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Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I recently completed Tim Keller’s latest book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.  If you’re like me, you raise a suspicious eyebrow every time book claims to “recover” or “rediscover” anything about Christianity, let alone its heart.  It is a bold claim, and worthy of scrutiny.  Thankfully, Pastor Keller lives up to the hype, and then some.

As the title implies, the book focuses on one of Jesus’ best known parables: The parable of “The Prodigal Son.”  You know the story:  A man has two sons, the younger demands his inheritance, runs off and squanders everything on wild living, only to find himself destitute.  Repentant, he returns home to his father, who welcomes him with opens arms, and throws him a feast.  The other, ever-obedient brother, is indignant.  The parable closes with the father explaining his actions to the elder brother: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours…was lost and now is found” (Lk. 15:32).  The sermon practically writes itself, and you’ve probably heard it before.  Here is a perfect picture of God’s love for us:  Though we sin, if we return to God, he welcomes us, and longs to restore us as His children.

True enough, says Keller, but focussing on the younger brother’s story, “misses the real message of the story…because 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” (p.7).  So begins Keller’s careful analysis of the text, and his focus on the oft-neglected story of the elder brother.

Keller’s text is such a pleasure to read that I am wont to summarize it all here.  Suffice it to say that his primary focus is on the elder brother, while drawing parallels to the ‘elder brothers’ who haunt our churches today.  Keller’s description of the elder brother’s attitude towards his father (i.e., God) was most striking to me.  The elder brother is indignant because his moral record has not won him his own feasts and rewards.  Keller makes the point that the elder brother’s attitude evidences that his service is not motivated by love for the father, but rather by a desire for control; a spiritual quid pro quo.  “If I do this, then he owes me that.”  His actions spring from self-righteousness with manipulative undercurrents.  These lead to entitlement, disappointment, bitterness, and ultimately alienation from God.  Although the parable begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Lk. 15:11), at the end, only one is reconciled to God.

In the last two chapters, Keller pulls back from the parable and takes a broader view of its place in the Bible as a whole.  This leads to a simple but effective presentation of the gospel which looks forward to our own homecoming, and feast with our Heavenly Father among redeemed creation.

The book is all of 133 well-spaced pages, so it will take even slow readers (myself among them) very little time to finish.  The text itself is immensely readable, and suitable for any audience, Christian or not.  Don’t let the approachability and readability fool you, however.  This is not a quick “feel good” devotional read for a short flight or long weekend.  Taken seriously, The Prodigal God packs a punch that is equal parts conviction and hope.

This is the first time I’ve read Keller, who is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is also the author of the best-selling The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  It’s already on my Christmas list.

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