Why did people invite Jesus to parties? It’s been a question I’ve wrestled with for awhile (even here), ever since I stopped to think about how often Jesus was at parties.
His first miracle was at a wedding. Matthew gets invited to be a follower and throws a party, complete with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is inside, the religious people are outside, looking through the window and scolding. In fact, one day the super-religious leaders were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And it wasn’t, I don’t think, that Jesus went to the meal and didn’t talk. In fact, I’m pretty sure he was talking to the people around the table. I’m guessing that he was doing a lot of listening and then asking a pointed question or two. I’m guessing that he was showing compassion for the difficulties that took people away from the religious system. I’m guessing that lots of people changed their behavior, thinking “I don’t like religion, but Jesus? He’s great. I think I could follow him.”
That thought is at the core of the latest book by Tim Keller: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. In fact, Keller says it better than I:
Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. 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. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think. 15-16.
When he speaks of the elder brother, Keller is referring to a character in a story Jesus told, a story known most often as “The Prodigal Son.”
You may know it. A kid asks for his share of the family estate early, leaves home, spends it all. He has no more friends. He’s feeding pigs. He decides to go back home asking to be a servant. Instead, the father welcomes him home as a son, throwing a huge party.
We talk about prodigal children, about people who have left home, have left “the faith.” This is the story they are talking about.
But Keller makes us look at the whole story.
Earlier I talked about the religious leaders muttering about Jesus. This story, the one about the son, is one of three stories Jesus told in response to their muttering. He talked about the younger son coming home, Jesus did. But then he talked about the older son, the one who had never left. This son, Jesus says, doesn’t come to the party for the younger son. When the father goes to talk with him, the older son complains that he has always been good, that he has always done everything exactly right, and what has the father ever done for him?
Keller talks about the moralistic pride of the older brother. “I’m better than my brother, so you should love me more,” is the older brother’s philosophy. The way to be loved is to be good. The way to get stuff is to be good. And so, there are many younger brothers who stay away for fear of not measuring up to the standards of the older brother. And there are many people who stay away from church, who stay away from religion because they think that church is about being perfect.
But the point of the parable is that being at the feast isn’t about being perfect. Being with Jesus often meant, in the first century, not being with the perfect people. Jesus was at the parties, walking along the road, sitting on a hillside. He was helping people see that they can’t fix themselves, whether they are younger or older.
So how do I end this post?
- It’s sort of a review of a book, sort of a response to how a book resonates with questions I wrestle with. And part of me wants to just end like a book review on “Reading Rainbow”: If you ever wondered why some Christians seem so stuffy, this is the book for you.
- And part of me knows that writing about books is something I want to work on as a way of helping you see what is shaping my heart. Because the sermon that this book grew out of has been shaping my heart since I first heard it a couple of years ago.
- And part of me wants to pose some wonderful, thoughtful question.
- And part of me wants to say, “I get older brothers. I see one in the mirror every morning. I get younger brothers. I see one in the mirror every evening.”
- And part of me wants to figure out which party Jesus is at today and go listen. Or maybe I should just throw my own and invite him.
So pick your own ending.
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Dutton, 2008. 140 pages
Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in new York City