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Book Review: The Prodigal God

Tim Keller is one of those down to Earth Protestant preachers who somehow manages to preach an orthodox Christian message and yet appeals to squishy, secular types who seek to understand Christianity better. I first became aware of his work when I read his popular book of apologetics, The Reason for God. He won’t convince the die-hard skeptics (and/or left-wing ideologues) of the truth of the Gospel message, but he has certainly done his part to bring thousands of people to Christ and helped them receive a new identity and relationship with God.

Recently a friend gave me Keller’s earlier, shorter book called The Prodigal God which Keller describes in his subtitle as “Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.” Now that Easter Sunday has come and gone, I thought it might be a good time to look at what Keller has to say about Christ’s message for us – what does Keller mean by the phrase the “Prodigal God” and how does the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son help us “understand the Bible as a whole.”

Here is what Keller says as he starts the book:

I will not use the parable’s most common name: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is not right to single out only one of the sons as the sole focus of the story. Even Jesus doesn’t call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but begins the story saying, “a man had two sons.” The narrative is as much about the elder brother as the younger, and as much about the father as the sons. And what Jesus says about the older brother is one of the most important messages given to us in the Bible. The parable might be better called the Two Lost Sons.

The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community.

In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well. St. Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book.

So this is Keller’s basic plan – to show how the story of the ‘Two Lost Sons’ gets at the heart of the Gospel message. I will assume most of my readers will be familiar with the basic story at issue (if not, or if in need of a refresher, a quick look at Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 will set you straight.) Most of us focus on the younger son and Keller rightfully points out how this son is indeed sinful and in need of God’s forgiving grace. The father in the story represents God, and as Keller puts it, makes available “the lavish prodigality of God’s grace.” There is certainly nothing the son has done (except for his willingness to recognize his need for his father/God) that would merit such an outpouring of love and devotion from his father – he is simply welcomed home. But, his older brother is angry and is unwilling to join in the celebration, even when his father asks him to participate. Why? Again Keller:

He is especially upset about the cost of all that is happening. He says, “You’ve never given me even a goat for a party, how dare you give him the calf?” The fattened calf is only a symbol, however, because what the father has done costs far more than the calf. By bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to one-third of their (now very diminished) family wealth. This is unconscionable to the elder brother. He’s adding things up. “I’ve worked myself to death and earned what I’ve got, but my brother has done nothing to earn anything, indeed he’s merited only expulsion, and yet you lavish him with wealth! Where’s the justice in that?”

This idea is the key to Keller’s book – he wants us to focus in on the elder brother and have us realize that just like the Prodigal Son, he too must let go of his pride and give up control to his father (i.e. God.) He cannot simply live a life according to the rules only so that he can use those rules to manipulate those around him (especially his father) to get what he wants. He too must learn that he is not in control and accept his father’s offer to join the feast (i.e. the moral law can’t save even the best of us – we all need Christ’s sacrifice.)

The bad son enters the father’s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends. It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.

Jesus does not simply leave it at that. It gets even more shocking. Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: “Because I’ve never disobeyed you.” The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.


The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled – but one did so by being very bad and the by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons.

Do you realize, then, what Jesus is teaching? Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.

It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.

Keller explores this theme for the rest of the book – one of his strengths is his use of literary references throughout to get his point across:

In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” This is a profound insight. You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior.

So what do I think of Keller’s book and his interpretation of this story in the Bible? I think he’s definitely on to something and is right in his interpretation of the story -- both the younger brother and the elder brother are in need of God's grace. I hope I’ve given you enough of his writing to suggest that he is a clear and forceful writer who is very persuasive. And yet, I find myself wondering just how much of a problem is the ‘elder brother syndrome’ in today’s society? Yes, there are moral scolds and modern-day Pharisees – but isn’t the bigger problem (at least in the West) that there are plenty of secular folks who simply need to learn right from wrong first and foremost and start following God’s law in the first place? Is it such a bad thing if we have preachers preaching about sin and repentance these days when there is plenty of sin going around and plenty of lost, younger sons who need to wake up from their time in the filth of the pig pen (like the original Prodigal Son) and return, chasten to their fathers (i.e. God?)

