“The parable of the two sons takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother, and climaxes with a powerful plea for him to change his heart.” (8)
Having never read Tim Keller before, I was excited to get a taste of his expert teaching in this short book, The Prodigal God, which studies in-depth the parable of Luke 15:11-32. Keller sets up his arguments well with a strong contextual study of the parable, looking closely at the life and times of Jews in the early First Century before using that research to explain why the Church has misunderstood that popular passage for so many hundreds of years.
While we like to tag this parable as “The Prodigal Son,” placing more emphasis on the overtly rebellious boy than upon his forgiving Father or his quietly rebellious brother, Keller challenges us to consider the parable anew. If we understand Jesus’ habits in teaching, we ought to immediately recognize that He was rarely satisfied to make an obvious point in an obvious way. Admittedly, the openly sinful boy and the wildly forgiving Father in Jesus’ story are clear illustrations of both the sinners with whom Jesus Himself commiserated and the God who invites such wayward souls into His fold. At the same time, however, Keller reminds his readers that we must consider Jesus’ audience first and foremost, the Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus with murderous passion. While Christians today enjoy basking in the forgiveness angle of this parable for the clearly carnal soul, those religious leaders heard Jesus’ words with very different ears. “The original listeners were not melted into tears by this story,” Keller writes, “but rather they were thunder-struck, offended, and infuriated.” (10)
In Keller’s view, Jesus’ true point in the parable, of describing the younger brother’s sin and repentance and the Father’s gracious forgiveness, was to set the stage for a description of the elder brother’s more secret, more devastating sin. His purpose was to illustrate the spiritual state-of-affairs for the religious leaders who heard Him. This elder brother was a faithful man, serving his father year after year with utter steadfastness and dedication, working hard to gain his father’s trust and love. All these things are fine in and of themselves, but only if his efforts were borne out of love rather than duty, if only the heart of that faithful elder brother were pure, which we find out in the end, it most certainly was not. As the elder brother watches his father’s outpouring of love on the rebellious-turned-repentant younger brother, he seethes. Hatred, anger, and bitterness fill his heart, not only because he believes that his brother does not deserve “the feast,” but also because he, in own estimation, most certainly does. The saddest and most revealing proof of this interpretation is that Jesus ends his parable with the elder brother still outside, unwilling to accept his father’s invitation and therefore unable to enter “the feast.”
After explaining Jesus’ likely intent in delivering this parable to the hard-hearted Pharisees, Keller then begins to expound on the dangers of having an “elder brother” mentality. “If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior.” (23) This powerful message makes this book an absolute must-read Gospel tract for even (if not “especially”) the most faithful soul in your church! How many elder brothers there must be, folks within our ranks who serve-serve-serve because that’s what to be expected of a “Christian,” yet people still wholly depending upon their own faithfulness to save them.
Elder brothers divide the world in two: “The good people (like us) are in and the bad people, who are the real problem with the world, are out.” … But Jesus says: “The humble are in and the proud are out” (see Luke 18:14). The people who confess they aren’t particularly good or open-minded are moving toward God, because the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it. The people who think they are just fine, thank you, are moving away from God. (26-27)
I have known such people in the past, though I hate to dwell on them. How sad it is to realize that the very Bride of Jesus Christ is chained down in parts by lost souls who both claim His love and yet deny His grace! No wonder we struggle to make great headway in this world for the Savior, when those very people who will one day cry, “Lord, Lord!” (Matthew 7:21-23) are still hidden within our congregations doing good while all the while remaining lost. Were it so easy to recognize these lost souls and place a book like this into their hands! But since that cannot be done, we must each instead consider our own hearts, whether we serve Christ “because” or “so that.”
I absolutely loved this in-depth look at what is perhaps Jesus’ second most famous parable (the first being The Good Samaritan), and I recommend it especially to long-standing members of well-established churches. Apart from all this exact teachings against a false, works-base Gospel, Keller also shares a key insight into the messages that preachers and Bible teachers share, and with this poignant thought I close:
“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. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.” (12)