There are a few parables that stand out, and if asked to list some of Jesus' parables, I would venture to guess that The Prodigal Son would be one of the top two on most people's lists. This is a parable that is told in Sunday School and from the pulpit to explain God's acceptance and mercy. However, last summer I had an opportunity to listen to Tim Keller talk about it at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I had goose-bumps all through his talk because he had completely turned this parable upside down for me and allowed me to see it in a new light. Recently, I read his book that he wrote based on this parable called, The Prodigal God. His insight to this parable is incredible, and it is impossible to put it all in a blog post, so I gave you a link to amazon.com so you can look at it and hopefully read it. I will attempt to put down some ideas so you can learn to look at this parable from a new angle.
In this parable, Jesus tells of two brothers - the younger, irresponsible brother and the elder, obedient brother. The father in this parable represents God. The younger brother does the unthinkable and tells his father that he wants his share of his inheritance and left home. This would be the equivalent of a child telling a father that he is worth more dead than alive. When life became difficult and he ran out of money, he returned home planning on telling his father that he would be a servant. Instead, the father ran out to him and greeted him and gave him a feast. The elder brother was upset and would not join the feast.
Tim Keller points out that usually the elder brother's role in this parable is given very little attention and the mercy extended to the younger brother becomes the main point. That is not what Jesus intended, and if you read this story from the cultural perspective that the Pharisees heard it, the elder brother's role becomes very important. You see, Jesus was pointing out that the elder brother was just as lost as the younger brother, but for a very different reason. He was lost in his obedience. He was upset that his obedience never earned him a great feast. He was obedient out of expectancy, not out of love for his father.
That becomes a danger for anyone who is Christian. Are we obedient to God because we love Him and are overwhelmed by His extravagant love for us, or are we obedient so we can gain something in our relationship with Him? When we don't get what we feel we deserve if our obedience is based on the latter, it becomes a stumbling block for us. Jesus knew that would be a problem because He says in Matthew 11:6, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." He was answering John the Baptists doubts; He knew that sometimes it can cause us to stumble when He doesn't give us what we feel we need (or deserve). When we can remember the reality that we don't deserve anything, even God's mercy, we can grow in our relationship with Him and be obedient out of love. Please read Tim Keller's book, it will challenge and push you in your walk with God.
Is your obedience to God motivated by love or expectancy?