In the previous issue we began to answer a question concerning the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son. We had just begun to explain from a positive point of view the significance of this elder son. That discussion we now continue.
What, we may ask, are the characteristics of this elder son (Pharisee)?
In the first place, he is one who never transgressed, that is, according to his own opinion and according to his own view of the law. Whether you think, now, of the particular law with all the precepts as they were given to Israel—moral, civil, and ceremonial, plus all the traditions of the elders—or whether you think of the law in general, it makes no difference, principally, with regard to the attitude of the elder son. That law—as the Pharisee, the ideal son of the law conceived of it—he never transgressed. That law as a mere body of precepts which had to be obeyed was kept by him meticulously. Understand: that law was a mere code, a cold code, which had to be kept. There was no heart pulsating in that law. And the Pharisee-elder son kept that cold code. He prayed so often, fasted so often, brought so many bulls and goats and lambs to the temple for sacrifice, paid the temple tax, the tithe, kept so many holy days per year, did not overtly steal, commit the act of adultery or fornication, or actually kill someone. All in all, he was an ideal man, a cold man of the law.
Remember now, however, that this was not the law in fact and in truth, but the law as he conceived of it. In truth, that law had a heart; it was a warm and living law. That heart of the law was love! “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . . and thy neighbor as thyself.” Did not the Lord Jesus emphasize this again and again? It was for this reason, too, that the “end of the law was Christ.” He was its end not merely in the sense that He alone fulfilled all obedience to the law for us, but also in the sense that the law in Israel pointed directly to Him; the Heart of all the temple service and all the blood of the old covenant and all the sacrifices was Christ. The true child of God, who felt the heart of the law, knew all the time that he could not keep that law; and he therefore looked forward to the one sacrifice that was to come. But the Pharisee never did this. To the ideal Pharisee the law was a body of precept upon precept which had to be kept in order to get a good account, gain credit, with God.
Such a Pharisee this elder son in the parable represents: the ideal Pharisee. Actually, of course, the Pharisee as he stood before Jesus was far worse than this elder son—as might, indeed, be expected from the development of Phariseeism. The actual Pharisee was a whitewashed sepulchre, and he knew it. He devoured widows’ houses, and then made long prayers on the street. With all his wickedness he went to the temple, and then he thanked the Lord that there were no other good men beside him. So this elder son in the parable did not, certainly, represent the Pharisee as he actually existed.
But neither did he represent the faithful covenant child. The latter is one who knows the heart of the law and who sees that the end of the law is Christ. He is one who knows his own sin and will surely not say, “I never transgressed any of the commandments.” On the contrary, he is always one who is sorry for his sins, who repents, and who is forgiven.
But the elder son represents the ideal of Phariseeism. As it were, the Lord says to the Pharisees in His audience: “All right; I will take you at face value. I will take you at your best. I will take you, not as you actually are, but as you pretend to be: ideal sons of the law who are far above publicans and sinners. And then I will picture to you your trouble, your problem, and compare you with the real picture of these publicans and sinners who come to Me.”
That this is correct is plain from the parable. Notice, first, that the elder son is in the field, working for father. Notice, too, that he says, “These many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I thy commandments at any time.” And notice, further, that the father in the parable does not argue the point, does not deny it. In a sense—such is the point of the parable—this is what the elder son did.
And so he is the picture of one who will be righteous by his own works of the law, righteous by faithful service all his life. In the church of today he is one who will be righteous by coming to church, by paying his dues, by coming to the Lord’s Supper, by reading his Bible, by saying his prayers, by never stealing or swearing or committing adultery or murdering overtly,—all as so many works of righteousness whereby he gains credit with God. And in the world he is a man full of outward morality. He is above reproach outwardly. You cannot lay a finger on him. And by all this he would claim righteousness before God! “These many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I thy commandments at any time.”
What is wrong with such a man?
Fundamentally this: he never repents! He does not know the a-b-c of repentance.
He has a wrong conception of God, first of all. The God of Phariseeism was as cold as his body of laws: there was no heart in him. He commanded and gave orders like a boss. He was like an employer. The world was his shop; the Pharisee was his employee; and eternal life was the wage. Such a God is cold and forbidding and heartless, like any “boss.” (This, to me, is what makes the whole covenant of works theory unattractive, too. The relation between God and Adam in Paradise is pictured as such a cold, mechanical, heartless relation—one of contract.) But this is wrong, of course. God is not such a cold, heartless “boss” with an outward code of laws, but a living Father and covenant Friend, with a loving heart. He is the living God!
