This is a post that has been in stuck in my Drafts for quite some time; I probably started it just a few days after last summer’s Leadership Summit at Central. Considering we just finished day two of this year’s Global Leadership Summit, I figure it’s time to finally finish it up!
One of the speakers that I found most interesting & engaging was Dr. Tim Keller, whose message was entitled Leading People To A Prodigal God. His talk dealt with bringing renewal — or revival — to the Church, and used Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son, but went at it from an angle that was totally new to me, and completely surprising. And that message has since been challenging me in my faith in surprising ways. Some recent developments at our church have brought the lessons learned from Dr. Keller’s talk back to mind, so the timing to put the final touches on the post & hit that big blue PUBLISH button make it especially appropriate.
Most often when I’ve heard the story of the Prodigal Son invoked, the focus is on the younger brother; how the father welcomed him back after leaving home & squandering his portion of his father’s estate. Typically the story is used as a salvation narrative; a parallel of the life of a wayward person, encouraging him to repent and return to God the Father. God is the Father who will welcome back with open arms anyone who has seen the error of his ways and returns ‘home’. God is the Father who waits anxiously for all to return to Him. It’s a great story and a good way to reach some people, but according to Dr. Keller, that angle perhaps doesn’t use the story in the way that Jesus intended.
Keller instead focused on the elder brother… His reaction to the return of the wayward younger brother, but more importantly, his reaction to his father’s actions, and his relationship with their father & the things that motivated him to stay…
Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing… He was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! …
The elder son wasn’t exactly happy with dad’s decision to celebrate the younger son’s return. Not only was he jealous that the fatted calf had been killed and the prodigal had been given fancy gifts, he was angry because what Dad gave him actually belonged to him; dad was giving away — or rather throwing away — money that rightfully belonged to him. The younger brother had essentially told his father that he was tired of waiting for him to die and demanded his part of the inheritance — a third of the family’s property — and it was now gone. Anything that remained of the estate would belong to the elder brother when the father died, so dad was essentially spending the elder brother’s money on this worthless, no-good younger brother, who had stolen the family’s wealth & good name, and didn’t deserve anything more from the family than a cold shoulder.
Keller pointed out that the bigger issue with the elder brother was that his attitude reflected the same greedy heart that caused the younger brother to demand his inheritance early, except the elder brother went about it in a more socially acceptable manner. Even though his manner was that of the obedient son, his reaction to his brother’s return showed that he was there primarily for the money. His obedience wasn’t motivated by love or devotion to his father or family… He said to his father, “I never disobeyed your command.” In his mind, obedience was merely a condition of gaining his inheritance, and his father owed him, big time. He hated his younger brother because he was weak & undisciplined, and unworthy of even what he had got; he had cheated his way to an early inheritance, had blown it all, disgraced the family, and was now back, smelling of pig manure, begging for forgiveness. Their father should have whipped him good and sent him packing.
One important detail Keller pointed out that I had previously missed was that Jesus told the parable in response to the grumbling he overheard from the Pharisees & scribes; before Jesus began this parable, they were “… saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2) The Pharisees & scribes were people who saw themselves as superior to the ‘sinners’ that Jesus hung around with, and couldn’t imagine how a man could be of God and still want to hang around with people like that. The scribes & Pharisees were very much like the elder brother; obedient and deferential on the outside, but who were “full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt 23:25) on the inside. The scribes & Pharisees weren’t likely to be crawling back to God seeking forgiveness for their wayward lives; their lives were perfect, just ask them. In fact, the kingdom of Israel was better because of them, and God should be grateful to have them help keep people in line. They had worked hard and denied themselves to be closer to God, and God owed them big time for all their sacrifices… If only all those low-life sinners could get their acts together and be as good as them… Or better yet, if God would just do the right thing and blast them all with fire & brimstone, all would be well with the world.
In the final analysis, the good deeds that they thought were bringing them closer to God were in actuality hindering their relationship with God. They misunderstood the basic fact that God cares less about what we do than he cares about the motivation behind what we do. He cares more about how we relate to one another and less about our adherence to a list of rules. And if we are being truly honest with ourselves, how much of what we do is and what makes us consider ourselves Christian is similar to what was done by the scribes & pharisees?
The Bible tells us that our “righteous acts are like filthy rags;” even the good things I do are tainted with sin and selfish motivations. I often do good things because deep in my heart I’m looking for a payback, either from God or from the people who might notice how good a person I am and give me the pat on the back I don’t deserve. I started writing this paragraph with ‘we’ and ‘us’, but decided that I’m just as guilty as anyone else in this; even more sometimes. I need to repent less for my wrongdoing than I do than for the reasons behind my rightdoing, and concern myself with being overwhelmed by my own damnable good works.
How does all this tie into revival in the Church Universal and the church local? We as Christians do a lot of stuff in the name of the church that has nothing to do with being Christians. We worry and fret and fight and argue over petty little crap while the world around us goes to hell. In our self-righteousness we look down on others who aren’t as good as we are or don’t do things as well as we do or don’t believe rightly, according to whatever denominational checklist we follow; they just don’t measure up. Of course we’d never admit that to anyone, and most will have a hard time admitting it to themselves. We have a mental yardstick that is our measure of how good we are, and we’re constantly sizing people up against our yardstick. But God doesn’t measure us against each other, he measures us against his true and perfect standard, against which none of us measure up. It’s only by Jesus’ cleansing blood and God’s mercy that we are made right with God.
For true revival to begin in the Church We need to get past the morality of Christianity and believe the Gospel — the Good News — more deeply. The Good News, plain and simple is that Jesus came to save sinners. And that includes all of us, from the most depraved criminal, right down to the best of us. Because “… He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (I Cor. 1:28-29). We’re here for God’s glory. It’s God’s show, and we’re working against him when we try to make it our own.
Because we suffer the same problem as the elder brother, those damnable good works get in the way of the Church doing what she is supposed to do. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of what the elder brother should have been and what the elder brother should have done. When I examine my own life, I know all too well how far short my efforts fall when compared to that standard. I’m not a bad guy, but I have trouble with my temper at times. As a family we give enough to charity that it garners scolds from every financial advisor we’ve spoken to, but I wonder whether the money goes to the right places… And do I really give enough? For a middle-class lifestyle in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we make a decent income, but when I compare that to the rest of the world, we’re in the top 0.69%. I guess we do what we can and follow God’s leading as best we can, but most important is that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And finally, how does this relate to my church’s current situation? It’s too long a story to relate here, but the short of it is a lot of people in our church have behaved badly for the last four or five years because of some leadership issues at the church. Many people left the church to attend other churches, and still others have stopped going to church at all. Recent events have drastically changed the leadership landscape at the church, and some people are starting to return. In talking with others who have stuck with the church through it all, there is a little underlying animosity towards those who are returning, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some of that in me as well, but I wonder how much of that is from the elder brother in us, in me.
I found a video blog/devotional on Keller’s message on the Generation Axis Blog, from Jon Peacock (apparently that blog is from Willcreek?) Don’t know if what he says adds much to what I’ve said, but it’s good to hear that the message hit home with someone else as well.
Edit: Unfortunately, the devotional I mentioned above has disappeared from the net; the video is gone from Vimeo and the blog is completely gone, just an empty page in its place. That’s too bad. But I did find that Redeemer Presbyterian has Tim Keller’s Two Prodigals message available as an mp3 download or a CD you can order. Unfortunately (again) the message isn’t free; $2.50 for the download or $12 for the CD. My post may be a reasonable facsimile, but hearing it from Dr. Keller still may be worth the cost of admission.