This week I gladly received The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith through the mail (book website here). What a blessing. The book arrived yesterday during the 9:00 o’clock hour and I read through it in one sitting. Written in a warm and engaging style, Timothy Keller’s reflection on the story traditionally known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” contains a challenging message for individuals and the church corporate as followers of Jesus Christ.
Keller’s book opens with a brief word on the popularity of this short parable and a justification for the author’s preference to title this story “The Two Lost Sons.” Keller explains the power of this narrative as he has experienced it in his own life. He tells of his hearing Edmund P. Clowney preach this text some thirty years ago and awakening him to a new and deeper understanding of the Christian faith, coming to find that within this short story the abundant grace of God is revealed not just to the younger brother, but to the older brother as well. This grace did not only come at a cost to the younger brother, who carelessly wasted his inheritance, but cost the father as well. The older brother was not exempt, either, as humbly welcoming the younger brother back home would have cost him a great deal. The insight gained by reflecting on this passage has greatly informed Keller’s ministry at Redeemer Church in Manhattan, helping their community better embody the message of grace which is found in this famous utterance of Jesus.
Following a translation of the parable, Keller’s book is divided in to seven parts. First, Keller explains the biblical and cultural context in which this story takes place, helping the reader to better recognize the finer nuances of Jesus’ storytelling. Keller points out the type of people who had come near to hear this story, showing that the crowd consisted of religiously devout and religiously marginal persons. He demonstrates how each segment of the crowd would have identified with a different brother in the story. Here Keller muses on “why people like Jesus but not the Church,” pointing out that Jesus seemed to draw unto himself all kinds of people–particularly those in his culture of the lowest piety who are depicted as the “younger brother” in Jesus’ story. Keller muses, “If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people 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.”
Keller’s discussion then moves to the Two Lost Sons. He explains the way in which each son had developed a wayward relationship with their father. Both elder and younger son are fair game for critique. Keller questions why this passage has not received a more well rounded treatment, noting that many times this story is told in a way that emphasizes how the younger son was welcomed home by the father to the neglect of the father’s appeal to the elder brother. From here, Keller explores how Jesus’ story redefines both sin and lostness, noting that the text is revolutionary in this regard. In his discussion of sin, Keller notes how each son had rebelled, “but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good…It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.” Keller moves us to a deeper understanding. Rather than regarding sin as a list of wrongs, Keller points out that rebellion takes many forms, including those who in the tradition of the elder brother seek to be obedient for their own gain rather than for the glory of God. Keller sees the older brother’s obedience in the story as undertaken for the purpose of controlling the father. How often we also fall in to a similar pattern of behavior.
Keller’s chapter on redefining lostness was perhaps the most poignant, bringing forth a deep sense of emotion in my own soul. Here he explores the anger and superiority of the elder brother and the “joyless, fear-based” faith which can come to typify religious belief when one seeks to control God rather than express love and devotion for the Divine. This chapter, which stands at the heart of the book, may be the most important for those of us who stand within the church, and perhaps have obtained the attitudes and posturing of elder brothers. Keller’s reminder that elder-brother lostness is just as wrong and destructive as younger brother lostness is important.
From this point Keller explores the nature of the gospel. Keller uses this parable to demonstrate God’s relationship to us and how we might repent in a well-rounded way. In the story we are often reminded of how the younger brother turned from those things that he did wrong, and we feel compelled to do the same. Keller reminds us of the other extreme, saying, “To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons that we ever did anything right.” The gospel calls us to acknowledge all that God has done for us freely and by grace. Christ has accomplished all things necessary for our salvation. Even the faithful need a reminder that our hope ultimately rests in God; we should not seek to become our own Savior and Lord. According to Keller it is Jesus, our true elder brother, who leaves us in a state of awe and wonder concerning the grace of God.
Keller’s book closes with a two part reflection on the nature of our longing for home and an eschatological vision for the redemption of individuals and for all creation which will be celebrated in a heavenly banquet described in this parable and elsewhere in Scripture. Keller is very clear in presenting a view of the atonement consistent with his heritage (Presbyterian), and does an excellent job of painting a picture of the experiential nature of salvation in the here and the hereafter.
Keller’s book is a gift for those of us longing for deep reflections on Scripture. This book is worthwhile reading for those seeking insight in to one of Jesus’ most well known parables, and will serve as a challenge to your faith. I would recommend this book.