Why People Like Jesus But Not the Church

by Tim Keller

Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” has much to teach us-not only from the view of the son who was accepted back into his family by his father, but also from the perspective of the older brother. 


We see “older brothers” and “younger brothers” throughout our society. They often live in the same family. Often the elder sibling wants to please his parents and measure up to their expectations. In contrast, the younger sibling tends to rebel, becoming a “free spirit,” following the views and morals of his peers. The elder brother takes over the family business or settles down to a conventional job near his parents, while the younger son or daughter moves away to one of the “hip shabby” locations in Soho or Greenwich village.


Author and pastor Tim Keller writes, “To some degree the so-called culture wars are playing out conflicting temperaments and impulses in modern society. More and more people today consider themselves non-religious or even anti-religious. They believe moral issues are highly complex and are suspicious of any individuals or institutions that claim moral authority over the lives of others. Despite (or perhaps because of) the rise of this secular spirit there has also been considerable growth in conservative, orthodox religious movements. Alarmed by what they perceive as an onslaught of moral relativism, many have organized to “take back the culture,” and take as dim a view of “younger brothers” as the Pharisees did.


So whose side is Jesus on? He is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition. When Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Imagine the neighbors of early Christians asking them about their faith. “Where’s your temple?” they’d ask. The Christians would reply that they didn’t have a temple. “But how could that be? Where do your priests labor?” The Christians would have replied that they didn’t have priests. “But . . . but,” the neighbors would have sputtered, “where are the sacrifices made to please your gods?” The Christians would have responded that they did not make sacrifices anymore. Jesus him- self was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.


No one had ever heard anything like this. So the Romans called them “atheists,” because what the Christians were saying about spiritual reality was unique and could not be classified with the other religions of the world. This parable explains why they were absolutely right to call them atheists.


To most people in our society, Christianity is religion and moralism. The only alternative to it (besides some other world religion) is pluralistic secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was recognized as a tertium quid, something else entirely.


The crucial point here is that, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3–4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31).


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.”


Excerpt from Prodigal God. Used by permission.

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