There is an old saying which rings true as it states ‘familiarity breeds contempt’; and this is especially true about parts of the Bible which are very familiar, like Jesus parable of the prodigal son. Many of us have read this parable or heard it taught, preached and explained so much that it has lost it’s luster, and it’s power.
A new book by Timothy Keller is designed to reverse this trend. The book, released in October and titled The Prodigal God, takes this all too familiar parable (Luke 15:11-31) and opens it up in such a way so as to help 21st century readers grasp it in it’s power and point; and the result is a fresh understanding of it which recaptures the heart of the gospel message. I found The Prodigal God compelling for many reasons. Let me explain three of them here.
First, the title of the book is captivating in and of itself. Most of us understand what is meant by a ‘prodigal son’ or daughter. But Keller applies this term, which is usually understood in a negative sense, to God. Some readers may be put off by this, but don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. As the meaning of ‘prodigal’ is defined more clearly, I came to see how God is indeed prodigal, in the best sense of the term; and the good news of Jesus flows to us because he is. For more detail on that point you will have to read the book. This is only one of many gems found within the pages of this short work.
A second gem gleaned from this book is in the first chapter. Keller shows how, when Jesus was here on earth, his teaching and life consistently attracted those who were not religious at all while offending those who prided themselves on how religious and righteous they were. After showing this, Keller makes the point that “if the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did” (page 16). Being the pastor of a Bible centered evangelical church, this statement caused me to stop and think about the kinds of people we draw to our churches; and I concluded that Keller was onto to something important in his book. And desiring to see people know Jesus, I was compelled to read further.
A third gem, which was particularly helpful to me as I read Keller’s explanation of the parable was what he draws out as Jesus’ the main point. Having been a Christian for near forty years, I have heard the point of this parable explained as being the love of the Father for sons gone astray, the awesome forgiveness which the Father extends, and even the sacrifice the Father makes to receive his son back, after this prodigal son went so far astray. I have even preached this parable from one or more of these angles. But Keller shows, on the other hand, how all of these truths, true as they are, are only the back drop to Jesus main point.
And what was Jesus’ main point? Who was this parable really directed to? Jesus focus in the parable, according to Keller’s understanding, was not so much the younger son, nor even the Father and his forgiveness but rather the older son; and his purpose was to shock the Pharisees and anyone else who carries the attitudes of the older brother in the story into realizing that, as wrong as the prodigal was, they, too, are in a seriously bad position before the Father, which is made worse by the fact that, trusting in their own righteousness, big brother types do not even grasp their eternal danger. The parable is an appeal to ‘the righteous’ to grasp and grab by faith, the salvation even they need. Keller then expands this and makes relevant applications of Jesus’ parable to people and churches today.
When all is said and done, Keller’s book The Prodigal God is a home run in my view. The book is short and yet thorough; it is easy to understand and yet profound; and it carries a much needed message for the church, and for those outside the church today.
I recommend the book highly and see it as a ‘must read’ for anyone desirous of seeing the good news that is Jesus Christ spread to the masses or even to the neighbor next door. Often, we Christians make the faith complex. Timothy Keller, in The Prodigal God puts the heart of the gospel to the bottom shelf and makes it easy for anyone to grasp. May the Lord use this little book to draw many people to Jesus, for their good and for His glory. - Pastor Mike Burchfield, www.ChristianBookPreviews.com
Newsweek called New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller a “C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century” in a feature on his first book, The Reason for God. In that book, he offered a rational explanation of why we should believe in God. Now, in The Prodigal God, he uses one of the best-known Christian parables to reveal an unexpected message of hope and salvation.
Taking his trademark intellectual approach to understanding Christianity, Keller uncovers the essential message of Jesus, locked inside his most familiar parable. Within that parable Jesus reveals God's prodigal grace toward both the irreligious and the moralistic. This book will challenge both the devout and skeptics to see Christianity in a whole new way.