Gospels, Tim Keller

In defense of the elder son

I’m a pretty big proponent of Tim Keller and the work of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I deeply appreciate his attempts to make the Gospel understandable to a post-Christian world. I enjoyed Center Church immensely.  I’ve loved Keller’s preaching and attempted to allow his model to inform my own. He’s my second favorite preacher, right behind my pastor (a protege of Keller’s), Rankin Wilbourne. Sometimes, however, I fear the hermeneutical methodology employed promotes good theology at the expense of good exegesis. An example prominent in my mind is Keller’s work on “The Prodigal God” (which strongly echoes Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son“).

Keller maintains the story, often known as the story of the “Prodigal Son,” is in fact about the radical grace of God.  So far, so good. Keller goes on to claim, however,

Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery.

Intertwined with this keen insight about two basic types of people is what I believe a dubious exegetical claim: Jesus portrays the younger and elder brothers as both lost.

To understand why Keller’s characterization of the elder brother is problematic, one need to revisit the broader context. In Luke 14 Jesus dines with the Pharisees (who object to healing a man on the Sabbath) and in Luke 15 the Pharisees are upset at Jesus’s association with “sinners and tax collectors.” In response Jesus tells three parables. In the first the shepherd finds the lost sheep, leaving the 99 found behind, and calls his neighbors to rejoice at the lost sheep being found. Jesus then says,

 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Second, a woman loses one of ten denari and searches diligently until she finds it–and calls her neighbors to celebrate. Jesus then explains,

 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

It is in this context the story of the Prodigal Son comes to the fore. Note that at no point does Jesus accuse the other 99 sheep of actually being lost. No, they are found and in the fold. Jesus point is rather that the proper response to sinners repenting is celebration and welcoming them back into the family–not ostracizing them for their moral failings.

So what grounds the theory that the elder son (since he is described as a son twice and brother once, I’ve chosen to label him as the elder son) is as lost as his fornicating brother? In verse 28, he is described as being brought to anger (ὠργίσθη) and refuses to attend the feast. The anger of the elder brother is certainly misplaced, but why does Keller believe this anger is a sign of self-righteous “lostness?”

Keller (and other preachers) point out the use of δουλεύω, which allegedly shows that the elder son viewed his father as a slave owner. Of course, lexemes carry varying contextual connotations and  δουλεύω does not always carry a negative connotation. It also carries the positive connotation of offering due deference to someone in authority. So rather than see use of δουλεύω as an insult, it is possibly ( I’d argue probably) a sign of respect.

With this argument muted, what other arguments does Keller wield? Namely, that the elder son appeals to his good works for the ground of justification before his father. He contrasts his behavior with his brothers. Sympathetic with Keller’s theological/pastoral point, I understand why he would argue in this manner, but I believe it brings the law/gospel distinction into the story too soon.

The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants. His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault.

I think Keller identifies something so close to human experience and so closely related to the Gospel, but not explicitly taught at this point in the parable. I believe a better understanding of the elder son’s reaction is that he is right. Before the feast for the lost son had commenced where was the elder son? “In the field” (v.25), working for his father. As he has been obedient, his father was seemingly ignoring the service he had been offering.  While the obedient son had not been given a goat for his loyalty, a profligate spoiled brat has a party thrown as the obedient child finishes a hard days work. This is injustice!

Of course, I am agreed with Keller that the elder son (the surrogate for the Pharisees) has a truncated view of God’s grace, but I’m not sure that the problem is that the elder son misses his need for grace.  Instead, he misses the extent and expansive nature of the father’s grace. Just because God provides grace to the wicked does not mean he has forgotten the righteous. Instead, when the wicked repent and return to the Father, Jesus explains that “it [is] necessary (ἔδει) we celebrate” (v. 32).  Nevertheless, the elder son is not chastised or corrected. Instead, he is reminded that all the Father has is his, but that there is a resurrection celebration for his once dead son.

All three parables in Luke 15 are about how the true people of God rejoice when those once dead are living and those once lost are now found. While the Pharisees are criticized for their self-righteousness throughout the Gospels, in this pericope all three parables focus upon the celebration that is “necessary” when sinners repent. Refusal to reintegrate sinners into the family of God is spiritually immature and itself requires repentance. Keller certainly identifies some of the potential reasons we may exclude repentant sinners: insecurity, propping ourselves up and finding fault in others, trusting in our acts of obedience. Keller incisively criticizes self-righteousness and we would do well to consider the ways in which we can attempt to avoid God by our good works. That application, however, is not derived from Luke 15.


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