I decided I would like to read one of Tim Keller’s books this year, as he is clearly someone who is having a big influence in the whole realm of building gospel-centred missional churches, not to mention his significant contribution to apologetics in “The Reason for God”. I opted for his most recent publication, “The Prodigal God”.
It is shorter than I was expecting, weighing in at 130 pages with plenty of space between the lines! It took less than a week to read through. The book is subtitled “Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith”, and seeks to explain the core message of Christianity, the Gospel, using the famous parable of the “prodigal son”.
Now most Christians have heard countless expositions of this parable (as well as plenty of ropey re-enactments from the church drama team), as it has pride of place as the most powerful and moving of all Jesus’ parables. However, Tim Keller suspects that we have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. We focus entirely on the first son, who squandered everything and returned to be forgiven and accepted by his Father, and ignore the fact that the story involves two sons. It would be better named “the parable of the lost sons”.
Keller argues that the parable uses the two brothers to show two ways of being lost. Each brother represents a different way to be alienated from God – both the religious and the irreligious are spiritually lost. And the sad truth was, that while Jesus’ teaching was attractive to the irreligious, the religious folk (in particular the Pharisees) were offended by it. Therefore the real climax of the story was not the welcoming home of the younger brother, but the cliff-hanger ending where the elder brother’s alienation from the father is revealed, and we are left wondering whether he will come to the feast.
Keller then shows how Jesus uses this parable to redefine sin as putting yourself in the place of God (neither son wanted the father himself, rather they wanted his money). The elder brother’s predicament is especially dire as, unlike the younger brother, he is blind to his need. The parable also redefines lostness. The elder brother has a sense of moral superiority, resulting in an unforgiving, judgmental spirit, and a joyless fear-based compliance with his father’s rules. There are some very provoking and powerful challenges here to Christians who all too easily fall into “elder-brotherness”. Keller suggests that a dry prayer-life is a warning sign that you are falling into this trap.
Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realise that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness. … Would you please be open to the possibility that the gospel, real Christianity, is something very different to religion.”
Keller presents Jesus as the true elder brother, doing what the elder brother should have done, that is going after his younger brother to bring him back, not worrying about the cost of forgiveness (in the parable, loss of inheritance). The parable also points to the fact that as a human race, we long for home, yet find it elusive. The message of the Bible is that humanity is a band of exiles, trying to come home, yet a brokenness within and around us prevents that from happening. It is Jesus, who came and experienced our exile who is ultimately our means of salvation. Salvation is represented in the parable as a homecoming feast. He unpacks a variety of aspects of salvation, including the fact that it is experiential, and not just objective, it is material in that God’s plan is to renew his creation, not to destroy it, and it is communal – the feast is not made to be eaten in isolation.
In conclusion, I would thoroughly recommend this as a fresh and powerful insight into not just the parable of the prodigal son, but the gospel itself. Keller has done a great service to the church by reminding us of the need not just to point people away from immorality, but from moral religious hypocrisy, which may be an even greater need in many of our congregations. It is written in a very accessible way, making it suitable for new believers or seekers. But equally those involved in preaching or teaching the gospel would benefit from reflecting on this refreshingly clear articulation of the gospel message. I fully expect this book to set a new trend in the way the parable of the prodigal son is preached in churches everywhere. (Whether or not church drama teams dare to continue beyond the “happy ending” remains to be seen!)