“The Prodigal God” by Tim Keller: The parable of the prodigal son in a new light

The Prodigal GodAs part of an interesting chain of events I read The Prodigal God this afternoon.  Amy read it yesterday after her brother Q recommended it, and Andy preached on the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 this morning at church.  The book was written by Tim Keller who is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  If you don’t want to buy it, there’s a good possibility your local library might have it — ours did.  Having said that, it may not be too long before a personal copy ends up on our shelves.

The title of the book is unique and, for me at least, unexpected.  It might have been the title that kept me away from reading the book until Amy suggested that I read it, although it was only released a few months ago.  You may have already guessed that the book has much to do with the parable of the prodigal son, which it does.  I would almost call it an exposition of the parable, though it is also more than that. 

One of Keller’s main points is that thinking of this parable as the parable of the prodigal son is missing Jesus’ point.  More accurately it should be known as the parable of two lost sons, or something similar — he uses a variety of terms throughout the book.  I’ll admit that I haven’t spent much time pondering Luke 15 over the years, and whenever I did, I wondered, “But what about the other son?”  For whatever reason I left it at that and never pursued it any further.  Thankfully Keller has done that and the fruit of his labor is this book.

I’ll say it now that almost everyone should read this book, Christian or non-Christian.  Whichever category you find yourself in at present you probably have some misconceptions about Jesus Christ, the gospel, and yourself that Keller can help you get straightened out.  Especially Christians, and those who think they are Christians and may not be.

As always in properly understanding Scripture, context is critical.  Luke 15 opens up with Jesus responding to the Pharisees and the scribes who said, “This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus responds to them by telling them a parable in three parts, or three parables in quick succession: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.  Thinking then about the lost sons, here are the players in this story: the man (father) represents God the Father, the younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus is “receiving” (associating with), and the elder son represents the Pharisees and scribes. 

Keller says that everyone falls into one of two categories at this point — the younger son/brother or the elder son/brother.  All of us who tend to push limits, rebel at times, pursue pleasure (other than in God), etc. are the younger.  Those of us who follow the rules, do what is “right,” and obey by default are the elder.  Two approaches to life, and to God.  As Keller says,

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.

Jesus does not divide the world into the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.”  He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves.  We are just going about it in different ways.  Even though both sons are wrong, however, the father cares for them and invites them both back into his love and feast.

This means that Jesus’s message, which is “the gospel,” is a completely different spirituality.  The gospel of Jesus is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism.  Nor is it something halfway along a spectrum between two poles — it is something else altogether.

The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.  By contrast, elder brothers divide the world in two: “The good people (like us) are in and the bad people, who are the real problem with the world, are out.”  Younger brothers, even if they don’t believe in God at all, do the same thing, saying: “No, the open-minded and tolerant people are in and the bigoted, narrow-minded people, who are the real problem with the world, are out.”

But Jesus says: “The humble are in and the proud are out” (see Luke 18:14).

Keller raises the question why the younger brother is brought in to the feast (saved) and the elder brother is left outside by his own volition, even though the father went out to him and invited him in?  Remember, the parable was directed at the Pharisees and scribes who had so far rejected Jesus and his message.  It seems to be open-ended and without a conclusion because there was still hope for them at that time (remember Nicodemus in John 3?).

Keller also makes an observation, and I think he’s right, that churches are historically populated by elder brother types.  And even those who are Christians can still tend to be elder brotherish

After spending five chapters unpacking the parable Keller effectively places the parable in the story-line of the Bible and redemptive-history, which I found to be very helpful.  In the final chapter he unpacks the gospel itself and explains that true salvation is experiential, material, individual, and communal.  In doing so he helps the reader understand in greater depth what the gospel is, what it involves, and especially how it affects all parts of our lives.  The gospel, rightly understood, believed, and lived, leaves nothing untouched.  His discussions of addressing social evils and of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer are timely.

There is a lot of quotable material in this short book, but as I said above, I think you should read it for yourself and find those quotable passages in their proper context.  However, I will leave you with this last gem from the acknowledgments:

Years ago I heard Dr. Ed Clowney preach on the parable of the prodigal son, and it changed my whole way of thinking about Christianity and how to communicate it.  As I got to know him over the years he also taught me that it was possible to be theologically sound and completely orthodox and yet unfailingly gracious — a rare and precious combination.

Indeed it is.

4 comments on ““The Prodigal God” by Tim Keller: The parable of the prodigal son in a new light

  1. Q says:

    Glad you read it! It is a great read isn’t it? I just can’t believe how fast the two of you got through it!

  2. […] On Tuesday I listened to Matt Chandler’s message from the Desiring God 2009 Conference for Pastors, and his message/topic was titled “Shepherds and Unregenerate Sheep.”  During the message he explicitly identifies these unregenerate sheep as the elder brother in the parable from Luke 15.  It was only this past weekend that I read Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God and wrote about it here. […]

  3. muzacmercer says:

    I recently wrote a song about the Prodigal Son. This is my testimony of God’s amazing grace in my life. If you have a sec here it is. Thanks for listening

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