Sep 13 2010

The Elder Son Syndrome

One thing I don’t remember hearing in church as a child was a sermon on the Elder Son, who appears to be something of a peripheral character in the Prodigal Son story. In fact, I was probably in my 30’s when I heard my first “elder son” sermon. This is odd when you think of it, especially considering that the elder son is a very distinct reference to those in the crown to whom Jesus was directing this series of stories.

Let’s back up to the beginning of Luke chapter 15:

The tax collectors and sinners all came to listen to Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to complain: “Look, this man welcomes sinners and even eats with them (Luke 15:1,2 NCV).”

It was at this point that Jesus launched into this trio of stories, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and what we know as The Prodigal Son. I think Jesus had three goals in mind, especially with the 3rd story: One, he was emphasizing to those who may have become disenfranchised by the attitude of the Pharisees and teachers how much they were valued by Jesus. He was also explaining something about the mindset of God and God’s economy. Three, he wanted to reveal to the Pharisees and teachers something about themselves.

It’s easy for most of us to identify with the foolish son. It’s also very easy for us to judge those we have identified with the Elder Son Syndrome — those who would judge us for being somewhat less than perfect and for occasionally requiring a little “extra” grace.

Over the years, I’ve found how easy it is to shift from younger son to elder son.

It happens in the blink of an eye. One minute we are humbled by the grace of God, the next we are judging the person next to us for lighting up a cigarette or displaying multiple piercings and tattoos, never mind the fact that we are engaged in and enjoying our own freedoms (for which we are being judged by the gossiping fundamentalist over in the corner).  It’s all relative, isn’t it?  We know the grace we have received, and so can rest in our own brand of personal freedoms (“according to our faith”). However, we aren’t quite so sure about anyone else, and besides, we don’t do those particular things.

The thing with the elder brother was that he had made up his own set of rules in which to operate. In his virtual reality, he worked hard, protected his father’s assets (was stingy), and assumed one didn’t kill the fatted calf on a whim. Celebrations of that nature were extravagant; the money could have gone to the temple, or to feed the poor. And, you at least waited until your father was dead to squander your inheritance.

The elder son didn’t understand his father’s economy at all. He must have thought his father weak-minded or deceived to have already given away 1/3 of his assets, especially to someone he knew to be wasteful and wanton. But to welcome the lazy bum back, and then give him the family checkbook? Was his father crazy?

I think most of us can relate to the Elder Son, and we might respond the same way given these circumstances — as least I think I would. Not only did my stupid, foolish brother get a chunk of cash, but I was left doing all of the chores (not that he actually did them, anyway). For years I’ve consoled myself with the thought that everything I was working for was mine; but now, he’s cut back in for another share, and has access to the family bank accounts!

Those of us who work hard at being good Christians — who faithfully attend church, serve in various ways, live responsible lives, and struggle daily with making ends meet — can have a very hard time with those Christians who sometimes don’t act like they understand the price of grace at all. You all know who I mean; you probably have someone in mind right now. These folks come and go as they please, spend their Sundays with their jet skis, take marvelous vacations, and seemingly live the high life, and still have the nerve to call themselves Christians. They live their lives in debt, both spiritually and physically, but there always seems to be more and more grace for them. What’s up with that? As Jeremiah complained, “Why do the wicked prosper” (Jer. 12:1)?

Even I, who has experienced so much grace throughout my life, can very easily slip into the Elder Son Syndrome and start to judge those around me. The first time I was made aware of my inner Elder Son, it literally stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked to discover that I was so quick to apply grace to myself, but so hesitant to apply it to others. I realized that I didn’t understand grace quite so much as I had imagined.

One of the benefits of growing up Lutheran is that in the liturgy every Sunday, we were all reminded of the grace we have received, and why we needed it in the first place. Regardless of how rich or poor we were, the liturgy was the great equalizer. Within the first few minutes of church each Sunday, we would say this:

Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto thee, that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against thee by thought, word and deed. Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.

O most merciful God, who has given thine only-begotten Son to die for us, have mercy upon us and for his sake grant us remission of all our sins: and by thy Holy Spirit increase in us true knowledge of thee and of thy will, and true obedience to they Word, that by thy grace we may come to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us, and hath given his only Son to die for us, and for his sake forgiveth us all our sins. To them that believe on his Name, he giveth power to become the sons of God, and bestoweth upon them his Holy Spirit. He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved. Grant this, O Lord, unto us all.

Amen. (1958 Service Book & Hymnal)

We have memories like sieves, and we must be reminded — often — that we are in desperate need of grace, and that there is never any grace shortage, either for us or for others. God’s grace is always sufficient, wherever we happen fall on the younger son–elder son continuum.


  1. Which son do you tend to see yourself as the most?
  2. Do you have any “foolish brothers” that test your understanding of grace?

May 5 2010

Review: Todd Hunter’s Giving Church Another Chance

Todd Hunter’s Giving Church Another Chance is an interesting—and perhaps brilliant—little book. I am sure that this is not everything that Todd Hunter could say on the subjects of church, liturgy and life, but he says just enough to make you want more, which I believe is precisely the point.

Todd has a gift of being able to “reimage” things so that we see them in a different way. In this book, he has taken the elements of the Anglican liturgy and presents them not as merely a way to worship on Sunday mornings, but as a rhythm by which to live our lives. Without being overly critical of the Vineyard or other evangelical styles of worship, he nevertheless shows us that there are elements missing—not just from Sunday mornings, but from the way we live throughout the week.

