The Prodigal God: Recovering The Heart Of The Christian Faith, by Timothy Keller
The parable of the prodigal son, as it is often known, is full of depth, and this book is at least the second great book (the first by the late Henri Nouwen) that I have read on the subject. Both books are, of course, very different. Nouwen’s work  focuses on the identity of the three people and notes (as does Keller) that both of the sons in the story were lost for different reasons, and comments on his own life as well as art criticism while discussing the parable. It is a moving account of someone who felt that he had been lost in resentment and forgiven and restored by a loving God as a wounded healer. Keller is no less interested in talking about the lostness of both the younger and elder brother, but he puts it in the context of the original audience as well as in the context of the struggles of contemporary Christianity to be a welcoming place for the repentant and broken who seek wholeness in Christ and in His church. And like Nouwen’s work, this one leaves a lot to offer for believers in examining ourselves and the state of our own hearts towards God.
After an introduction and a quotation of the parable (and its context), the author divides the rest of this short book of less than 150 pages into seven chapters. The first chapter examines the people around Jesus and comments on the two types of people talked about in the parable and why it is that people liked Jesus but not the church (1). Keller then moves on to discuss the two lost sons and how it was that both the elder and younger brother were lost (2). He discusses the sins of both of them and the failed attempt of both to find happiness (3). He redefines lostness both as anger and pride on the one hand and slavishness and emptiness on the other (4), and points to Christ as the true elder brother who has everything of Our Father’s (5). After that the author looks at hope and what it means (6) as well as the feast of the Father (7), discussing some aspects of salvation (including its experiential, material, individual, and communal natures) while also pointing out some worthwhile insights from literature, namely the story of Babette’s feast. After this the author closes with the usual acknowledgements and notes.
The author does a good job here of bringing out some critical aspects of the Parable of the Prodigal Sons that apply in our age as well as to the original audience. The abrupt ending of the parable suggests that it was, in large part, an appeal to the elder brothers of the parable, those self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees, to drop their own pride in their own righteousness and their sense of superiority over others. We can see, for example, through the life of Paul, that it was indeed a devastating matter for someone of that proud nature to recognize his own alienation from God and how disastrously wrong he was to be zealous but not according to knowledge. Sadly, all too often the contemporary church is a haven for those who are righteous in their own eyes and pray to God that they are not like the sinners they see around them, too estranged from the compassionate heart of the Father and Jesus Christ to recognize that they too are lost and alienated and in need of repentance and restoration with God and with others. Whether or not this book helps in that restoration, it certainly ought to be a wake-up call for readers who believe that their moralistic obedience deserves salvation.
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