Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Prodigal Father and His Less-than-loving Sons

I just love it when I learn of a great author or teacher, and then start hearing about him or her everywhere I turn. Tim Keller has been like that for me recently.

Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, made an appearance at a local church last night to talk about his new book, The Prodigal God. Listening to him speak from an overflow room (the church was literally packed out), I was easily persuaded that far more than promoting book sales, this man's heart was to see Christians live in such a way that their faith would be attractive to the world. I'm not talking about seeker-sensitive services or programs, but about real heart-change that is contagious. I was convicted and encouraged beyond belief.

Keller's new book is called The Prodigal God. I had heard before (in a sermon at my church in Richmond) that prodigal means "recklessly or wastefully extravagant; lavish." Of course the adjective could very well refer to the story's younger son, who indeed spent his father's wealth wastefully. But a second glance reveals that it is the father who is most reckless with his wealth and his love. Therefore, the parable would be better titled "The Prodigal Father." (Keep in mind, of course, that the headings in our Bibles were not part of the Divinely inspired writings, but rather an addition of editors who compiled the Canon centuries later.)

Explaining the application of the parable, Keller said that the rebellious Christian (the younger brother, who skipped town with his inheritance) and the legalist (the older brother who stuck around and did the right thing) sit in the same pew at church on Sundays...and unfortunately "both sons want the Father's things and not the Father." As Keller put it, one brother tries to be good and one is rebellious, but both are "outside of the feast." And at the end of the story, it's the bad boy who is saved while the good boy is so proud of his good works that he refuses to come into the feast. Keller pleaded with the audience to learn from the illustration of the older brother, who is too proud and too bitter to have compassion over his lost brother. To be a true older brother, he said, "you've got to be humbled to the dust but know that you're loved to the sky!"

This parable, meant to indict the Pharisees (and now us!) as "older brother" types isn't the only place in the New Testament where where we see the distinction between the rebellious son and the legalist. We see the Pharisee contrasted with the tax collector and the harlot again and again throughout Jesus' ministry. It seems God loves to ransom the most hopeless cases! The way He does this, according to Keller, is by sending a true older brother, His Son Jesus, with whom we are co-heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8:17).

Keller told the story of a man whose younger brother was lost in Vietnam during the war. The older brother flew to Vietnam and went out into the jungle in search of his lost brother, and both the U.S. and the Communist troops so respected his commitment to his family that they allowed him to search unharmed. He explained that the true older brother goes after his younger brother, and at his own expense! And surely we need an "older brother" who flies not just from the States to Vietnam, but from Heaven to earth. The only way we can be brought back into the family, to join the feast, is at His expense.

At the end of the story, when the younger brother returns, the father puts a robe and a ring on him. The ring, Keller said, can only be a signet ring, the marking of association with a certain family in ancient culture. So, the father is adopting this lost son back into his family. Obviously it's a perfect picture of God's extravagant, reckless love toward those of us to belong to him because He has adopted us as sons (Romans 8:23).

Oh that we might hear the Father say to us "My son (or daughter), you are always with me and everything I have is yours" (Luke 5:31) so that we may rejoice when a younger brother returns home!

*Keller's podcasts can be downloaded for free from the iTunes store, and you can listen to his defense of faith in God (an Authors@Google talk) on I haven't been able to locate a talk on the Prodigal God anywhere online, so let me know if you come across something!

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