Which Son Are You?

Review of The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

If you are reading this blog, it is likely you are relatively familiar with The Crossing and understand that the leadership of the church emphasizes reading good books and good authors. The name Tim Keller may be familiar to you for that reason alone. Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. His book The Reason for God has been recommended by the leadership at The Crossing as a very sound and intellectually thought-provoking work on why we should believe in God, or more appropriately, believe God.

Keller has recently written another book titled The Prodigal God which I just finished after it was suggested by a friend. You can view a website dedicated to the theme of the book here. The book addresses what many believe to be a cancer in the church today; self-righteous moralism. However, the author does so by challenging the reader to reassess one of the most common parables in the bible. Keller’s makes the accusation that we are missing the entire point of the parable of the prodigal son from the very beginning, and in doing so, we are missing the point of the gospel as well.

Hopefully, you can recall some of the basics of the parable. The story is found in Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32. The typical interpretation asks us to identify ourselves with the wayward son, and God (the loving father) who gives himself to his wayward son. The wayward son then carelessly spends his inheritance and eventually recognizes the error of his ways and returns to the father hoping for a chance to be hired on as a servant in his father’s household. However, the father joyfully receives his wayward son, reinstates his position and invites him in to a celebration of his return.

The argument Keller makes in The Prodigal God is that we mistakenly leave out the role of the elder brother in the story. Keller proposes the elder brother is actually the focus of the original parable. Keller suggests the elder brother, who angrily accuses his father of not recognizing the hard work he has done for his father, is equally as lost as the younger brother.

Keller strives to bring us the context of the original parable by thinking about its audience. It is the pharisee who Jesus confronts with the parable, those more likely to be elder brothers. The elder brother refuses to join the feast based on his faith in his own record, his pride, and his selfishness. We begin to see both the younger brother and the elder brother wanted the same things; control, freedom and reward. The younger son pursued these things by fleeing and the elder brother pursued these things by staying. The motive for both brothers was to manipulate the father for their own desires. The frightening thing for those who should be identifying themselves with the elder brother is that the story ends with him being outside of the feast! His own stubborn will and self-righteousness keeps him from receiving his father’s grace.

I think we can all begin to see Keller’s point here. Is the church today filled with younger brothers or elder brothers? There is a cry from the book and the parable for elder brothers to recognize how their “goodness” is causing them to miss the gospel. Keller takes the point further in proposing that Jesus was the true elder brother as he should have been. Substituting himself for the return of the younger brother and giving his inheritance to the younger brother. In doing so, he reminds us that Jesus is the perfect example for us to follow as a church, full of true elder brothers, who are willing to share our inheritance and invite the younger brother into the feast. If we recognize the seriousness of our own sin of self-righteousness, accepting that Jesus died for our goodness as well as our badness, we will not be angry at our father as he runs out to meet the younger brother.

A few years ago a co-director of college ministries at The Crossing, Ryan Wampler, taught a Sunday morning class on art and Christianity. I distinctly remember him talking about Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. After reading this book, I thought I would go back and view that painting. I was struck by how it appears Rembrandt really understood the meaning of the parable. I remember Ryan talking about how Rembrandt used lighting to portray the meanings in his paintings. Look at the elder brother on the right in contrast to the father. He is distant, arms are folded and an air of indignation is on his face. Through the lighting and the position of the three men in the scene, you can tell that Rembrandt knew the elder brother was an important part of this story.

I hope you get a chance to read Keller’s new book. But if you don’t, I hope you remember this painting when you hear the parable of the prodigal son. When you do, think about how the elder brother should be depicted in the painting; close to the father, arms around his wayward brother, inviting him into the feast.

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