Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: The Prodigal God

The parable of the prodigal son is a favorite with Christians. What's not to like? A son turns from his sinful life and his father accepts him back with unconditional love. It is taught in Bible studies and preached from the pulpit. This popularity might lead you to think that almost everything that needs to be said about it has been said.

Timothy Keller would disagree. Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York City, he has been preaching/teaching this parable for a couple of decades. In 2008 he published The Prodigal God (Dutton; ISBN 978-0-525-95079-0). The basis of the title is that, while the younger son led a wastefully extravagant life, God is extravagant to the extreme in his love and outreach to mankind. "Prodigal" means recklessly extravagant, profuse in giving. We would normally attach this to the younger brother (not the giving part). Subconsciously we would apply this to God as well, but might not think of this often. Keller artfully shows this extravagance by explaining the what the father in the parable endured in his culture.
  • The affront of his younger son, demanding his inheritance. Normal practice would be to drive the young man out with sticks, but of course the father doesn't.
  • The need to sell lands, fields, herds to make the division demanded by the younger son's unreasonable request.
  • Running to welcome his son back, to have at most an extra minute with him. A dignified Middle Eastern landowner would never have tossed his dignity aside by hitching up his robe to run in public. Such is this father's love.
  • His ignoring the prior affront by unconditionally welcoming back his younger son and restoring him to the family. Such a practice would have opened him to more ridicule from his fellow tribesmen.
  • The affront of his older son refusing to come in to the celebration, and the father's going out to reason with his son.
Keller takes time to explain the younger brother/older brother dynamics, and how the older brother really has the same sin issue as his younger brother, but manifested in a different way: both want the father's things, but not the father. One chose the sin of loveless disobedience; the other loveless obedience.

This small book, just 139 easy to read, small size pages, is a good read by itself. It can also be used as a small group study. A study book is available, as is a high quality video of Keller teaching this in six sessions. If you have an opportunity, do the study with a group. If not, at least read the book. You should learn much and be encouraged in your Christian walk.

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