But the Pharisee’s conception of himself, of course, followed from his conception of God, even as one’s conception of God is always determinative. He was God’s “workman.” He was a slave, or, at best, a wage-earner. He had to work. He had to bring sacrifices, keep holy days, etc. There was no heart in him either. There was no love, no joy. He was cold as stone. Like an employee, he would look at the clock all day, to see if he had done almost enough for the Lord. And this is wrong! Properly conceived, man is friend-son in relation to God.
It follows, of course, that he also had a wrong conception of righteousness. Righteousness, for the Pharisee, was the sum-total of the number of sacrifices he brought, the days he observed, the times he prayed, etc. In other words, righteousness consisted in all outward good works. And this is dead wrong. With the Lord, Who wants love, righteousness is the sum-total of the heart-beats of a heart that never skips even once in true, covenant love!
If you understand this, you will also understand that this elder son did not know repentance and never repented. He did not repent, not; to be sure, because objectively there was no reason for him to repent! But subjectively it was impossible for him to repent. He did not understand sin; and he did not know his own sins. And as long as a man does not know his sins, it is spiritually impossible for him to repent!
Was this elder son really different from the younger? Let us test this. What was the principle of the younger son’s sin in the parable? This, that he in his mind and heart separated father’s goods from father. He wanted the goods, but he did not care for father. He conceived of having joy without father’s love and father’s home. This is precisely the condition of every sinner by nature! But what was the attitude of the elder son? Was it basically any different? Listen to him: “Thou never gavest me a kid to make merry with my friends!” There is a world of sentiment revealed here. He felt that he never received anything from father. He felt no joy, only grumbling dissatisfaction, as long as he could not rejoice with father’s goods. He wanted at least to separate one kid to enjoy himself with his friends, apart from father. In principle, therefore, he was exactly like the younger son when the latter left home. The only difference was in manifestation. The one left home with his cold heart; the other stayed on the farm with his equally cold heart.
And so it was subjectively impossible for him to come to repentance. You see, one does not repent for aboss. At best, he might quit. Or he might promise to do more work—and this, not as long as he thinks he has been doing a good day’s work. But he does not repent. Repentance is a matter of living love. It comes when we come to ourselves. It comes when we realize that the relation between God and our lives is not one of boss and workman, but of father and son, of Friend-sovereign and friend-servant. It comes when the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts and we become more sorry than we can express because we have torn ourselves from Father’s heart! And this living love the elder son did not know. He labored for a boss; hence, he could not repent.
And thus, finally, the elder son never rejoiced. Even as he did not know repentance, so he could not experience the joy of forgiveness and of glad reception by the Father.
Father maintains His Fatherhood, indeed! In the parable, the father says, “Son . . .” In the deepest sense, man cannot escape the fact that he was created a son and cannot shake the responsibility and calling to live as a son, though he has utterly lost the ability and desire to be a true son. He is, from that point of view, a cold son, a hateful son, a son in hell; but he cannot change his being. He has only changed his own spiritual attitude through his willful fall into sin. Intentionally the father in the parable emphasizes this. He expresses what the elder son should be, not what he actually assumes to be. It is like Jesus’ word to Judas, “Friend . . .” “Thou art ever with me,” the father says to him, too. This is also true of the Pharisee; but it was only a presence of proximity, not of love. “And all mine is thine.” Here the Lord emphasizes that the goods cannot be separated from Father. They are His and His people’s, and can be enjoyed only in His communion. They are “thine” but always and only as “mine,” that is, Father’s, never otherwise.
Hence, he ought to rejoice. For a son was dead as a son, and he is now living as a son. And that sonship, that son-Father relation, is the main thing. Without it, the goods are a curse and soon turn into the husks that the swine eat.
But the elder son answers like a slave! He is angry! Within is the joy of deepest love: a repenting sinner, a loving Father, and the angels singing for joy! Outside is the angry son, grumbling because he never felt the heart of father, but only the ice and the cold of a body of precepts. He cannot enter into that love and that joy. He is outside of that love and that joy with all his heart. And to his father he answers like a slave: “Thou never gavest me a kid!” He will not go in to the feast. He does not know sin. He does not know repentance. He does not know the joy of the repentant. How is it possible that he can rejoice in the repentance and the joyous reception of another?
And there the text leaves it, almost as if for us to finish it and draw the proper conclusion: if that cold slave of self-righteousness does not repent like his younger brother, he will never enter in! And we conclude: Thanks be to God for the fact that in the deep way of sin and grace—sovereign grace, grace greater than all our sins—He manifested to us the deep love of His eternal heart!