The Prodigal God

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. This book, by a unique Presbyterian minister, is a deep look at the parable of the prodigal son from a traditional Christian perspective. It’s a short work, but brings wonderful and deep insights into understanding this parable.

For example, while much is always made of the tremendous grace and love of the father in the parable forgiving his wayward son. But less is usually made of the “good” son who remains faithful. I Keller’s mind, this son is actually the primary focus of the parable. Self-righteousness and moral strictness are actually a GREATER danger to our spirituality than laxity and rebellion. The sinful and rebellious son realizes his mistake and is welcomed back into his father’s presence. But does the self-righteous son ever get over his anger and return to the party? Jesus leaves us not knowing. And his words are directed at the pharisees listening, and the the pharisees of our own day.

The self-righteous son never really loved his father. He keeps to society’s conventions and rules only for self interest. He hopes to inherit his fathers wealth, and the return of his brother is not at all welcome.

Before this parable, Jesus has told to others, the lost sheep and the lost coin, in which someone goes out to search for the missing. And who should have been searching for the prodigal son? By right, and by love, that should have been his older brother. But the brother stayed safely at home, comfortable in his own righteousness, like so many religious people before and since.  Keller’s insights on this problem are keen.

Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today to not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones.  We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or broken and marginal avoid church. That can  only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, then they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.

Although Keller puts his conclusions in more traditional Christian terminology, the fact is that both the rebellion of the younger brother and the self-righteousness of the older brother can be traps and manifestations of the ego. In integral terms, the younger brother is pre-conventional and the older brother is conventional. Neither is post-conventional. Neither has overcome their own small selves to reach divine grace.

The book is an excellent examination of the traps of religiosity, from a Christian perspective.

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