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Key insights from

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

By Timothy Keller

What you’ll learn

Who do you resonate with most: the runaway sibling, so low he’s willing to languish in the company of pigs, or the well-behaved child, so tall on his high horse he can’t even see the pigs in their pen? Perhaps, you simply haven’t thought about it. The beloved “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” as told by Jesus in Luke 15, has been recast so frequently that it sounds far less poignant to our contemporary ears. Theologian Timothy Keller reasserts the urgency of this parable, proving that its epic pierces much deeper than a story of combative brothers. Rather, its tale portrays how we often mischaracterize God and how we might learn to recognize his grace once again—regardless of how sinful (or sinless) we think we are.

Read on for key insights from The Prodigal God.

1. There’s another side to the Prodigal tale—the so-called “praiseworthy” son has his own stake to claim.

You probably know the story of the overtly scheming son, living large on his father’s dollar before trudging back home, head hanging low, no more wealth in sight. But, when the son finally ventures back to his father’s property, he doesn’t look up toward an angry, vengeful face. Instead, he looks up to see his father alight with warmth, understanding, and grace. The pair’s meeting is well-known to anyone’s who’s encountered Jesus’s “Parable of the Prodigal Son” before. Yet, in the midst of all this loving revelry, few people seem to notice the figure glaring in the story’s corner—the wizened, spiteful brother watching from afar. Inspired by the teachings of Dr. Edmund Clowney, Keller renames this parable the story of the “Two Lost Sons”—a portrayal of the long told tale in which every person might find a spot.

In Luke 15:1, the disciple Luke reveals that before Jesus even spoke a word about those rivalrous siblings, “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered,” evidently disgusted by the way Jesus pulled the hearts of sinners with his simple words. Only after hearing the Pharisees’ remarks did Jesus enter into his story, hoping to make it clear to them that just like that sullen first-born son, the seemingly proper Pharisees are in the wrong. Contrary to the voice of their pride, these Pharisees are just as greedy and selfish as those whom they look down upon—their sin is simply masked by the veneer of self-seeking perfection.

Later, in Luke 15:11, Jesus expresses that, “There was a man who had two sons,” both of whom sought after knock-off manipulations of the deep life he offered them. The vagabond brother isn’t the only one with a problem then. Both brothers occupy opposing ends of a common dichotomy. The merry-making man thinks contentment exists elsewhere in that untouched land Keller calls “self-discovery.” His tight-lipped brother, on the other hand, thinks fulfillment awaits in at last satisfying the endless demands of “moral conformity.” In the words of Keller, “both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost,” taking advantage of God just as the brothers took from their endlessly compassionate father.

And so, the story’s end finds the seemingly wise elder waiting alone in his corner. Choosing not to attend the father’s party, he forfeits his love, caught in a self-deluded facsimile of grace. Unbeknownst to others and maybe even to himself, the son believes that his incorruptibly noble actions enable God to love him and grant him all that he wishes. But this image and the beliefs which fuel it are incredibly subversive, inverting what makes a person worthy to God and eroding him from within. Perhaps this housebound son didn’t pack his bags and openly diss his father, but that doesn’t mean his behavior is any less corrosive to his soul.

2. God is a guiding Father, not a useful prop.

Where did that older brother go wrong? He was loyal, after all, and he never even asked for the two-thirds of wealth that were his. He seemed like a commendable son—until that is, the truth came out, as cutting as the reply he gave to his father when he was asked to join his brother’s party. In Luke 15:29, he declares, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

Perhaps you feel a degree of sympathy for the man, maybe even a sense of understanding (as a “responsible” child yourself), but the son’s impassioned statement discloses where he missed the point entirely. Just as those Pharisees assumed (and perhaps more than a few of us, too), the son figured that what he did for his father—tilling the land, feeding the animals, staying behind—was enough to make sure his dad would satisfy his own personal demands. Hoping to use his deeds as tools of manipulation, the son throws a temper tantrum when his father finally tells him the truth.

