Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Brief Essay on "The Prodigal God"

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 139 pages.

There are two kinds of sinners, as Timothy Keller explores in this book. One kind of sinner is rather obvious. They live only for themselves, breaking God’s laws and perhaps even the laws of the land. Such sinners are represented by the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, who after wishing his father’s death so he can inherit his portion of the estate, is given his inheritance and runs off to a foreign country.

We have a love/hate relationship with the younger boy. In God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, James Weldon Johnson captures the flavor of American-American preachers early in the 20th Century. Many of these preachers could not read and write, but the way they told stories were poetic. In a sermon on the Prodigal Son, the preacher paints a vivid picture of the young wayward son with his daddy’s inheritance burning a hole in his pocket…

And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And brought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostril and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.

Why is it that we are fascinated with the younger son? Certainly we’re glad that he’s redeemable, but we also relish in the visions of his sinful past. If truth be told, we’re a little jealous of his freedom. Over time, the parable has even been named for him. He’s the prodigal, the one who lavishly spends his inheritance. And we forget about that this is a parable of two sons.
Timothy Keller reminds over and over again that there are two ways to be separated from God. Yes, we can be like the younger son and live wildly. This is the popular view of a sinner and many of us have been down that road. But we can also be the dutiful son and do what’s expected of us, but deep down despise the father for whom we work. Sometimes even free-spirited younger sons can become zealous older brothers. The sins of the older son are not so evident. Such sins live in the heart where they fester and boil and eventually boil over in anger and rage. Keller makes the point that churches are filled with “older sons,” those who look down on their younger brother’s sinful ways. But these “older sons” don’t enjoy the father’s company any more than the “younger sons” who want to strike out for the territories, sowing their oats along the way. Older sons are those who give religion a bad name and make the church seem harsh and judgmental. Because of their hard hearts, they don’t get to enjoy the banquet the father throws for the return of the younger son. Instead, they sulk in anger, showing the condition of their hearts.
Prodigal means reckless extravagant, having spent everything. Keller suggests that the true prodigal in the story is the Father in the story, who represents God. God goes to great distances to restore the lost son, that even though the son has already cost him a fortune, he spends it again to reclaim the boy. Redemption is not cheap, as the older boy discovers, for he feels the father is stealing from what belongs to him in order to redeem the younger boy. He's not gratiful at all. Keller is writing, not to call the wayward younger son home, but to remind those who have never left, the older brother, not to be so self-righteous and to look down on others. This book calls those in the church to task, asking that we not be so judgmental. It’s also a book that confirms one of the main critiques made against the church, that it is a place of hypocrites. Certainly, if our hearts are like the older brother, such a critique is justified. We should take the critique as a warning for in the story, it is the younger son, not the older boy, that experiences salvation.
This is a good, easy to read, book. It can easily be read in a sitting. I recommend it.


  1. The parable of the Prodigal should be read along with that of the vintner and his workers, who are hire throughout the day, but who all receive the same wage. I think God is telling us that our relationship with Him is personal; we shouldn't concern ourselves with His relationship to others.

    Sounds like an interesting read.


  2. Passing judgement is the reason I can't be part of organized religion. Sounds like a good read.

  3. Sage....
    I also enjoyed reading the book; and picked up a couple of other prodigal books mentioned by the author. Thanks for the excellent review.

    Prefers Her Fantasy Life....
    Don't include all of us in that judgemental part, nor deprive yourself of some of the uncomparable blessing inherent in being a part - some part.

  4. That is a great comparison! And I love the poem.

    Have you ever heard the story which goes as follows:

    A Sunday School teacher was talking to her students about the parable of the prodigal son. "Now class, when the prodigal son returned home, there was someone who was not happy about it. Who was it?"

    Voice from the back of the room: "The fatted calf!"

  5. You know you wrote this one for me, right? ;) Just kidding...

    But on a serious note, I just bought a new Bible yesterday and I'm starting to get back with the program. This post hits home in ways you can't imagine.

  6. Personally I am simpler than all that. Sin is simply whatever separates one from God. But then what do I know, I don't read any of the "sacred" texts from any belief structure anymore.

  7. Randall, the "personal relationship" is an interesting take on those parables, I'll have to ponder that...

    Kenju, sorry to add to your reading list! :)

    Fantasy, but we're called not to judge!

    Eutychus, I'm waiting for some of my "prodigal books" to return, when they do, I'll run down the street to greet them :)

    Edelweiss, yes, the real sacrifice was from the calf...

    Scarlet, yes, there was a little voice in my head saying: "write this for Redheaded Cubans..." Just kidding.

    Walking Guy, yes, that is sin and both sons found themselves separated from the father

  8. Oh Sage! This is wild, because I lost a beloved Pastor to cancer years ago who preached from this very book and it was incredible. I must put this on my reading list! You've brought back some fine memories!

  9. Neat review- I'd like to read this one. Thanks.