Paths to an Unfulfilled Life: The Parable of the Two Lost Sons

I’ve just completed reading Timothy Keller’s book “The Prodigal God.” The focus of this book is what Keller calls “the parable of the two lost sons.” To summarize the story, there once was a younger son who left his father and squandered his inheritance because of “wild living.” In desperation, he returns to his father to ask to be a servant, but the father runs to him and welcomes him with a feast. The elder son, who always has been faithful to his father, calls this unfair and refuses to go to the feast. The father pleads with him to join them, but this tension never is fully resolved in the story (see Luke 15:1-32).

Most will connect this story with “the parable of the prodigal son.” Often, the meaning of the story is taken to be God’s grace toward people who are undeserving, such as the younger son. However, Keller notes that there actually is an equal emphasis on the elder son.

Based on this, Keller suggests that there are two paths to an unfulfilled life. First, and best known from this story, is the way of life exemplified by the younger son. “Younger” sons leave the morality of their parents and society to do as they please. Individuals such as this live for pleasure and self-oriented interests. As most interpretations go, one of the points of the parable is to point out God’s acceptance of these kinds of people, should they return to seek a relationship again. This is a good example of the grace of God. As Keller notes, although Christianity today typically is connected with “religion,” in the beginning, this was not so. In fact, Christianity started almost as an anti-religion in that it sought to challenge common religious assumptions about the relationship between God and those who do not live up to the expectations of society.

In contrast, another approach to life, which Keller emphasizes in his discussion, has to do with the life exemplified by the elder son. “Elder sons” focus on living morally upright lives. They tend to be prideful, arrogant, and judgmental. As Keller states:

“Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy. This inevitably leads to feeling superior to those who don’t have those same qualities. In fact, competitive comparison is the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance. Racism and classism are just different versions of this form of the self-salvation project. This dynamic becomes exceptionally intense when elder brothers pride themselves above all for their right religion. If a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God. When you look at the world through these lenses, it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth.”

Obviously, this happens frequently. Wars done in the name of God come to mind. Perhaps more commonly, though, the elder brother may be described in the following way:

“His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault.”

Obviously, both approaches are limited. Both the younger and the elder sons are “lost” in their own ways. Both are alienated from the father in the story. Both are rebelling. Both need grace.

Reflecting on this personally, I can definitely see myself in the portrayal of the elder son. I don’t necessarily do this in a conventionally Christian manner, but I often feel like I possess some kind of superior insight or wisdom about how to live (why else write a blog such as this, for crying out loud?). I often feel like I have kind of a “Savior complex” in which I feel the need to correct people’s unwise lifestyles. I often struggle with judgment of people and often feel a kind of pride that I possess the one truth. Sure, I doubt what I’m doing deep down, but still there is a subtle arrogance that guides my life. Recently, I think the burden of this approach has left me stressed out, feeling like I am responsible for correcting problems with others ways of thinking or acting. The ultimate fruit have been headaches, rage, and anxiety. I continue to struggle with this, but Keller’s book has helped me address some of these issues.

Ultimately, I believe everyone longs for the same kinds of things – significance, meaning, joy, acceptance, safety, peace, control, and hope. The two sons just showed different paths to trying (and failing) to attain these outcomes. However, the entire point of Christian spirituality is that neither of these approaches really works in the long-run. Ultimately, this angst points us to our need for God, who alone can provide fulfillment. As Keller notes:

“In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay or disease. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in his presence. . . The Bible says that we have been wandering spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings. Though we long for bodies that ‘run and are not weary,’ we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the heavenly father from which we have fled.”

For me personally, this again reminds me of the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, who wrote about the practical implications of the limitations of seeking significance in the manner of the elder son and what to do instead:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

What this all means for me is that I would like to better recognize my various limitations to understand what leads to a good life and my ability to help people. Sure, I can do some, but I am a very limited human being who really is not capable of all I desire. I do not possess perfect insight or wisdom. I do not have infinite opportunities or time. I only can do so much. Like everyone else, I seek fulfillment, but I cannot attain it on my own. This is why there is a God. Ultimately, I need an eternal source that is capable of meeting the God-shaped gap in my heart. I need to trust that God and others will be working for good alongside of me. And, when it comes to actually making a difference, I would like to focus more on what really matters – loving people for who they are in light of the fact that I need love in the same way (if not more).

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