In a way, I almost feel like this book was written for a different time – a more innocent and perhaps traditional America. An America that didn’t have abortion on demand or that refused to recognize homosexual perversion as ‘normal’ (or something to be celebrated in simulacrums of wedding ceremonies.) An America where divorce was rare and most children were raised by their biological parents. In short, a place where there were a lot more Pharisees running around too proud of themselves and in need of Keller’s message. These days, while I think everything Keller has to say is spot on, I just think his target audience is going to be small – or that there are more folks who need to understand the basics before they can graduate to this more subtle sermon.

However, I do want to leave you with a few beautiful passages of his on what he has to say about both sons learning to turn to God for their salvation – that we all must learn an important lesson from the elder brother, and that the elder brother serves two different purposes in Jesus’ story:

The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the younger son, somebody had to pay! The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way. But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.

But we do not.

By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.

And we have him. Think of the kind of brother we need. We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth. We need one who is willing to pay not just a finite amount of money, but, at the infinite cost of his own life to bring us into God’s family, for our debt is so much greater. Either as elder brothers or as younger brothers we have rebelled against the father. We deserve alienation, isolation, and rejection. The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price—someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother bore the cost himself. Our true elder brother paid our debt, on the cross, in our place.


Jesus Christ, who had all the power in the world, saw us enslaved by the very things we thought would free us. So he emptied himself of his glory and became a servant (Philippians 2). He laid aside the infinities and immensities of his being and, at the cost of his life, paid the debt for our sins, purchasing us the only place our hearts can rest, in his Father’s house.


John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn that puts this perfectly:

Our pleasure and our duty,
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.

In a few short words Newton outlines our dilemma. The choice before us seems to be to either turn from God and pursue the desires of our hearts, like the younger brother, or repress the desire and do our moral duty, like the older brother. But the sacrificial, costly love of Jesus on the cross changes that. When we see the beauty of what he has done for us, it attracts our hearts to him. We realize that the love, the greatness, the consolation, and the honor we have been seeking in other things is here. The beauty also eliminates our fear. If the Lord of the Universe loves us enough to experience this for us, what are we afraid of? To the degree we “see his beauty” we will be free from the fear and neediness that creates either younger brothers or elder brothers.

Comments (6)

Thanks for this review, Jeff!

I don't want to be dogmatic, but I _believe_ Keller is incorrect about the implication concerning further inheritance for the wayward son. The father says to the older son, "All that I have is yours." This seems to imply quite clearly that the wayward son isn't getting a new "slice of the pie" now that he has come back. Rather, the older son is the only remaining heir, because the younger son asked for his inheritance early and squandered it.

In general, the father's way of speaking to the older son is (in my opinion) much different from what Keller portrays. He appeals to him. He does not scold him. He emphasizes that the older son is "always with him" as well as that the older son is the presumptive heir of all his property. But he emphasizes that it is right to rejoice at the return of the younger son because he was (metaphorically) dead and is now alive again. He invites the older brother to join in this rejoicing.

I disagree with the (somewhat fashionable) equation of the wrong of both sons.

It's also extremely important to remember that this parable was in large measure about the Jews and the Gentiles--a foreshadowing of God's taking the Gentiles into the church. There are quite a few such parables, though I presume the disciples understood this aspect of them only later, after the revelation to Peter recorded in Acts.

This puts a whole new light on it. When speaking to a Jewish audience, it was important to emphasize their need to accept the wayward younger son whom the Father wants to bring home.

The Apostle Paul is an excellent example in this regard of the _good_ elder son. He is passionate in his role as the apostle to the Gentiles. He fights fiercely for their inclusion in the church without being circumcised and having to follow the ceremonial laws of Moses. He glories in this "mystery," that the Gentiles shall be fellow-heirs.

