Friday, September 18, 2009

The Prodigal God

Several weeks ago now, I finished the book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller. Since then my mind and heart have swam in and wrestled with the thoughts and challenges of the message of the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons”. This parable is also known as the parable of the prodigal son but, in fact, there are two lost sons. Some identify with the younger brother and others identify with the elder brother. Either way, the message is a call to return home (relationship) to the Father! The story is about “a man who had two sons”, not about either son! In fact, the Father is the only one who is truly Prodigal in this story, having extravagantly and recklessly given everything to his sons in love. I couldn’t recommend The Prodigal God any higher for the faithful, the skeptics, and even the cynics. I am thankful for this book and it’s message and how it has helped me to understand, internalize, and articulate the message of Jesus. The following are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

One of the signs that you many not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do. xi

In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well… 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. xv

To sit down and eat with someone in the Near East was a token of acceptance. “How dare Jesus reach out to sinners like that?” they were saying. “These people never come to our services! … 9

So whose side is Jesus on? In The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits ask the ancient Treebeard who side he is on, he answers: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…But there are some things, of course, who side I’m altogether not on.” Jesus’s own answer to this question, through the parable is similar. He is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition. 13

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. 16

Ordinarily when our live is rejected we get angry, retaliate, and do what we can to diminish our affection for the rejecting person, so we won’t hurt so much. But this father maintains his affection for his son and bears the agony. 20

The father is saying, “I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debt; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly groveled. You are not going to earn your way back into the family, I am going to simply take you back. I will cover your nakedness, poverty, and rages with the robes of my office and honor. 23

Jesus shows the father pouncing on his son in love not only before he has a change to clean up his life and evidence a change of heart, but even before he can recite his repentance speech. Nothing, not even abject contrition, merits the favor of God. The Father’s love and acceptance are absolutely free. 24

You can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God. 37

Here, then, is Jesus’s radical definition of what is wrong with us. 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. 43

Because the elder brother is more blind to what is going on, being an elder-brother Pharisee is a more spiritually desperate condition. 47

If a group believes God favors their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God. When you look, at the world through those lenses, it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth. As Richard Lovelace has written: People who are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure persons…Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive, assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger. 54

Another sign of those with an “elder brother” is joyless, fear-based compliance. 57

As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you. 63

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. 66

We discovered, however, that younger brothers were willing to come to our church because they saw that we made a clear distinction between the gospel and religious moralism, and that provided an opportunity in which they could explore Christianity from a new perspective. 69

…the main barrier between Pharisees and God is “not their sins, but their damnable good works.” 77

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. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must repent of…the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord. 78

We will never stop being younger brothers or older brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ. 89

Salvation is not only objective and legal but also subjective and experiential. The Bible insists on using sensory language about salvation. It calls us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, not only to agree and believe it. 107

The inevitable sign that you know you are a sinner saved by sheer, costly grace is a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deed of service to the poor. Younger brothers are too selfish and elder brothers are too self-righteous to care for the poor. 112

Religion operates on the principle of “I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.” The basic operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ—therefore I obey.” 114

Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting. 119

God’s grace is free, yes, but it is also costly, infinitely so. 122

Jesus’s great Parable…retells the story of the entire Bible and the story of the human race. Within the story, Jesus teaches that the two most common ways to live are both spiritual dead ends. He shows how the plotlines of our lives can only find a resolution, a happy ending, in him, in his person and work. 127-8