The Prodigal God | Notes

Posted on June 26, 2012


Timothy Keller. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Riverhead Books, 2008. (155 pages)


…one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do. (xiii)

I believe, however, that if the teaching of Jesus is likened to a lake, this famous Parable of the Prodigal Son would be one of the clearest spots where we can see all the way to the bottom.” (xv)

The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, … “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. (xvii)

St. Paul writes: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19 — American Standard Version). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book. (xvii-xviii)

The Parable

ONE The People Around Jesus: “All gathering around to hear him.”

Two Kinds of People. …there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven. (9)

Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them. (12)

Jesus’s purpose is not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories. …His story reveals the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, but it also condemns the elder brother’s moralistic life in the strongest terms. Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost, both life-paths are dead ends, and that every thought the human race has had about how to connect to God has been wrong. (13)

Why People Like Jesus but Not the Church. It is hard for us to realize this today, but when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. (16)

The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. (17)

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. 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. (18-19)

TWO The Two Lost Sons: “There was a man who had two sons.”

The Greek word translated as “property” here is the word bios, which means “life.” (22)

To lose part of your land was to lose part of yourself and a major share of your standing in the community. (23)

God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. (27)

The fattened calf is only a symbol, however, because what the father has done costs far more than the calf. By bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to one-third of their (now very diminished) family wealth. (30)

In short, Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved. (33)

THREE Redefining Sin:“All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”

Two Ways to Find Happiness. Jesus use the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. (34) [VIA: “measuring up” vs. “acting out”]

Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: “The immoral people — the people who ‘do their own thing’ — are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.” The advocates of self-discovery say: “The bigoted people — the people who say, ” ‘We have the Truth’ — are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.” Each side says: “Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.” (37)

Two Lost Sons. Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father’s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends. It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught. (40)

The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father. (41)

What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too, wanted the father’s goods rather than the father himself. (41)

Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rulesor by keeping all of them diligently.

A Deeper Understanding of Sin. Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don’t obey God to get God himself — in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him. (49)

Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life. (50)

There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good. (51)

Both Wrong; Both Loved. Jesus does not divide the world into the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.” He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. (51)

The gospel of Jesus is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism. Nor is it something halfway along a spectrum between two poles — it is something else altogether. (51) The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. (52)

FOUR Redefining Lostness: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.”

Anger and Superiority. “I would never do anything as bad as that!” he is saying in his heart. Because he does not see himself as being part of a common community of sinners, he is trapped by his own bitterness. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her. (63)

If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, “I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.” Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making. (65)

[VIA: The brother also says “slaving” for you, which is an indication that he did not see his relationship with his father as a covenant of love, but rather as a transaction.]

Elder brother obedience only leads to a slavish, begrudging compliance to the letter of the law. (68-69)

Elder brothers may do good to others, but not out of delight in the deeds themselves or for the love of people or the pleasure of God. They are not really feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, they are feeding and clothing themselves. (70)

The last sign of the elder-brother spirit is a lack of assurance of the father’s love. (71)

Who Needs to Know This? When we see the attitude of the elder brother in the story we begin to realize one of the reasons the younger brother wanted to leave in the first place. There are many people today who have abandoned any kind of religious faith because they see clearly that the major religions are simply full of elder brothers. They have come to the conclusion that religion is one of the greatest sources of misery and strife in the world. And guess what? Jesus says through this parable — they are right. (75)

Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness. (76)

FIVE The True Elder Brother: “My son, everything I have is yours.”

What We Need. We also learn from this parable that our repentance must go deeper than just regret for individual sins. (85)

As one of my teachers in seminary put it, the main barrier between Pharisees and God is “not their sins, but their damnable good works.” | 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. (87)

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. … It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical. (88)

By placing the three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: “Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?” … “You are your brother’s keeper.” (91)

The forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but is costly to you. | Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness. (93-94)

SIX Redefining Hope: “He set off for a far country.”

Our Longing for Home. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world. (101)

The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us. (109)

The Feast at the End of History. Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds out hope for ordinary human life. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. … We will come, and the father will meet us and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast. (116-117)

SEVEN The Feast of the Father: “He heard music and dancing.”

There are four ways to experience a feast that correspond to the ways our lives will be shaped by Jesus’ gospel message.

Salvation Is Experiential. Jesus came to bring festival joy. (120)

Salvation Is Material. …this material world matters. (124) Christianity…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. (127)

Salvation Is Individual. Jesus doesn’t love us because we are beautiful; we become beautiful through Jesus’s sacrificial love. … The solution to stinginess is a reorientation to the generosity of Christ in the gospel… (132) The solution to a bad marriage is a reorientation to the radical spousal love of Christ in the gospel. (133)

Salvation Is Communal. No reunion, family gathering, wedding, or other significant social event is complete without a meal. (139)

I have explained in this book why churches — and all religious institutions — are often so unpleasant. They are filled with elder brothers. Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness. (140)

Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness. (143)

Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher…called these two ways the “aesthetic” and the “ethical,”… (147)

Jesus tells us that both the sensual way of the younger brother and the ethical way of the elder brother are spiritual dead ends. He also shows us there is another way: through him. (148)

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