This is a book not about one prodigal son, but about two sons and a prodigal God. Tim Keller begins by defining prodigal as “recklessly spendthrift.” Simply, to be prodigal is to spend until you have nothing left. It is within this context that he introduces God as a prodigal God who has recklessly spent his grace on us. Yet there are two other characters within the story of the “prodigal son:” the older brother and the younger brother. Keller contends that there are two types of people and two ways to be alienated to God. The first is that of the younger brother, the tax collector, and the sinner whose life is consumed by wild living and has left the traditional morality of family and society. Equally alienated from God is the second, the older brother, Pharisee, and teacher of the law, who holds to the morality of his upbringing, studies and obeys the Scripture, and faithful worship and prayer.
Unearthing valuable insight within the “commonplace” stories of Scripture is something Tim Keller does well, as evidenced by both The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods. Within the story of the prodigal son, is revealed the heart of the gospel. Keller writes of this story, “Jesus’ purpose is not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories.” Explaining further, he says, “Through this parable Jesus challenges what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, sin, and salvation. This story reveals the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, but it also condemns the elder brother’s moralistic life in the strongest terms. Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost, both paths are dead ends, and that every thought the human race has had about how to connect to God has been wrong.”
“The younger brother knew that in his father’s house there was abundant ‘food to spare,’ but he also discovered there was grace to spare. There is no evil that the father’s love cannot pardon and cover, there is no sin that is a match for his grace.” (Keller, 2008) Whether I fall more in the category of the younger brother or the older brother, it is amazing to realize that God’s grace is sufficient beyond even my wildest imagination.
Often we come to the story of the prodigal son with the preconception that it was only the younger son who was lost and needed a savior. However, Keller points out that both sons rebelled—one by being very bad, one by being very good—yet both were separated from the heart of their father. To come to a place where either son could love the father for himself rather than the benefits he brought required the father’s prodigal grace and love. “If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving as your own savior.” (Keller, 2008)
“Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.” (Keller, 2008)This concept of sin has the potential to revolutionize your view of the gospel. For when even my “good” is seen as sin I become far more needy of a prodigal God of grace, mercy, and love.
Keller writes of the elder brother that, “ultimately, elder brothers live good lives out of fear, not out of joy and love.” Regarding prayer, “elder brothers for all their religiosity, do not have much of a private prayer life at all unless things are not going well in their lives. Then they may devote themselves to a great deal of it, until things get better again. This reveals that their main goal in prayer is to control their environment rather than to delve into an intimate relationship with a God who loves them.” (Keller, 2008) With the gospel comes that transformation which brings the fear-driven elder brother to the foot of the cross and allows him to walk onward in freedom and obedience out of joy and love.
Thus, the answer for both elder and younger brothers is the gospel. “If you have not grasped the gospel fully and deeply, you will return to being condescending, condemning, anxious, insecure, joyless, and angry all the time.” (Keller, 2008) Beware however, for “the main barrier between Pharisees and God is not their sins, but their damnable good works.” (Keller, 2008) Regardless of your status as an elder brother or younger brother, you are still lost without the selfless love and blood of Christ Jesus. It is this “selfless love [that] destroys the mistrust in our hearts that makes us either younger brothers or elder brothers.” (Keller, 2008) Keller writes of the transforming power of the prodigal grace of God in our lives, saying, “Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world.” There is no part of us that the gospel does not reach. In conclusion, Keller states, “The gospel is therefore not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. Our problems arise largely because we don’t continually return to the gospel to work it in and live it out.”
Keller, T. J. (2008). The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Penguin Group.