity, and I made an implicit agreement with God: “Because I’ve done this for you, Father, you’ll now do this for me. After all, look at how I’ve sacrificed for you! Why haven’t you killed the fattened calf? Why haven’t you thrown me a party?”

And like the older son, I have a difficult time, figuratively speaking, attending parties for others.

This Sunday, I’ll have the opportunity to explore the proper motivation for serving our Father, and how we achieve it, when we turn our attention to the apostle Peter’s words to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25.

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 69-70.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s