Tim Keller is one of those down to Earth Protestant preachers who somehow manages to preach an orthodox Christian message and yet appeals to squishy, secular types who seek to understand Christianity better. I first became aware of his work when I read his popular book of apologetics, The Reason for God. He won’t convince the die-hard skeptics (and/or left-wing ideologues) of the truth of the Gospel message, but he has certainly done his part to bring thousands of people to Christ and helped them receive a new identity and relationship with God.
Recently a friend gave me Keller’s earlier, shorter book called The Prodigal God which Keller describes in his subtitle as “Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.” Now that Easter Sunday has come and gone, I thought it might be a good time to look at what Keller has to say about Christ’s message for us – what does Keller mean by the phrase the “Prodigal God” and how does the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son help us “understand the Bible as a whole.”
Here is what Keller says as he starts the book:
I will not use the parable’s most common name: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. 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 saying, “a man had two sons.” The narrative is as much about the elder brother as the younger, and as much about the father as the sons. And what Jesus says about the older brother is one of the most important messages given to us in the Bible. The parable might be better called the Two Lost Sons.
The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community.
In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well. St. Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book.
So this is Keller’s basic plan – to show how the story of the ‘Two Lost Sons’ gets at the heart of the Gospel message. I will assume most of my readers will be familiar with the basic story at issue (if not, or if in need of a refresher, a quick look at Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 will set you straight.) Most of us focus on the younger son and Keller rightfully points out how this son is indeed sinful and in need of God’s forgiving grace. The father in the story represents God, and as Keller puts it, makes available “the lavish prodigality of God’s grace.” There is certainly nothing the son has done (except for his willingness to recognize his need for his father/God) that would merit such an outpouring of love and devotion from his father – he is simply welcomed home. But, his older brother is angry and is unwilling to join in the celebration, even when his father asks him to participate. Why? Again Keller:
He is especially upset about the cost of all that is happening. He says, “You’ve never given me even a goat for a party, how dare you give him the calf?” The fattened calf is only a symbol, however, because what the father has done costs far more than the calf. By bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to one-third of their (now very diminished) family wealth. This is unconscionable to the elder brother. He’s adding things up. “I’ve worked myself to death and earned what I’ve got, but my brother has done nothing to earn anything, indeed he’s merited only expulsion, and yet you lavish him with wealth! Where’s the justice in that?”
This idea is the key to Keller’s book – he wants us to focus in on the elder brother and have us realize that just like the Prodigal Son, he too must let go of his pride and give up control to his father (i.e. God.) He cannot simply live a life according to the rules only so that he can use those rules to manipulate those around him (especially his father) to get what he wants. He too must learn that he is not in control and accept his father’s offer to join the feast (i.e. the moral law can’t save even the best of us – we all need Christ’s sacrifice.)
The bad son enters the father’s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends. It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.
Jesus does not simply leave it at that. It gets even more shocking. Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: “Because I’ve never disobeyed you.” The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.
The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled – but one did so by being very bad and the by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons.
Do you realize, then, what Jesus is teaching? Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.
It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.
Keller explores this theme for the rest of the book – one of his strengths is his use of literary references throughout to get his point across:
In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” This is a profound insight. You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.
So what do I think of Keller’s book and his interpretation of this story in the Bible? I think he’s definitely on to something and is right in his interpretation of the story -- both the younger brother and the elder brother are in need of God's grace. I hope I’ve given you enough of his writing to suggest that he is a clear and forceful writer who is very persuasive. And yet, I find myself wondering just how much of a problem is the ‘elder brother syndrome’ in today’s society? Yes, there are moral scolds and modern-day Pharisees – but isn’t the bigger problem (at least in the West) that there are plenty of secular folks who simply need to learn right from wrong first and foremost and start following God’s law in the first place? Is it such a bad thing if we have preachers preaching about sin and repentance these days when there is plenty of sin going around and plenty of lost, younger sons who need to wake up from their time in the filth of the pig pen (like the original Prodigal Son) and return, chasten to their fathers (i.e. God?)
In a way, I almost feel like this book was written for a different time – a more innocent and perhaps traditional America. An America that didn’t have abortion on demand or that refused to recognize homosexual perversion as ‘normal’ (or something to be celebrated in simulacrums of wedding ceremonies.) An America where divorce was rare and most children were raised by their biological parents. In short, a place where there were a lot more Pharisees running around too proud of themselves and in need of Keller’s message. These days, while I think everything Keller has to say is spot on, I just think his target audience is going to be small – or that there are more folks who need to understand the basics before they can graduate to this more subtle sermon.
However, I do want to leave you with a few beautiful passages of his on what he has to say about both sons learning to turn to God for their salvation – that we all must learn an important lesson from the elder brother, and that the elder brother serves two different purposes in Jesus’ story:
The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the younger son, somebody had to pay! The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way. But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.
But we do not.
By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.
And we have him. Think of the kind of brother we need. We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth. We need one who is willing to pay not just a finite amount of money, but, at the infinite cost of his own life to bring us into God’s family, for our debt is so much greater. Either as elder brothers or as younger brothers we have rebelled against the father. We deserve alienation, isolation, and rejection. The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price—someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother bore the cost himself. Our true elder brother paid our debt, on the cross, in our place.
Jesus Christ, who had all the power in the world, saw us enslaved by the very things we thought would free us. So he emptied himself of his glory and became a servant (Philippians 2). He laid aside the infinities and immensities of his being and, at the cost of his life, paid the debt for our sins, purchasing us the only place our hearts can rest, in his Father’s house.
John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn that puts this perfectly:
Our pleasure and our duty,
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.
In a few short words Newton outlines our dilemma. The choice before us seems to be to either turn from God and pursue the desires of our hearts, like the younger brother, or repress the desire and do our moral duty, like the older brother. But the sacrificial, costly love of Jesus on the cross changes that. When we see the beauty of what he has done for us, it attracts our hearts to him. We realize that the love, the greatness, the consolation, and the honor we have been seeking in other things is here. The beauty also eliminates our fear. If the Lord of the Universe loves us enough to experience this for us, what are we afraid of? To the degree we “see his beauty” we will be free from the fear and neediness that creates either younger brothers or elder brothers.