_But_, his tone when referring to the past _moral_ lives of the Gentiles is quite different from what Keller seems to suggest. Paul says quite a few "politically incorrect" things along these lines. For example, he says in Ephesians 2:11ff that as Gentiles they were once far off from God and alienated. In Ephesians 5:8ff he goes on at some length about the sexual sin and perversion that permeated the Gentile world and that his converts were once part of, saying, "You were once darkness." In I Thessalonians 4:5 he refers to the lustful concupiscence which he characterizes as typical of the "Gentiles who know not God." Peter, too, tells his audience that they have spent enough time in the past carousing like the pagan Gentiles (I Peter 4:3).

So these "elder brothers," while welcoming the younger brothers, make no bones about being judgemental of the evils that were _undeniably_ more typical of the Gentile culture than of the Jewish culture. And they emphasize that asymmetry as well, without the slightest embarrassment.

In essence, I think what Keller sounds like he is doing (as you imply) is something that C.S. Lewis warned against. (IIRC it was in the Screwtape Letters.) That is, acting like the danger of a particular time period is exactly the opposite of the real danger. In our own time, being overly judgemental of sins of the flesh is _not_ the real cultural danger, nor is somehow "manipulating God" by being morally upright. Rather, the cultural danger (as you imply) is excusing sins of the flesh and welcoming them into the church in the name of non-judgementalism and outreach. Keller's artificial even-handedness obscures this problem, and, given all that I have heard of Keller's overall approach to being seeker sensitive and globally welcoming, I have to worry that he actually exemplifies it. I certainly worry that he encourages it in the church.

Lydia, Once again,you provide needed insight and balance. I agree that the father does not equate the sins of the prodigal son and sins of the older son. He does make the point that forgiveness is the father's way and we must remember that and join in the celebration of a return of a prodigal son.

"All that I have is yours."

Is it really to be understood in a legalistic sense? Did Jesus meant to say that "the older son is the only remaining heir" and how does this reading fit with "God's taking the Gentiles into the church"?

I have understood, perhaps naively, that the father belongs to both of the sons. Even to the younger son, he could say precisely the same words "All that I have is yours". Nothing to do with dividing up of the property.

My own guess (but it is admittedly a conjecture, and I would need to study the commentaries and arguments) is that Jesus' audience _would_ have understood it as an allusion to a legal situation they would have been familiar with. After all, it may just have been _true_ in the legal context of the time that the second son wouldn't have been entitled to "another bite of the apple." Keller assumes that he would, but I hope I will be forgiven for doubting that Keller has any Jewish sources to back that up. On the contrary, the whole point of the legal set-up for the story is _precisely_ that the younger son asks for his patrimony "up front" rather than waiting for his father to die. Why _would_ he have been entitled to any more inheritance after squandering it?

As to whether this small detail is intended to have any _particular_ implications to the allegory of the Jews and Gentiles, it may not have. Not every literal detail in a parable has allegorical meaning. Some are just little realistic details, and this is the kind of thing that a father in that situation could have said to placate and comfort the elder son.

I suppose one could spin something out, such as that the Gentiles who had engaged in "wasting their substance with harlots" (as the younger son is said to have done) because they were unrestrained by the law of Moses would have harmed themselves in various ways that couldn't simply be erased by justification. The forgiveness of sins does not always mitigate the consequences for sins. Hence, the "elder brothers" would be, as it were, starting from a position of already being God's people and having not squandered that inheritance. But I wouldn't really push on that, and I feel hesitant even offering it. My own guess is that the detail wasn't intended to have any particular meaning in the allegory except in the sense that it tends to counter misreadings/overreadings like Keller's idea that the two brothers are somehow "equally bad."

In a way, I almost feel like this book was written for a different time – a more innocent and perhaps traditional America...In short, a place where there were a lot more Pharisees running around too proud of themselves and in need of Keller’s message.

