Book Review: The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller
“The Prodigal Son” is one of those biblical elements that has become such a cultural fixture, a byword even, that it has lost most of its original meaning. To say “the prodigal son returns” is to declare that someone has come in from the cold, returned from a time apart. The phrase has been used for book titles, movie titles, and even the name of a pub. Reducing the original parable to three or four words, however, not only waters down the story, it waters down the whole of Christian faith as well. In this brief book, Keller tackles both simplifications through a well-written, deliberate examination of this deceptively complex story.
He begins by almost immediately blowing up the conventional name: “It is not right to single out only one of the sons as the sole focus of the story. Even Jesus doesn’t call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but begins the story by saying ‘a man had two sons’ “. For me, this was the first great revelation of the book. Like most people, I think, I had plenty of preconceived notions about the parable. This was one of those stories I thought I had nailed down, even though I had never really stopped to consider just how the teller began. At no point does Jesus use the word “prodigal” (or a word which would have been translated as such). Rather, His focus is on all three main characters: “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11, emphasis mine). Somewhere along the line, our society decided to hone in on the son who runs off and marginalize both the older son and the father. That, Keller argues, is to our great detriment, claiming that “what Jesus says about the older brother is one of the most important messages given to us in the Bible.”
That’s a bold claim, but I don’t think he’s wrong. Focusing on the runaway narrative is convenient, as most of us can point to a time in our life when we’ve pursued a wrong course. We made a headlong dash to or from something and wound up with a bad case of spiritual road rash. The younger son seems to be the more extroverted, and so his sin is the more visible. Keller’s argument through much of the text is that we need to pay more attention to the older, less obvious brother. It’s not until the parable is nearly over that we see his sin, which is every bit as egregious as his sibling’s. Neither one of them give a thought to the father’s well-being or desire. Instead, they are both focused entirely on the father’s stuff, his possessions which are due them as inheritance. The younger son took his slice up front, which is more dramatic, but the older son is no less greedy. He just happens to be more patient, and this is a more insidious fault.
When Jesus tells the story, He is speaking to two groups of people: the tax collectors and sinners AND the Pharisees. Both are mentioned in the audience of Luke 15. The Pharisees, those uber-religous judgement mongers, are the older brothers in the crowd. They follow the rules, they behave within the structure of their laws, and they demand that everyone else do the same. Their’s is the only way to earn God’s favor (which, of course, can’t be earned). After the father welcomes the younger son back, the older brother explodes. In response to his anger, the father says “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (15:31). The older son wasn’t interested in a relationship, only following the quid-pro-quo of rules now, reward later. And while we would love to think otherwise, Keller points out that there are whole churches full of this attitude. Indeed, it may be the one many people associate with Christians the most. What makes this attitude so prevalent, so dangerous, is that it’s harder to pin down. It’s much easier to point to our younger-brother moments because they burn brighter. Our older-brother moments, however, smolder rather than flame. They are not contained in a brief period, but over the course of years. It is an attitude of self-indulgent righteousness in which we think we are doing good, but are actually hurting the church. Focusing on rules and good works, rather than a relationship with God Himself actually drives people from salvation. We grumble and shout when we see God’s grace lavished on a perceived outsider, forgetting that we are in just as much need. At the parable’s end, it is the older brother who is left standing outside because of his own stubbornness. This, I think, is Jesus’ great challenge in the story, and it is aimed squarely at those of us who have grown up in the church.
There is so much more that Keller unpacks in his examination, ideas which are every bit as dynamic as what I’ve pondered here. I could go on about his discussion of the cultural context of the family, as well as how the word “prodigal” probably best describes the father, but to do that would be a disservice to you as reader and Keller as author. The Prodigal God is an erudite and easily accessible piece of focused theology. It is one that I firmly believe will alter your perspective on God and Christianity, no matter where you are along The Way.