Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God:’ I have been the older son

Prodigal GodIn the first post of my Lenten series, I gave this definition of the season: “Lent is the season of the Christian year during which we take time to recognize our sin and to celebrate God’s all sufficient provision in Christ.”

This is the 13th post of my project, though as I look over the content of the last couple weeks, I realize this series is very loosely defined. But this self-imposed discipline of daily blogging has done what I hoped — it’s helped me reflect more on what God is teaching me, and it has motivated me to make time to write. This Lenten discipline has also turned my mind to the past months, and to all the ideas that I simply didn’t follow through with.

In January, I finished Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. I’d heard all kinds of buzz about it, and I had been enticed by the warm tones of the inviting cover for some time. When I read it, I thought over and over, “I need to tell people about this book. I need to write about it. Everyone should read it — it is just what the American church needs!”

But the book went back on the shelf, and I went back to life. And while I told several friends about it, I never wrote about what God had taught me through Keller’s book.

The Prodigal God examines Jesus’ parable traditionally known as “The Prodigal Son.” Keller begins his work by defining prodigal, a word that many Christians know but few actually understand. We typically confuse it with rebellion, uniting the behavior of the second son with the parable’s title. But the definition of the word is quite different. It means “recklessly extravagant” or “having spent everything.” While it is true that the son spent all his worldly wealth, Keller takes a deeper look at the father in the story, who is recklessly extravagant in his love for his sons.

There is much I could say about this little book, but in keeping with the season, I want to share Keller’s thoughts on what it means to be lost. Much of what Keller says is provocative, but this passage I found particularly so.

Two Lost Sons

In Act 1 (of the parable), in the person of the younger brother, Jesus gives us a depiction of sin that anyone would recognize. The young man humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control. He is alienated from the father, who represents God in the story. Anyone who lives like that would be cut off from God, as all the listeners to the parable would have agreed.

In Act 2, however, the focus is on the elder brother. He is fastidiously obedient to his father and, therefore, by analogy, to the commands of God. He is completely under control and quite self-disciplined. So we have two sons, one “bad” by conventional standards and one “good,” yet both are alienated from the father. The father has to go out and invite each of them to come into the feast of his love. So there is not just one lost son in this parable — there are two.

But Act 2 comes to an unthinkable conclusion. Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. 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.

How could this be? The answer is that the brothers’ hearts, and the two ways of life they represent are much more alike than they first appear.

What did the younger son most want in life? He chafed at having to partake of his family’s assets under the father’s supervision. He wanted to make his own decisions and have unfettered control of his portion of the wealth. How did he get that? He did it with a bold power play, a flagrant defiance of community standards, a declaration of complete independence.

What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too wanted the father’s goods rather than the father himself. However, while the younger brother went far away, the elder brother stayed close and “never disobeyed.” That was his way to get control. His unspoken demand is, “I have never disobeyed you! Now you have to do things in my life the way I want them to be done.”

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 other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons. (33-36)

In this passage, Keller looks past the simple action of the story and examines to motives of both sons. Here is the richness of Jesus’ story, the truth for those with ears to hear. The way of the younger son leads to death, but so does the way of the older son.

I have always leaned towards the way of the older son. Reading Keller’s words, I reflected on my life. Why do I obey?

Is it because I love the Father? Or, is it because I love the Father’s blessings? Or, is it that I fear the Father’s wrath? Or, is it that I love the pride that comes with good performance?

If I am truly honest, I have to say all of the above have been the answer at times. But thankfully, over the years, God has humbled me, showing me that my good acts did not always come from a good heart. I still occasionally slip into performance-oriented self-confidence and reward-based thinking, but my Father has invited me to the feast of His extravagant love. At Jesus table, I’m learning to live in love of my Father.

The twist of the story is that the more blatant sin is easily repented of. The younger son knows he is lost, and he has the sense to go home. But the older son remains lost because he thinks he is home already.

How many members of the U.S. Church think they are home when in reality they are lost? And how can we help them to be found?

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