This jarring (and childish) outburst exposes the sneaky nature of sin. Shirking God for something else, whether that’s a wild, egocentric lifestyle or one’s own self-published manual of moral decorum, deifies oneself and degrades God’s love. Though both men in the parable of the “Two Lost Sons” are sinners, the pitfalls of the first-born are trickier to see; on the surface, his actions appear entirely guileless. According to Keller, this “elder-brother spirit” squeezes the hearts of many people, including renowned church leaders and longtime congregant members. Thankfully, though, there are a few indicators that help people recognize when its presence is beginning to encroach upon their perception of God’s goodness.

One’s prayer life, for instance, enables a believer to see whether her heart is tampering with her view of God. If a believer is trapped by an “elder-brother spirit,” she looks toward herself rather than toward God to validate his love for her. She may sing songs about his love at the top of her lungs, but within herself, she is still uncertain of its Truth. Often, that’s why she goes to all the Bible studies, the church services, and the volunteering sessions in the first place—to secure something she forgot she already holds. When speaking with God, her prayers might sound more like what Keller calls “petitions” or “confessions” rather than those of “adoration.” In these prayers, she goes down an automated grocery list of requests, each one falling from a belief that she must declare her concerns and do her deeds for God to notice her.

And, just as that unmoving brother missed out on what was probably a wonderful party, this praying believer fails to experience the simple, spectacular gift of sitting before God—a blessing that neither her own hands working the field nor her own plans to abandon home would ever be able to gather.

3. The parable’s storyteller is reality’s completion—Jesus is every prodigal’s stand-in.

If everytime you hear the word “prodigal,” you envision a disheveled man hitchhiking along the sands of Samaria, you probably aren’t alone. But, this definition fails to do justice to the true scope of the word and impoverishes the tale of the prodigal. As defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a “prodigal” is someone who is “recklessly spendthrift,” not merely irresponsible. And, is there a better way to describe the love of that forgiving father, and by comparison, the love of God himself? Often, God’s goodness seems bizarre to us and dangerous for him. It belies what Martin Luther viewed as our tendency to foster a mindset of “religion,” looking at the world as a regimented puzzle we must put together for ourselves, casting aside God for a bunch of paper directions. Instead of leaving us to wallow over the wreckage, God takes us away from the pieces and handles the rest on his own.

Jesus’s parable of the brothers is the final story in a trio of tales in Luke 15. The two parables included before it, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and the “Parable of the Lost Coin,” illuminate one of the most impactful points of the sons’ entire story. Consider the shepherd and the woman—much like the sons’ father, both figures lack items they once had. As the responsible (and possibly over-zealous) owners they are, the shepherd and the woman do everything short of mobilizing a whole search and rescue mission to retrieve those items. But, neither the father nor anyone else in the story of the prodigals traversed the land for that wily son. This isn’t a simple narrational slip-up, though. Jesus excludes it intentionally, prompting people to pause and ponder, just as Keller notes himself, “Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?”

According to Keller, that self-satisfied first-born was the one who was ultimately responsible for finding his little brother, but he does no such thing. If he did at last bring his brother back to his father, he would forfeit a huge amount of his inheritance. With no intention of losing his money or even receiving his brother with kindness, the son crosses his arms and refuses to budge, eyes squinting in pained arrogance. The prodigal’s true need is satisfied in what Keller calls the “true elder brother”—the one who grants him the warmth and freedom of returning without a cent, a tent, or even a pig to his name.

Beyond the lines of the parable, every sinner requires the same thing—whether plagued by one’s past or by one’s pride, every person must recognize the holes in her pockets and Jesus’s ability to re-stitch and fill them yet again.

4. Our earthly trek might seem pointless, but one day, our compass will discover its true north.

Often, passing by a shop with a particularly fragrant candle, unearthing a wilted childhood journal, or listening to the notes of a beloved song trigger in us a sense of depth and a desire to be where that sensation arose. Invariably, that feeling is all we get. This vacillation—the ascension of memory and the decline of not attaining it—is a result of what Keller calls our inherent “spiritual homesickness.” In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis remarks on this timeless human experience, writing that “our life-long nostalgia… is no neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” Even those who’ve never bothered to leave their hometown or embark beyond a 50-mile radius of their childhood bedroom are included in this—our moving trucks were called and packed in the Garden of Eden. Now, we’re simply unloading the boxes.

