How many times have you read the Parable of the Prodigal Son ? This past week I had dinner with some new friends (Michelle and Brent) and they recommended a book that came out just last year by Tim Keller called The Prodigal God. Keller’s book takes this familiar parable and shifts the spotlight from the younger brother and instead shines it on the older brother. The result is that you won’t look at this story in the same way ever again.
Keller explains early on that Jesus uses this parable to highlight the ways most people look for “happiness” – these two main ways being “self-discovery” and “moral conformity”. Keller points out, in a way I hadn’t considered before, that the elder brother, and his way of moral conformity, is just as lost as his younger brother, who sets out on a path for self-discovery and fails. While the younger brother does in fact squander everything the father had given him, he at least came to terms with his mistakes and eventually humbled himself and set for home. The elder brother’s attitude and feelings of superiority, however, are just as dangerous a path to follow, both for him and for us. In a different way, the elder brother feels that his keeping of the law and moral conformity grant him certain rights with the father. Those of us who act in the same way towards God feel that because of our “keeping of the law” we have leverage over Him and may even feel that He now “owes” us. As Keller explains (p. 38):
“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. You are serving as your own Savior.”
Keller then wonderfully points out how the ways of both the elder and younger brother are ultimately empty paths, and how a third way instead is best: through the gospel and through Jesus alone. Says Keller (p. 132), “And to enter that way and to live a life based on his salvation will bring us finally to the ultimate party and feast at the end of history.”
Many of us have traveled the path of the younger brother or the elder brother. Regardless of the path, Keller helps to steer our thinking back on course, explains the folly of each road, and points us to the salvation and ultimate joy that is found only in Christ alone.