Posts Tagged ‘Prodigal Son’

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.

“Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?”

June 24, 2017

A couple of years ago, the copyright gods removed a few video clips from my Vimeo account—my “fair use” defense notwithstanding. (Ask me what I think about the sad fact that no song, movie, book, or play falls into public domain anymore! 😡) Still, I’m happy to report that no one came after my clips from It’s a Wonderful Life (which itself became an evergreen classic only after it fell into the public domain, and UHF TV stations could show it for free on their late-night airwaves).

In tomorrow’s sermon, I’m preaching on the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or, more accurately, the Parable of the Lost Sons). As I’ve been preparing for it, I’m reminded of this unforgettable scene between Mr. Potter and George Bailey: having been unable to beat Bailey, Potter decides to join him—or at least have Bailey join him. (Lionel Barrymore’s performance here makes me wish he had been able to play Scrooge, as originally planned, in an MGM adaptation of A Christmas Carol.)

George, the older son in the Bailey family, is also the older son in the parable—or close enough. (It’s not for nothing that earlier in the movie, when George hears that his brother has returned to Bedford Falls, he says, “Kill the fatted calf!”) All these years, he’s been “slaving away” (Luke 15:29) for his father, who, though now deceased, once asked young George to take over the family business. Like the older son, George resents the fact that others are celebrating his younger brother, whose good fortune—whose very life—was made possible by George’s sacrifices. (George, you’ll recall even saved his brother’s life, at great personal cost, when he was a boy.)

Like the older son, George resents that his years of hard work have amounted to so little; he hasn’t received the recognition to which he believes he’s entitled. Until Potter seduces him with this job offer, no one in George’s life even gave him the equivalent of a “young goat to celebrate with his friends”—or so he thinks.

Potter, as smart as the devil, correctly diagnoses George’s problem. 

Now, if this young man of 28 was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He is an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man—the smartest one of the crowd, mind you… A young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he’s trapped—yes, sir, trapped—into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters.

And this is my problem, too—as I’ve talked about a lot recently. Frankly, I’m writing and preaching about it because I’ve only recently become aware of the extent of my resentment.

God help me, I’m the older brother! I want more than my Father has given me!

I’ve probably felt this way since I was 19 or 20 and discovered within myself an ambition for something other than God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Like the older son, I didn’t leave home—I didn’t drop out of church or abandon the faith. I became a pastor instead. “He’ll have to give me what I want now. I’m the good son!”

Like the older son, I left my Father by staying home. (For more on this, see this post: “To find God, go back to where you lost him.”)

But my case is not hopeless. In fact, what gives me hope is what I shared with you a couple of days ago:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

I am not my own. I do not live for myself or my own glory. I belong, body and soul, to God. I have what I have because he gave it to me. I am where I am because he wants me to be here. I am who I am because he wants me to be this person—minus my sin. My sole purpose in life is to glorify him, and I always have the opportunity to do that, no matter what I’m going through.

This thought brings me great comfort.

Lord, give me the grace to believe it. Amen.