The answer may not be as obvious as you think.
And that’s just it. It all depends on how you think. Do you approach life and your relationship with Christ as an elder brother or a younger brother?
In the parable of the prodigal son, this question challenges our trust in the promises of God and identifies a rebellious heart.
In the parable, a younger brother comes back to his father’s house after years of spending his inheritance on a wild, frivolous lifestyle. We receive a glimpse of God’s amazing and awesome love in how he responds to the son. This contrasts to the elder brother who stands off in the shadows miffed at his younger brother’s return. He is not the feature of the parable. Or is he?
In the fifteenth chapter of Luke, Christ is addressing the religious-minded. Before telling the parable of the prodigal son, he teaches the parables of the lost sheep and lost coins. In these two parables, God is pursuing what was lost. This sets the stage for the return of the prodigal son. The father waited at home for his return, but did not pursue him. It was until the celebration of his son’s return, did the father notice the absence of his eldest son. The father goes out and pursues his oldest son to find out the problem.
Keller asks the question “Who really is the lost son?”
I am the eldest brother in my family. When I read the parable of the prodigal son, I find myself easily wagging my finger at the younger brother. We rejoice when the youngest brother comes to his senses and returns home. But to welcome him back into my house fully restored? Well… that is different. Doesn’t he need to prove himself first to proof his worthiness? Doesn’t he need to be the faithful son like me?
For elder brothers, we question our Father’s wisdom. We were not very happy with our father when he gave our younger brother his inheritance, but we accepted it. But now he returns and our father welcomes him back. Without question? This is where elder brothers draw the line.
And why is that?
Keller suggests that elder brothers are more apt to justify their righteousness by their actions. By trying to be good — to honor their father, to be who God desires them to be — we rebel in a different kind of way. We don’t go off to a foreign land for a period of wild living. That would be irresponsible. Instead, we expect to receive rewards and acknowledgment for our faithfulness and loyalty.
Keller makes the point that today’s Christian church is full of eldest brothers.
We tend to promote a culture of rebellion for the younger brothers who are strongly tempted to dip their toe in sin.
We don’t realize that while we cast judgment on younger brothers — we don’t realize we are knee-deep in the puddle of sin by placing ourselves on the throne of God.
We tend to embrace church culture as a means for godliness rather than Christ and his transforming grace. We tend to pursue what is religious rather than focusing on the transforming relationship of being in Christ. The external is something we can see and do, rather than the internal of who we are in Christ — to “be” perfect in Christ rather than to “become” perfect in Christ.
So often in the Christian life, we not only struggle with temptation and sin, but also burdened by following the rules in order to receive acceptance into the culture of the church. The younger brothers of the world want no part of this culture. Why submit to an authoritative God when they already receive judgment at church?
A church dominated by elder brothers do not allow younger brothers to infiltrate their culture, their decisions, their way of worship, or anything else that might upset their comfort zone.
Which is better? A deathbed conversion or trying to live a godly life?
At the heart, deathbed conversions of younger brothers are more acceptable for elder brothers, because they don’t have to be assimilated into their comfort zone of their church life and culture. There lies the danger.
Trying to live a righteous, God-pleasing life can be just as dangerous as a living a life of sin. It promotes self-righteousness instead of trusting in the righteousness of Christ. This was the point behind the parable of the prodigal son. He wanted the elder brothers of the church to realize that they are the prodigal sons for whom God is pursuing. A rebellious lifestyle without God is the same as religious moralism. In both cases, you are taking God off the throne and inserting yourself in his place.
Are you burdened by trying to live a godly life? Are you tired of trying to follow the rules and customs of your Christian church? Do you find yourself strongly tempted to enjoy the fruits of the world rather than the fruits of the spirit? If so, then this means God is pursuing you. He doesn’t want your loyalty and commitment, he wants your trust. God desires a complete abandonment of self. In it’s place, God desires a complete trust in His goodness, will, and purpose for your life.
Trying to live a godly life without God is reflected in our prayers and our attitudes. But take heart, God is pursuing you.