I recently listened to the book The Prodigal God on Audible (the audiobook app for Amazon). The book is an absolute must read for any believers with a fantastic look into the story of the “Prodigal Son.” Keller admits from the start that this is not a completely original thought, but an idea that stemmed first from a sermon he heard that changed his life. As I am new to book reviews, I am going to summarize highlights of the reading mixed with my own analysis of the book. Since this book is so old, do not think of it as just a book review, but also as a book recommendation and a preview for what I recommend it!
Keller begins with some backstory information on the setting of Jesus telling the parable. There are Pharisees and tax collectors in attendance. Most of the people close to Jesus here can relate to one of these two groups, and so Jesus begins his parable.
Keller looks at the two brothers equally, not just focusing on the younger brother as we often do. There are multiple parts to the story, like a play may have, and we often just focus on the first where the younger brother returns home to be welcomed. However, the story does not stop there. The younger brother shows the story of the tax collectors. Those who grew up and wandered from the societal norms for faith to wild living.
While we all recognize this part of the story and can recognize this issue, there are two brothers in this story. Upon the younger brothers return, the older brother comes home to find the feast and is livid. Keller identifies this son with the Pharisees in the crowd, the religious elite who have followed all the laws and lived the perfect Jewish life. The first group seeks God through some kind of self-discovery, while the second group seeks him through a type of moral conformity. To quote Keller,
“There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.”
This is where Keller spends most of his focus of the book. While spending much time on both brothers, Keller chooses to focus on the older brother because we often overlook the sins of the older brother. The older brother in the story has issues of his own. Not only is he self-righteous, but he scolds the father for his decision to allow the younger brother back. In a day where many people are leaving the church, but so many still claim to be “spiritual,” the argument they raise is the holier-than-thou, self-righteous, hypocritical attitude of many believers. Keller is correct in that many churches have an older brother mindset.
Keller is correct in stating that we are all in need of repentance. Younger brothers must repent for wandering and wild living, while older brothers “must also repent of the reasons [they] ever did anything right.” Keller points out both brothers attempted to exploit the father in their living. The younger brother did it explicitly by asking for his share of the inheritance, disregarding his father’s life. The older brother, however, did this covertly through trying to control the father by his good deeds. To paraphrase, the older brother ignores his father’s invite into the home, and scolds him for doing this for his brother when he has “never disobeyed [his] commands,” but never get the slightest celebration.
“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.”
To end the book, after having rebuked and corrected both older-brother and younger-brother mindsets, Keller states that we do need an older brother. We need a perfect older brother. Keller states:
“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 an infinite cost, bring us into God’s family, for our debt is much greater. Either as younger brothers or elder 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…Our true elder brother took and paid our debt, on the cross, in our place….There Jesus was stripped naked of his robe and dignity, so that we could be clothed with a dignity and standing we don’t deserve. One the cross Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we could be brought into God’s family freely by grace. There Jesus drank the cup of eternal justice so that we might have the cup of the father’s joy. There was no other way for the heavenly father to bring us in, except at the expense of our true elder brother.”
Prodigal God is a great read for any believer today. While the book is beneficial for the skeptic and believer, the target audience is more so professing believers in the church. It is a message for all of us to hear and even if you do not relate with all of the message, there is still plenty to be gathered for us going forward. The church in America needs work, and while it does not have all of the right answers, The Prodigal God is a great place to start assessing where we are as churches today.
I will close with a quote from Keller,
“If we say, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.”