Which Prodigal Are We?

Which brother are we?  The younger or the older; the “aesthetic” or the “ethical”?

Or are we the father?

These are the intriguing questions Tim Keller asks us in The Prodigal God.

First, What Does “Prodigal” Mean?

Prodigal has two meanings: “wayward” and “recklessly spendthrift,” meaning to spend all one has.

Second, Who Is Prodigal?

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), we generally think of the younger brother as the prodigal son; therefore, we think of prodigals as those wayward souls who live what Kierkegaard terms the aesthetic lifestyle — the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the hedonists.

But Tim Keller wants to see that the elder son is also a prodigal son.  He is wayward for living a life of ethical strictness.  Like his younger sibling he is wayward because “he resented his father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it” (p.42).

In other words, both the younger and older brothers were prodigal sons.  “They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do” (p. 42).  The tragedy was that each loved not their own father but their father’s wealth.  Why?  They believed obtaining their father’s wealth was the secret to their own happiness.  The elder son tried to earn it by playing according to the rules and then trying to keep the upper hand over his father and brother by manipulating justice in his favor (i.e., gaming the rules); the younger son tried to test the limits of his father’s love by doing the opposite.  Like Adam and Eve, they each tried to displace the authority of the father.  “Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge” (p. 50).

The Prodigal God

Finally, Tim Keller wishes us to see that the father was prodigal — a wayward, recklessly spendthrift Savior, Lord, and Judge who sought to deeply change hearts.

  • Regarding the rebellion of his younger son, the father “maintains his affection…and bears the agony when the son asks for his father’s things, the son’s inheritance, so he can leave.  In effect, according to the culture of the time, he wishes his father were dead.  Yet when his son returns, the father immediately restores his standing in the family (symbolized by offering his son the best robe in the house) and throws an 0ver-the-top feast to which the whole town is invited.
  • Regarding the rebellion of his elder son, the father “responds again with amazing tenderness when the son refuses to join the feast and confronts his father in a disrespectful manner, ‘My son,’ he begins, ‘despite how you’ve insulted me publicly, I still want you in the feast.  I am not going to disown your brother, but I don’t want to disown you, either.  I challenge you to swallow your pride and come into the feast.  The choice is yours.  Will you or will you not?’  It is an unexpectedly gracious, dramatic appeal” (p. 33).

So Which Prodigal Are We?

  • Negative: Do we seek power for ourselves by breaking the rules?
  • Negative: Do we seek power for ourselves by playing by, even gaming, the rules?
  • Positive: Do we seek to be radically dependent on God and accepting and lavishing grace?

To be honest, I identify more with the sons than the father, especially the elder son.  And I see reflections of the two sons in my own life and industries.  In both there is a constant tension between the innovators/entrepreneurs and bureaucrats, each competing to capture an organization’s wealth.  I am the same way.

Having read Keller’s book I also better understand what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:15).   In this story the last was the younger brother and the first was the older brother.  The story ends with a party for the younger brother to which the older brother is invited but hesitates to attend.  The older brother was not grace-full while the younger brother was grace-empty.  But the younger brother knew it.  He came back home seeking to be forgiven and reconciled.

How Does The Story End?

We don’t know how the story ends, but my guess is that the younger son lavishes grace on someone else, maybe his older brother, and his older brother eventually does the same.

This book can be read in a day.   The challenge is not to displace God’s authority in my own life and industries.