Book Review of THE PRODIGAL GOD by Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D.

The Prodigal God (Riverhead 2011, Dutton 2008), 149 pages with 4 pages of notes.

This book took me less than five hours to read.  The parable is familiar, but the author’s ultimate conclusion–that Jesus is a prodigal God–is new.  This book discusses the parable of the prodigal son.  (Luke 15:11-32)  Here is the parable:

The Parable of the Lost Son

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  (BibleGateway.com, NIV)

Jesus shows us a solution to the human dilemma of being experientially-driven humans who feel, need and desire, yet want to live a life that is in harmony with God.  We want to live at peace with God and people, while still enjoying our sensual nature.  How do we do that?  The prodigal son parable shows the two extremes to the dilemma through the older and younger brothers.  Most of us are neither as self-involved as the younger brother—wishing our parents were dead so we could have our inheritance.  Nor are we as dutifully moralistic as the older brother—serving his father because it is the right thing to do, but feeling no love for his father or his younger brother.  Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.  We all grapple with the dilemma of reconciling our two basic selves: sensory and moral.  How can we successfully satisfy both sides of our human nature?  Dr. Keller suggests the same thing Jesus suggests, that we repent in order to know God better and to be fully renewed as God’s people.

“What must we do, then, to be saved?  To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother.  To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right.  Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too.  We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness—the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.  We must admit that we’ve put our ultimate hope and trust in things other than God, and that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things.  It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord—lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness—that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.  When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink.  If you follow through, it will change everything:  how you relate to God, self, others, the world, your work, your sins, your virtue.  It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical.”  (pp. 87-88)

Dr. Keller is saying that in order to be made right with God through Jesus Christ, we need to surrender our hurts, our vanities, and our desire to control our world.  We have to surrender today and tomorrow and repent of everything in our past that did not begin and end with God.

Timothy Keller titled the book The Prodigal God.  The implication is that Jesus Christ laid down his majesty in heaven.  He left his Father’s house and went to live among sinful men to find his way in the world.  Sinful men took everything from him.  In fact, they beat and crucified him.  They killed him.  Why would Lord God Almighty, who has the power, resources and time to do anything choose to send his only begotten son to earth to live and die among sinners?

“Christianity, therefore, is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths.  Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order.  God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it.  Jesus’ miracles were a sign that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished.  Christians, therefore, can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence.  With integrity.  Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world clean of it.  Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice.  Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses.’ That is, it is a sedative that makes people passive toward injustice, because there will be ‘pie in the sky bye and bye.’  That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory.  Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.  Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people.  It’s more like the smelling salts.”  (pp. 126-127)

Dr. Keller is saying that God created the earth and all its fullness as an act of love.  God created a good and beautiful world, but man wrecked it.  So God sent Jesus, His Son, to earth to restore to God what man had wrecked.

Our prodigal God is Jesus Christ.  Jesus is unique among all other gods in that he became one of us, in order to save us all.  If my God loves me so much he was willing to leave paradise to come to earth to pull me out of the muck and mire of this world, to set my feet on solid ground and to restore this fallen world to its original God-given glory, then surely there is hope.  Jesus truly is the light of the world, because he became a prodigal just like me. Isn’t that an amazing story of love?

I liked this book.  I recommend it.  It gave me plenty of things to think about.  This book review originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on September 16, 2016.  You can find out more about Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D. at his website at http://www.timothykeller.com/.  You can listen to his sermons at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on iTunes.  His books include:

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

Every Good Endeavor

Center Church

Jesus the King

The Meaning of Marriage

Generous Justice

Counterfeit Gods

The Reason for God

Preaching:  Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions

The Prodigal God

Romans 1-7 For You

Romans 8-16 For You

Galatians for You

Judges For You

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

Ministries of Mercy

King’s Cross

The Songs of Jesus

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Hidden Christmas:  The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ

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