Listeners in the ancient Middle East and those in the contemporary United States are similarly captivated by the tale of the vagabond son—the parable is just one link in a much longer chain of biblical and human history. Church sermons and Sunday school Bible lessons profess the toils of people who shrug off God’s guidance for their own satisfaction, whether that’s earthly gratification (as it was for the namesake prodigal) or inner idolization (as in the case of the man’s older sibling).

The repeat experiences of little, down-on-their-luck Israel encapsulate this scenario. While living as sojourners in the land of Babylon, the Israelites believed their freedom was just up ahead—their prophets told them so, after all. But, when a small portion of them finally did make it out from under that Babylonian thumb, their experiences weren’t any less difficult. A lineup of similarly strong empires, those of Persia, Greece, Syria, and Rome captured them, impervious to Israel’s wish to be their own. The Israelites’ consistently sinful actions didn’t help them much, either. Their quest seemed just as pointless as it appeared for the young son, nervously inching toward the threshold of his father’s door.

Humanity and the Earth itself are marred by that pivotal encounter in the Garden, and its influence touches all of reality. Thankfully, though, someone arrives alongside us, ready to pluck us from our seemingly endless fall. Jesus Christ came to the Israelites in the thick of yet another period of bondage. Though the people envisioned their Savior as a much different, more forceful man than the one who spoke before them, the breadth of Jesus’s mission extended beyond the walls of Rome.

As Jesus spent his last moments pierced by nails to a cross, he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In this moment, the wooden planks on which Jesus hung rose like a knife, severing him from all that he made and all he hoped to heal with his pain. Throwing his life upon the arms of a cross, Jesus ensured that our travails along the Earth won’t always be fruitless but will soon carry us to him.

5. The Bible is filled with metaphorical and literal “feasts” that help us to perceive the plenty of God’s grace.

The story of the prodigal may end on a cliffhanger for the firstborn, but its lines conclude much more hopefully for the penitent runaway. In fact, just as his father transgressed societal norms to grant his son’s initial selfish wishes, he also forwent tradition and cooked up a “fattened calf” when the son journeyed back (Luke 15:23). Not only was meat an unusual addition to the typically vegetarian Middle Eastern meal, but this kind in particular was especially luxurious—it was nearly flamboyant in light of everything that had happened. Such is what Keller calls “the lavish prodigality of God’s grace,” a reality that seeps through every verse of the Bible, even to its final pages in the account of Revelation. In chapter 19 of the book, God holds “the marriage supper of the Lamb,” cementing the image of the “feast” as an encapsulation of what makes Christianity distinct, essential, and wondrous in our lives.

From the moment Jesus caused bread and fish to leap from a nearly empty basket and feed a terrain-full of his listeners to that of the Last Supper he held shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus drew upon the image of the “feast” to allude to his ultimate provision. One of the reasons the Bible holds these deeply spiritual moments during simple family dinners and get-togethers is for their routinely strengthening nature. If you’re hungry, for instance, it usually shows in the things you do (and often in the things you say, too). Food helps you function, and it’s something you need to partake of often to experience its benefits. God’s Word and within that, the fact of the actions Jesus takes on behalf of each of us function in a similar way—when we actively encounter those pieces of reality, its Truth begins to course through us.

Moreover, mealtimes are typically images of family members and friends all gathered, leaning over each other, grabbing for the salt, the mashed potatoes, and enjoying the presence of one another. Each person at the table is significant and mutually restorative to their neighbor, essential to the fullness of their spiritual life. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis, himself a member of his own coterie of creatives called the Inklings, expresses that each person helps to manifest a different part of the Father’s being that might have gone unacknowledged without their presence. For Lewis, God is like a diamond upon which every person is a facet, glistening with the experience of the Father’s singular love filtered through their eyes.

Even the eyes of the prodigals can refract the flow of bent perceptions and reflect the purity of God. By not giving the firstborn son a clear conclusion, Jesus prods the Pharisees and all of his listeners to reconsider. Perhaps the way they think of the blessing, grace, and bounty of himself needs some refashioning. Thankfully, the Father himself can take care of that. The provision of Jesus is simply unfathomable—only his love could ever do the trick. All we need to do is simply recognize it.

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