By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist
One of the best books I’ve read in a long time centers on one of the best stories of all time. The story is Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” and the book, which helped me see that great parable more clearly than ever before, is Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.
You know the story. One amazing Father. (I’m using a capital “F.” We know who he is!) Two sons. And Keller reminded me that their story really is our story. The ways those two sons try to cope with the mess humanity is in are the basic ways our race has always tried to cope with the fact that there is a moral law God built into this universe, and we break it and can’t measure up. The two ways? To disregard the law. Or to lie to ourselves and others about our keeping it.
The younger son decides to find fulfillment by going his own way, disregarding the law, thumbing his nose at “right and wrong,” turning his back on his Father and doing whatever he wishes. His approach has always been popular. At first, it’s fun.
But there’s another son, an older brother. He looks for fulfillment in being “good.” He spends a lot of time at the synagogue, a lot of time with others who are also seeking fulfillment in religious rule-keeping so that they can fool themselves together, majoring on being “right” about ritual and rule-keeping. He and his partners in “do it yourself” righteousness will focus on external “laws,” both God’s and the ones they make up that are easier to keep than God’s. He, and they, will be scrupulously “religious” and look down on others who aren’t.
But don’t fall for his game. He doesn’t keep the law either, no matter how loudly and self-righteously he claims to. He stands condemned by the law he thinks is his salvation. He’s every bit as lost and far away from his Father as his brother was back in the pig pen. The younger “I don’t care about the law” brother may stink like pigs, but the older “I’m such a good law-keeper I can hardly stand myself” brother has a different but disgusting stink about him, too. Apart from the Father, both are headed for death. The difference is that the young son has come home. The older son who thinks he never left, is in serious danger indeed. The younger son has placed his faith in the Father and headed in to the feast. But the older son?
You see, the good news of the Gospel is that real fulfillment is found in loving the Father and having a relationship with him. And we have the best elder Brother of all, God’s Son, who through his death on the cross pardons us and through the power of the Resurrection empowers us, and he leads us in to the great feast of the Father.
What a Brother! What a Father! And what a parable! What a great story for non-Christians to ponder as they learn that they have a loving Father. What a great story for Christians to meditate on to remind them whose children they are. And as its truth becomes healing balm for the soul, what a great story for “recovering” Christians, folks sickened and hurt by elder-brother “religion.”
It’s time for all of us to come home. Home to the Father.