But are Pharisees rare nowadays? One doesn't actually have to be righteous to have feelings of righteous superiority. Most modern unbelievers do not see themselves as sinners. They are for same-sex marriage, so they see themselves as loving (unlike conservative 'bigots'). They are for large government programs to help the poor, so they see themselves as caring (unlike 'greedy' capitalists). They don't condemn Muslims, so they see themselves as tolerant (unlike 'fearful' Republicans). And since those like them dominate the media and court system, they have constant validation of their own righteousness. In many ways, social liberals are the Pharisees of today.

Is it really to be understood in a legalistic sense?

Fair enough question.

Often enough, in the Bible, the answer is "both", not one to the exclusion of the other. Because God is capable of saying things on many levels at once. And especially because, often enough, the spiritual senses RELY on the basic sense as their starting point.

Since Jesus himself introduces the concept of a separable share of inheritance into the original scenario, ("So he divided the property between them") it is not bringing in a foreign concept to try to fit the later comment into that picture. The father converts the inheritance to a separable share of property.

One way to answer the question, then, is to stick to the notion of separable property, and say yes, it really is to be understood in a legalistic sense. The younger son does NOT get back a new share of property. What he gets, though, is a restoration of an integral relationship with the father, in the bosom of the family. He gets active "sonship", which is more important than mere property (which he had discovered, when he averred to the father in contrition to be no longer interested in the property). One might presume, if all went well thereafter, the son would achieve some other, non-property basis for a living, either dependent on the estate or a new career path that wasn't one of the propertied class. And this would be a happy and fulfilling role for the son, for his happiness does not depend on property.

Taking this generally, one might say that when we sever our relationship with God by grave sin, God can (we cannot) repair that relationship but that God doesn't make our sin "never to have been". He doesn't, usually, simply eradicate our bad inclinations to sin that we acquired through habit, He doesn't eradicate our civil debts nor our due criminal punishments nor the fact that others will not trust us as freely. He restores to us a pathway to heaven and ultimate happiness, but that pathway is a NEW pathway that may imply a different kind of happiness than if we had not so sinned. If we married badly (against God's wishes) we remain married, and that determines a different life and a different happiness. Thus, in heaven everyone will be happy, but the prodigal son may enjoy a form of happiness that is "happy that I got in after all, in spite of such repeated grave sins of dissolute living".

On another approach, the older son may stand for the Jews, and the younger stands for the Gentiles who come to believe. This approach, though, perhaps is an imperfect analogy in respect of the property, for the Gentiles have no sort of inheritance in the Kingdom before they receive Christ. Hence we should not expect the property (divided up earlier) to be perfectly analogized either. And the inheritance we have with Christ is not the sort that can be "divided up" nor spent in dissolute living. (Though it can be lost in dissolute living.)

Anyhow, Christ alone is entitled to "everything the Father has" by nature. We can only have that title by our participation with Christ through adopted sonship. For Himself Christ can allow, without demur or qualification, the father saying "everything I have is yours". When it is said of any other son, it is always said with qualification: to the extent we remain in Christ, in union with the Father. So, when the father says to the older son "everything that I have is yours", if we are reading this on a spiritual level we may say that the father is implying that the older son (in spite of his earlier reluctance to celebrate the return of the younger) is "still with" the father, and his inheritance remains a whole inheritance of any son who has not severed his relationship with the Father: the life of grace, heaven, and the Beatific Vision. This spiritual inheritance is neither severable, nor subject to diminution by the enjoyment by many more - it is, rather increased by the enjoyment of many others. Thus, Jews are not harmed by the addition of Christians to the family of God, they retain their whole inheritance.

It is interesting to note that the parable does not tell us if the older son changes his tune and rejoices with the father, or confirms his initial distaste in actual rebellion. Perhaps, Christ is thereby foretelling the future by leaving it open-ended: some Jews will convert and be saved, some will confirm their rejection of God's Cornerstone, and some will accept Him and be saved.

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