Most of us who grew up in church know well the story of the Prodigal Son. Or at least we thought we did until Tim Keller proved us all wrong. In Keller’s book Prodigal God, he points out that the dominant emphasis of the passage is not on the wayward son, but on the self-righteous older brother. It was rather astounding and obvious to me. How could I have missed this truth. The book as a whole challenged me and gave this passage a freshness. Luke 15:11-32 can turn us into Recovery Culture Churches by first challenging our older brother mentalities.
The context of this parable, along with two others (the parable of the lost Sheep, the parable of the lost coin), is an interaction with the hard-hearted pharisees and scribes. Verses 2-3 state:
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable
Jesus tells three parables here, the lost son is the last of these three, and each is designed to demonstrate the lavish grace of God and the ugliness of their religiosity. The focus of the Prodigal Son parable is really not the wayward son, it’s the older brother who represents the religious formalism and self-righteousness of the religious leaders. Jesus is speaking to them specifically. Who is it in the parable that goes into the feast of the father? It is the wayward son. Who stays outside despite the father’s earnest pleading? The older brother. There is a profound lesson here for us as we consider what it means to move towards Recovery Culture churches.
I recall well how people responded to what Revolution church was trying to do in Portsmouth, OH. The leaders of the church had a desire to reach out to the dechurched and unchurched in that community. They wanted, specifically, to impact our recovery communities. Portsmouth had/has a massive prescription drug abuse problem; it was so significant that it landed them within the top ten on the DEA watch list. As the church strived to make in-roads into that community and as many began to come out to church it made for an unsettling dynamic for many. I recall one older lady telling me, “We love what you’re doing down there, we just think there are too many addicts.” Her comment was intended to be an encouragement, but it revealed more than she realized: helping messy people is nice, but only in moderation. It revealed that she believed she was somehow less messy than others. We regularly had complaints about the large group of men and women who gathered on the sidewalk outside the church for their pre-service smoke. We also had lots of criticism from other area churches, accusing us of being a drug-front or secret homosexual club (not sure how that one got started). In many cases the intent was not outright malicious, but there was an evident older-brother syndrome floating behind these accusations and concerns. Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son to expose the wickedness of this mentality and to encourage us all to something better.
The parable challenges elder brothers in two ways. Keller says the story can be broken down into two acts. Act 1 focuses on the wayward son and the enduring affection of the Father. The son hates the father, uses him to get his inheritance and then runs from him. But the father never turns from the rebellious and wicked son. He waits for him. He even runs to meet him as the son comes home full of shame and repentance. The father then doesn’t hold a grudge or belittle the wayward son. He restores him to full honor and dignity in his house. It’s a beautiful picture. In Keller’s words:
Act 1 already challenges the mind-set of elder brothers with a startling message: God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing. (24)
That is to say, God’s grace is more free and reckless than the older brothers of the world imagine. The gospel message is not get your life cleaned up and then come to Jesus. It is come to Jesus, just as you are. Sinners are welcomed in Jesus’ presences.
Act two challenges the older brothers by confronting their own spiritual condition. Elder brothers look at their own morality as the basis for their relationship with God. They stand convinced that God loves them because they do good. But the story concludes with the elder son still missing out on the party. He is pouting on the porch instead of feasting with the family. As Keller says:
Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: “Because I’ve never disobeyed you.” The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; its’ not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father. (35)
In the end the elder brother is just as lost as the younger son was, only he remains lost because of his pride.
We are all broken and messy. We all need the grace of God the Father in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The parable of the Prodigal Son hits us all. Whether you are rebellious or religious is not the determining factor in your relationship with God. The determining factor is whether you recognize your lostness and need of God’s grace. The determining factor is receiving God’s grace because you have no other hope of connecting to God. Recovery Culture Churches see our solidarity as sinners, recognize the free offer of grace extended to us all, and refuse to stand on our own morality as superior to those with more visible brokenness. From this text Keller gives the church a stark warning and powerful charge. He writes:
In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31) . . .
If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (15-16)
Luke 15:11-32 is a powerful challenge to the church today. Recovery Culture Churches are those who respond to this challenge by opening up our ministries to everyone. There should never be “too many addicts” in the church. Recovery Culture Churches know that there’s always room for one more among us.