The parable of the prodigal son is one of those stories that everyone knows: A man had two sons. The younger of the two approaches his father and demands his inheritance, despite his father being very much alive and well. He leaves his home and spends all he has on reckless living. As a famine hit the land, he finds himself in need, and gets a job feeding pigs. While longing to eat the pig’s slop, he pines for his father’s house. He remembers how well even the servants were treated. So, he returns home, prepared to ask forgiveness and for a job. But the father goes much further than anyone expects. The father welcomes his son back into the family.
He celebrates the son who once was lost, but now is found.
For many of us, that’s about where we stop. The wayward son returns home and there is much joy. In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller reminds us that the parable doesn’t end there. It is not the story of just one son, but two. And we have much to learn from the older son who remained behind and was seemingly obedient to his father.
Two kinds of lost people
The Prodigal God is a primer on the gospel. It shows how the parable helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. In that, Keller shows that the Bible speaks to two kinds of people.
There are the “reckless spendthrifts” (the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of “prodigal”), licentious sinners, the broken and wayward. The younger brother of the parable is the picture of this type.
There are also self-righteous people who try to earn their way into God’s grace through morality and strict obedience. People who have religious behavior, but no joy. This is the elder brother.
More often than not, we’re both at the same time.
Keller asserts that Jesus was neither on the side of the irreligious nor the religious. Instead, “he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition” (page 13).
Jesus, Keller says, shows us that while one son stayed and the other left, both were lost. And while the younger realized that he had lost his way, we’re left wondering about the elder son. Jesus doesn’t finish the story. Why does he leave it on a cliffhanger? “[B]ecause the real audience for the story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers” (page 28, emphasis mine). In doing so, Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees to understand the real message behind the parable. Strict conformity to rules with no joy—their religious moralism—is blinding them to the reality of their own hearts.
Obedience matters, of course. But we must be careful our obedience to God’s law doesn’t “serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (37). We must not obey to get things from God. Likewise, we have to avoid thinking God owes us because we, like the elder brother, “have never disobeyed!”
While the younger brother’s rebellion is “crashingly obvious,” says Keller, it is “the elder brother who is more blind to what is going on” (47).
Keller redefines lostness, not simply as irreligious or licentious behavior, but also as a bitter resentment, joyless servitude, and a constant lack of assurance of God’s love. This lack of assurance is particularly devastating as shows us that we do not seek God’s love, but the affirmation of others. Those of us who lean toward the elder brother mentality can’t always see just how damaging our condition is, and “desperately need to see themselves in this mirror” (page 66).
From here, the subject shifts to the gospel. We can be free of our younger and elder brother tendencies as we “gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother [Jesus]” (page 89). In Jesus, we have hope that we can return home to the Father, and that we, too, can rejoice in the new creation when He comes again.
A gospel call to “younger” and “elder” brothers
What I appreciate most about The Prodigal God is that in it, Keller doesn’t let me off the hook. Keller’s work shows me my tendencies, but doesn’t pat me on the head and say, “There, there… you’re a pain, but God loves you anyway.” And it doesn’t call me to pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps and do better.
Instead, this book points me to the gospel.
There is no question that Timothy Keller is a pastor who deeply loves people and loves the gospel. And he knows that it’s only the gospel that will bring us to repentance, empowering and enabling us to live transformed lives.
The Prodigal God is a sobering and impassioned reminder that the gospel is “not just the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life” (page 119). Through the gospel, we can be freed of our younger and elder brother tendencies, and respond rightly to what God has done—with joyful obedience, faithful service and confidence in our status as His children.
Note: this article was first published in April 2009. It has been updated for style and content.