He discusses, for example, how we have become addicted to noise and excitement to the point that we don’t even allow time for quiet in our corporate worship; rather than Sunday morning worship setting the pattern for our week, we have let how we live set the pattern for our worship. Todd simply suggests that we “repractice” church, learning once again the value of contemplation, Bible reading, giving, and so on. Furthermore, just as Israel had been intended to be the means to bless all mankind, this is now our calling, to be the Church for the sake of others.

Even those of us from liturgical backgrounds will be challenged by this book to take a step back and reevaluate our attitudes toward church, worship, and life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Todd Hunter to read and post a review on my site. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Oct 9 2009

To Creed or not to Creed?

Again, the Internet Monk has an interesting post in his series on “Evangelical Liturgy,” this time on the use (or non-use) of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.   It has never occurred to me that any church would not subscribe to either of these creeds- in fact, I would have said that any church that didn’t hold to the creeds was heterodox.  For that matter, I probably would still say this.  Of course, not officially holding to the creeds doesn’t mean they don’t believe in them, but still…

I guess that just goes to show once again that I am obviously not – and never have been – an evangelical in the popular sense (Luther first used the word to refer to his theology).

Sep 14 2009


No, I’m not trying out for Fiddler on the Roof.  I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the concept of Tradition (and tradition) in church theology.  Yeah, I know, I tend to think about some obscure things.  First, a little background:

Tradition, with a capital “T”, is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Holy defines Holy Tradition as “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”  Holy Tradition is not given equal status with Scripture, however it is seen as authoritative as far as the interpretation of Scripture goes.  It does not change or grow with understanding or time.  While in the Roman Catholic Church the Pope can “amend” church doctrines, there is no one in the Orthodox Church with that authority.  Again, Tradition doesn’t change, it just is.

This, of course, is debated by all other churches.  The RCC has, as I have pointed out, a different approach to church authority, giving preference to the Pope.  This is really what the Reformation was all about.  One of the main doctrines emphasized by Luther and the other reformers is sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the church’s source of authority.

Protestants: Sola Scriptura

While by and large the protestant churches all affirm this, there are many different approaches, which in part explains why there are so many different churches and traditions (with a small “t”).  One problem is that many evangelical churches have no respect whatsoever for the earlier church teachings, instead preferring their own unique twists of interpretation.  Personally, I find this quite dangerous, allowing for much bizarre error to creep in, and allowing for bizarre creeps to mislead many people.

What I find really interesting, however, is that so many churches say “sola Scriptura” but in practice have their own form of tradition that controls them as much as the Eastern Orthodox is guided by their Tradition.


I’ll pick on the Lutherans because I was one, and still hold to a lot of Lutheran approaches to things.  Luther, of course, rejected the Pope’s authority in favor of Scripture alone.  However, over the years, the Lutherans developed a number of documents that defined the “Lutheran” faith, including the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luthers’ Catechism and the Formula of Concord. These are all published in one rather large volume known as The Book of Concord.  Some Lutherans, especially in the Missouri Synod, will quote this as much if not more than the Bible itself.  It is interesting to me that the church that first developed Sola Scriptura holds so strongly to a 2nd book.


For Calvinists, there is also a slough of documents that guide their interpretation of Scripture. There is the Westminster Confession, Calvin’s Institutes, the TULIP, and so on.  Calvinists, even more so than Lutherans, will default to Calvinist Tradition rather than go back to Scripture.

All the rest

To look at the rest would take far too much time; nearly everyone has some kind of tradition guiding them, even if it is to be “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.”  Some, of course, are less dogmatic than others. The ELCA (Lutheran) and the Episcopal Church have all but left the faith, setting aside even Scripture as authoritative.  Then you have those who follow whatever “prophetic word” floats by.  Fundamentalists are dognatic, but in violation of the clear meaning of Scripture as well as any other source of authority or interpretation.


There are many in the “emerging” movements which have chosen to be “blown to and fro” with concepts such as “open-source theology” or even becoming somewht “interfaith.”

My own thoughts

My personal belief is that Scripture – while being open to each individually – is not necessarily open to all individual interpretation.  I think it is important to look to the Church Fathers (2nd-4th Centuries) for guidance, as well as look at the wise men through the ages.  However, I am not convinced that the early Church Fathers had everything perfect.  I think Luther recovered some major truths, but not all.  (I can’t say the same for Calvin, however.)

For example, there are some people with new thoughts about Biblical interpretation, such as NT Wright, who are coming under attack by Calvinists, Lutherans, and others as he dares question traditional interpretations of core doctrines such as Justification.  Now, I tend to think Luther’s thinking follows Paul as closely as possible; however, Wright has some interesting thoughts. Should he be dismissed simply because he doesn’t follow the TULIP or Concord?  Not necessarily.  I don’t even mind if he disputes Chrysostom or Polycarp; I don’t think they saw in the mirror any clearer than Paul did.

Bottom line, I think we need to be open-minded, but with a very healthy dose of respect for historical interpretations of the Bible.  If your own thoughts don’t fit in any existing tradition, then it’s time to rethink.  You may have a valid point, but it’s more probable that you’re simply wrong.