From The Prodigal God
With this parable [of the Prodigal Son] Jesus gives us a much deeper concept of “sin” than any of us would have if he didn’t supply it. Most people think of sin as failing to keep God’s rules of conduct, but, while not less than that, Jesus’s definition of sin goes beyond it.
In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character, Hazel Motes, that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” This is a profound insight. You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to Heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own savior.
This attitude is clearly that of the elder brother. Why is he so angry with the father? He feels he has the right to tell the father how the robes, rings, and livestock of the family should be deployed. In the same way, religious people commonly live very moral lives, but their goal is to get leverage over God, to control him, to put him in a position where they think he owes them. Therefore, despite all their ethical fastidiousness and piety, they are actually rebelling against his authority. If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving as your own savior.
Underneath the brothers’ sharply different patterns of behavior is the same motivation and aim. Both are using the father in different ways to get the things on which their hearts are really fixed. It was the wealth, not the love of the father, that they believed would make them happy and fulfilled.
At the end of the story, the elder brother has an opportunity to truly delight the father by going into the feast. But his resentful refusal shows that the father’s happiness had never been his goal. When the father reinstates the younger son, to the diminishment of the older son’s share in the estate, the elder bother’s heart is laid bare. He does everything he can to hurt and resist his father.
If, like the elder brother, you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want. A classic example of this is the bargain that the young Salieri makes with God in Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.
I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of. “Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music – and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!”
He begins a life under this vow to God. He keeps his hands off women, works diligently at his music, teaches many musicians for free, and tirelessly helps the poor. His career goes well and he believes God is keeping his end of the bargain. Then Mozart appears with musical gifts far above Salieri’s. His genius had obviously been bestowed on him by God. Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name, means “beloved by God,” and yet he is a vulgar, self-indulgent “younger brother.” The talent God lavished so prodigally on Mozart precipitates a crisis of faith in the elder-brother heart of Salieri. His words are remarkably close to those of the older son in the parable:
It was incomprehensible. Here I was denying all my natural lust in order to deserve God’s gift and there was Mozart indulging his in all directions – even though engaged to be married – and no rebuke at all!
Finally, Salieri says to God, “From now on we are enemies, You and I,” and thereafter works to destroy Mozart. Sadly, in Shaffer’s play, God is silent, unlike the father in Jesus’s parable, who reaches out to rescue the elder brother even as he begins to sink into the bitterness, hate, and despair that eventually swallows Salieri.
Salieri’s diligent efforts to be chaste and charitable were ultimately revealed to be profoundly self-interested. God and the poor were just useful instruments. He told himself that he was sacrificing his time and money for the poor’s sake and for God’s sake, but there was actually no sacrifice involved. He was doing it for his own sake, to get fame, fortune, and self-esteem. “I liked myself,” Salieri said, “Till he came. Mozart.” The minute he realized that his service to God and the poor wasn’t gaining him the glory he craved so deeply, his heart became murderous. Soon the moral and respectable Salieri shows himself capable of greater evil than the immoral, vulgar Mozart. While the Mozart of Amadeus is irreligious, it is Salieri the devout who ends up in a much greater state of alienation from God, just like in Jesus’s parable.
This mind-set can be present in more subtle form than it was in the life of Salieri. I knew a woman who had worked for many years in Christian ministry. When chronic illness overtook her in middle age, it threw her into despair. Eventually she realized that deep in her heart she had felt that God owed her a better life, after all she had done for him. That assumption made it extremely difficult for her to climb out of her pit, though climb she did. The key to her improvement, however, was to recognize the elder-brother mind-set within.
Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don’t obey God to get God himself – in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him. So religious and moral people can be avoiding Jesus as Savior and Lord as much as the younger brothers who say they don’t believe in God and define right and wrong for themselves.
Here, then, is Jesus’s radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.
The Young Salieri would have objected strongly if someone had told him he was doing this. By being chaste and charitable was he not doing God’s will rather than his own, was he not honoring and submitting to God? But by seeking to put God in his debt and get control over him through his good works – instead of relying on his sheer grace – he was acting as his own savior. When he became murderously bitter toward Mozart, certain that God was being unjust, he was putting himself in the place of God, the Judge.
There are two ways to be your own savior and lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.