Surprising, gripping, and deeply challenging; this book will mess with you. It will mess with your religious self-perceptions, it will mess with the contempt you have toward wayward believers or Pharisaical believers. It will mess you up in the best of ways by showing you that the gospel is only good news if you’re ready to abandon your religion and irreligion.
“The Prodigal God” though pricey (20$, purchase it at WTSBooks for only 12$) comes in a slim size – about the typical shape of a gift book – and its only 133 pages long. As part two of Tim Keller’s best selling New York Times top listed book “The Reason for God.” As such its not what you might have thought it would be. Its not bulky, its not technical, and its not an answer to the questions skeptics raise about the Christian faith (“The Reason for God” wasn’t only an answer to skeptics either), rather its aimed from cover to cover directly at believers.
As the title suggests the theme of the book is structured around the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, but it puts a twist on how this parable has popularly been read and used as a story about a wayward younger brother who gets saved by a gracious father. Keller says this parable is less about the younger irreligious brother and more about the self-righteous religious elder brother. You could say that Keller has deconstructed “elder brother” readings of Luke 15 as though it were mainly about the wicked wayward and reconstructed the parable so its now read as being about the godly wayward, and how both of them need a Father that will act in a holy, undignified way to save them.
Along the way as the subtitle suggests the heart of the Christian faith gets recovered because sin, lostness, and hope get redefined. Sin is both an abandonment of the Father’s love and grace by self-discovery and moral conformity. In bold strokes Keller lays down just how Jesus redefines sin;
“Here, then, is Jesus’s radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehavior’s [the elder brother] can be every bit as spiritually lost…sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge…” (pg. 43)
Being lost is no longer merely the absence of good works, its now there presence apart from the works of Christ. Keller calls it “elder brother-lostness” and its filled with self-righteous anger toward God and joyless, fear-based obedience. The younger brother tries to control God by power, the elder brother tries to control God by praise.
What we need according to Jesus, says Keller, is the true elder brother. The one who will seek and save us by great cost to himself. You see unlike the other parables in Luke 15 (the lost coin where the women seeks it out; and the lost sheep where the shepherd seeks the one out) this parable doesn’t show the elder brother setting off to find his wayward sibling. “By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.” (pg. 84) Remember the direct audience of Luke 15 is the religious somebodies of Jesus day, the Pharisees. Jesus as he tells them these three stories invites them in to consider why he’s doing the very things they as elder brothers should have been doing all along. Loving their wayward brothers and seeking them out at great cost to themselves rather than protecting their dignity.
Hope gets redefined as well in this parable. Now hope is a home given to us rather than a home created by us. ““Home” exercises a powerful influence over human life…[yet its an] elusive concept…The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about everyone one of us.” (pgs. 91, 97, 98) Why, if feelings of home are so powerful does our true homecoming elude us? Keller says its due to the brokenness within humanity, and due to the brokenness around human beings.
THE MESSAGES IMPACT:
How will our lives be changed by these redefinitions? The answer, says Keller, is found in the practice of eating a meal together. With his watchful exegetical eyes Keller picks up on the closing of the parable in Luke 15. How does it close? With a grand celebratory meal of course. Keller also makes the redemptive-historical point that just as our parable ends with a meal so does redemption end in the biblical story with the marriage feast of the Lamb. So what better symbol to summarize how our lives are changed than eating a meal together. Keller says four things stand out about the practice of eating meals together:
1) Eating a meal is an experiential affair that uses several of our senses, just like salvation isn’t merely objective and legal but is also subjective and experiential;
2) Eating a meal requires that we engage a material reality outside ourselves, as such eating meals reminds us that Christ is a cosmic savior who’s interested in more than just collecting “individual conversion narratives“;
3) Meals are meant to nourish us personally so that we can grow, as such they remind us of our ongoing need of the nourishing grace of God;
4) But meals also place us in a communal setting where we learn to appreciate others as well as ourselves more deeply.
The way back home isn’t through morality or immorality, its through the Prodigal God’s gracious, self-sacrificial offering up of His own Son that we may together dine upon his goodness rather than our own…
Study Guide for “The Prodigal God” is forthcoming.
I plan on creating a study guide for this book so that I can use it with my small group apprentice as well as potentially all my small group leaders. Keller’s book calls us to reflect upon our own ongoing denials of the gospel in either waywardness or self-righteousness. He entreats us to see the costly mercy that our holy, undignified Fatherextends to us as he runs and falls upon our filthy necks with cleansing kisses. As he speaks patiently with us while we brandish our verbal swords of self-righteousness before HIm.
(For an additional review of “The Prodigal God” visit Art Boulet’s review of it here).