The Prodigal God

The title of the book was intriguing enough. I’ve always thought that the word prodigal meant wayward. But as the author Timothy Keller corrected me, prodigal meant ‘recklessly extravagant; having spent everything’. So it was certainly not about a wayward god (blasphemy!), but a God who is wastefully extravagant. Keller only got to explaining how God was prodigal near the end of the book, but I was not at all disappointed with what preceded that chapter.

Anyway, picking up this book almost seemed like a natural, involuntary act. First of all, it’s an exposition on my favourite Parable of the lost son in Luke 15 (or rather, as Keller puts it, two lost sons), which God had intimately used to address the condition of my heart a couple of times previously; second, it was written by Timothy Keller, the pastor who authored Counterfeit gods, another book that stripped away the defences of my heart and painfully laid bare my idols. And I don’t regret this book choice; within just two days I practically devoured the 130 pages that illuminated Jesus’ parable on costly grace. Keller poignantly points out that both sons in the Luke 15 narrative were lost – lost in their desire to control their own lives and break free from their father’s authority, which they disdained. As much as there were plenty to learn from the character of the free-spirited, rebellious younger son, the real protagonist was the self-righteous, judgemental elder son, who alluded to Jesus’ live audience, the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

Somehow, I’ve always felt that I could go the way of the Pharisees. Perhaps it’s just my personality make-up, that I’ve always tried to be responsible and dutiful in my undertakings. That, of course, is good when work gets done. However, when responsibility and duty insidiously breed a pride and self-righteousness that wants no help or salvation, that’s when you discover that you are trying to manipulate God through your performance. Here’s a profound paragraph from the chapter on Redefining Sin elucidating the point:

… [T]he way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin… You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Saviour who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own saviour.

Both sons in the parable did not display the right, loving relationship with the father, but there was one other ‘Son’ who did. I remember reading something from another book/blog that while the nation of Israel failed as the archetype of the son to God the Father, Jesus symbolised the true Israel, the true Son who showed perfect submission to the Father’s will and love God with His all. And He is the prodigal God who expended all of Himself on the Cross to pay the penalty of our sins.

The audience of the parable never got to hear the response of the elder son after his father pleaded with him to join the feast. Jesus left the ending to the Pharisees to decide because this was their story. And each of us has to decide if we would be reconciled to the Father and join this feast that awaits us after Jesus’ return and judgement.

This book is so insightful and provoking, I’m compelled to buy multiple copies and give them away, but because I’m the pragmatic kind who buy books I don’t have for others so that I can borrow from them later, I think I will just lend out mine instead. And I feel the impulse to run to a Christian bookstore and buy Keller’s the Reason for God and King’s Cross (sold out at SKS when I visited last Saturday). More than 100 books fill up my bookshelves but I think there’s room for a couple more.

Will share more regarding the elder brother’s attitudes from the book and my reflections in the next post.

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