The Prodigal God
As a Christian, and a father, I try to put books on my reading list that will challenge the somewhat orthodox and conservative understanding of the Bible that was drilled into me as I grew up in Sunday School classes. It’s one of the reasons why I attend and serve at Revolution Church, which doesn’t shy away from controversial issues and targets a younger and more male audience with its teaching. Another reason I attend is that Josh Reich, the lead pastor, is extremely well read and the resource lists from his sermons have provided me with no end of good reading material to pick from. I’m not sure if he turned me onto this book specifically or not, but it got added to my list since we’ve been involved there.
I’m just going to say up front that The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller is a fantastic book, with a deep, profound message. I highly recommend it. It focuses on one of Jesus’ parables, the one we commonly refer to as the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15. Keller’s observations and insights regarding the cultural implications of the parable and who Jesus’ audience was are enlightening. According to Keller, these reveal that the parable has a deeper message for us all. I’m inclined to agree.
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 the rules diligently.
Keller maintains that this parable’s correct name should be the Parable of the Two Lost Sons. In the Book of Luke it immediately follows the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and all three share a similar pattern in their telling, with one exception. Unlike the sheep and the coin, no one goes looking for the lost younger son. Keller explains that this is because the elder son, the one who should have stepped up to that task, was just as lost in his own way.
How does the elder brother behave when the younger brother finally finds himself and returns home? “Look, you!” he says to his father, “You’ve spent all of this on a feast for that prostitute-loving son of yours,” he says of his brother, “to announce you’re restoring him to the family?! I’ve worked myself to death, and what have you given me?” Considering the absolute joy and embrace that the father shows at the younger brother’s return just a paragraph before, an act that has been held up (to those of us who have grown up in the church) as Jesus implying God’s eternal forgiveness, this response by the elder brother shows a serious disconnect between the two.
But wait a second. How can there be this kind of disconnect between the obedient, diligent, hardworking, good son and the Father (i.e. God)? That is the core question of The Prodigal God, and it’s one that is absolutely worth investigating.
It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.
The conclusions that Keller draws in this book will surprise and challenge you. My biggest take away was that the fight to not let “religion” replace salvation and resurrection in my heart is a continuous process. It’s something every follower of Jesus should be aware of. Keller correctly points out how not doing so can negatively affect how we grow our churches, how we interact with others, how we consider this world that God has made, and how we walk with Him while we are in it.
And we should be thankful for our true elder brother. The one who traveled from heaven to earth when we were lost, who didn’t concern himself with the cost of returning us to the family, even though it was enormous, and who had no disconnect with the Father about our coming home.
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