At first glance, the title of Tim Keller’s latest book, The Prodigal God, might seem to be a cute and gimmicky play on words. The word “prodigal” is an adjective used to describe someone who is “recklessly extravagant.” It is often used to refer to the well-known story in the gospels of a foolish young man who disrespectfully asks for his inheritance early, squanders it, and yet is graciously reinstated into his family by his father. If the main point of Keller’s book is that the father is really the one that is prodigal, not the son, we’d have another book re-hashing the same story, only with a clever title. Thankfully there’s much more to this short, little book (about the size and length of Steps to Christ); Keller’s latest work is packed with nuanced analysis, fresh- insight, and contemporary relevance.
According to Keller, with this parable, “Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved” (28). Sin is commonly understood as breaking rules; one is lost when they are living apart from religion; one is saved when they come to see the folly and emptiness of their ways and understand God’s love and grace. With such an understanding, it is easy to understand why most contemporary retellings of the story focus on the younger brother and his rebellion against and reconciliation to his father. (See, for example, this clip.)
The elder brother in the story, the one who faithfully remains home, but is enraged at his brother’s return and welcome, is usually mentioned as an afterthought, if at all. However, this one-sided emphasis misses the point and power of the parable. Keller correctly points out that Jesus shares this parable (and the ones that precede it about the lost coin and the lost sheep) with the religious leaders of his time, who have a problem with him associating with “sinners” (See Luke 15:2).
When this context is considered, Keller claims, Jesus’ purpose in telling this story was not to assure younger brothers of God’s unconditional love; Jesus is talking to the elder brothers in the audience, the religious and moral people who do everything the Bible requires. Most likely, “the original listeners were not melted into tears by this story but rather they were thunderstruck, offended, and infuriated” (10).
The story is offensive because it claims that both sons, not one, are equally lost. In fact, if anything, the elder one is in a worse situation. At the end of the story, the loose-living younger son is inside at his father’s table, and the elder son remains outside. What separates him from the feast? “I never disobeyed you,” he says to his father, who implores him to join the party. “How dare you throw him a party, instead of me and without consulting me?” (This is a paraphrase.)
At first glance, his indignation seems entirely justified. However, the response and attitude of the elder brother show that he is more similar to his younger brother than he realizes. The younger brother desires his father’s wealth, and to spend it without any parental supervision. His plan to obtain this end is open defiance. The elder son, it becomes evident, desires the same thing! His method, however, is obedience; in the end, he hopes that this will give him some leverage over his father. Keller makes a provocative point: “Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (37).
According to Keller, Jesus gives us a radical redefinition sin:
[S]in is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life…There are two ways of being 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 (43-44).
This understanding of sin leads to a deeper understanding of lostness. “Elder-brother lostness,” as Keller terms it, “brings as much misery and strife into the world as the other kind” (49). Systems of God replacement/manipulation result in anger when things don’t turn out the way they are supposed to, a sense of superiority (amplified by racism and classism), and an unforgiving and judgmental spirit. Moreover, the good things that are done are done with a sense of “joyless, fear-based complacence” (57). Lastly, there is no sense of God’s love for them. “How come I don’t get a party?” elder brothers wonder.
All this “can create a huge body of guilt-ridden, fear-ridden, spiritually blind people, which is one of the great source of social injustice, war, and violence” (67). No wonder all the younger brothers leave! Keller openly admits that churches are full of these kinds of people and that Christians can fall into the same moral religiosity that Jesus criticized in his own time.
So what is the solution? According to Keller, both the way of the younger brother and the elder brother are dead ends, and that Jesus offers a third alternative. Keller, as he characteristically does in the sermons he preaches to his congregation in Manhattan, lays out his understanding of the gospel. First, as the father went out to welcome or seek out both sons, God must take the initiative and reach out to us. Secondly, there must be a deep repentance, not just of things we have done wrong, but “we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right…We must admit…that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things” (78).
Lastly, we need Jesus who, unlike the elder brother in the story, is the true elder brother, to come looking for us and make things right, at whatever cost. Keller is explicit that forgiveness and love always comes at a cost to the one that is giving it. We have incurred a great debt toward of God with our rebellion, and it must be repaid. Jesus is the one that comes from heaven to earth and repays our infinite debt to God on the cross.
Some readers might have a problem with Keller’s classical atonement theology, or find that his attempt to read it into the parable a bit of a stretch. (Personally, I find it more convincing to argue that atonement is alluded to when the father takes on the public shame and guilt of his younger son when he runs out to meet him, than in an idealized form of the elder brother.) However, those that implicate such a theology with other-worldliness and/or violence, will be pleased to note that Keller also clearly draws out the social and ethical implications of such an understanding of salvation — “Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world clean of it. Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice” (113).
Overall, Keller takes an intelligent and thoughtful look at a story that is easily sentimentalized, puts it in dialogue with culture (there are numerous references to literature, plays, poetry, and film in the book) and helps us see it in a new light. On a personal level, it causes one to reflect on the understanding of the human predicament and vision of God that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. It’s also a great book share with that younger or elder brother in your life.
Zane Yi studies and teaches philosophy at Fordham University in New York.
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