Thursday, November 13, 2008

Good Books: The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

The full title of Tim Keller's new book is The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Here's the bottom line: you should read this book. Prodigal God is an extended treatment of Jesus' misnamed parable of "the prodigal son" in Luke 15. Misnamed because, and this is the heart of Keller's book, Jesus' story is about not one prodigal son but two lost sons. The younger son is the prodigal lost son who leaves home, but the older brother is the equally lost son who stays home. And Keller's title comes from the real meaning of prodigal. We tend to read that word as "wayward," but it really means "recklessly spendthrift" and that's a description not only of the son, but even more so of the father who is a recklessly spendthrift with his lavish and shocking forgiveness and love for both of his lost sons.

Of course the younger son is "lost." He chafes under the authority and presence of his father, and he wants out. He goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance, which in those days would be two thirds of his father's estate. In effect he was saying to his father "I care nothing about you but only want your stuff. I wish you were already dead so I could get what I really want, so please just go ahead and give it to me now." He insults his father in the most serious way possible, and Jesus' hearers would have expected the offended father to drive out his son and disown him for his outrageous request. Instead, the father amazingly does what his son asks. To give the son a third of the estate, he would have had to sell land and goods to convert them to cash. He hands over the inheritance, and the son leaves to seek the life of freedom and pleasure of which he's been dreaming.

We get the fact that this son is desperately in need of a heart change, and that he is the recipient of his father's sacrificial love. What's perhaps less obvious to us, and here is where Keller's book is so helpful, is that the older brother is every bit as lost as the younger brother. The younger brother is lost in his pleasures and dissipation. The older brother, though, is lost in his obedience and moral uprightness. The younger brother avoids the father's love by leaving and being very "bad." The older brother avoids his father's love by staying and being very good--obeying his father and doing all the right things. How can all this be a bad thing--obeying the father, staying at home, etc.? Because just as the younger brother has not been melted and transformed and converted by the father's love, neither has the dutiful older brother. The older brother shows his hand right towards the end of the parable. The father is throwing a party for the younger brother who has now returned, and the older brother publicly humiliates his father by not joining in the feast, but instead refusing to participate:
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
All these years of dutiful service and obedience by the older son have been nothing more than his own strategy to get what he really wants: his father's stuff. No joy in serving and knowing his father. No heart that loves and values what the father loves and values. His "goodness" is only his own strategy for making life work for himself. He too, didn't love the father.

Keller quotes Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood. She says of the character Hazel Motes that "there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin." In other words, we can work very hard to be very good so that we can not need Jesus in any real and deep way. Jesus actually spoke to a lot people in exactly this boat--the religious professionals called Pharisees.

This is a book, because this is a parable, that our church desperately needs. Because let's face it, we're not a church filled with prodigals, though we may have a few. We're a church that falls off the horse in the other direction--not in shaking off constraints and the carefree pursuit of pleasure at all costs, but in our dutiful pursuit of having everything in order. We tend, at least in the outward show, to be very, very good. But could it be that we're often good, if we were to be honest with ourselves, not because we're living out of joyful response to Jesus, but actually because we're afraid of Jesus and doing all we can to avoid really needing him or coming face to face with him?
On the whole, if not actual older brothers who are missing out on relationship with the Father, we are at least still very "older brother-ish."

Are you sure this doesn't apply to you? Read the book. Not sure if you buy this idea that you can be good and miss God not only at the same time, but actually miss God because of your pursuit of goodness? Read the book. Do you think this might actually be you? Read the book. And let's talk.

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