A few of our small groups are now well into a new study based on Timothy Keller’s little book The Prodigal God. The response I’ve been hearing has been overwhelmingly positive: people are fascinated to be looking in such depth at a small passage of Scripture and finding so much to reflect on.
As I participate in our group it’s very clear that Keller, who is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is a wise and patient reader of the Bible. He comes across as a concerned pastor sharing with his listeners and readers what he has heard God saying through the text. He brings out the background of the story of the two lost sons in such a way that the whole story opens up as most of us wouldn’t have imagined possible.
Again and again I’ve heard people say, “I never heard this before!” or “this isn’t what we have always heard in this parable!” In every case, there’s a sense of wonder at how we’ve missed it for so long. But what I keep reminding people who say this is that Keller’s interpretation doesn’t mean what we’ve got out of the story before has been wrong. In fact, he makes the same points most of us have noticed before. But then he says, “and there’s more.” This is one of the most exciting things about reading Scripture. We’re never done with it. Or, better, it’s never done with us. The Bible is one of those bottomless books, but it stands apart even from the greatest literature because God himself speaks to us through the Bible.
For those who aren’t reading the book, here’s a bit of a summary: Keller’s basic point as he unfolds the story is that this is a story about two vastly different but equally wrong ways of approaching God. We traditionally think of this passage as the story of “the prodigal son,” focusing on the wild living of the young son and the correspondingly generous forgiveness of the father. What Keller does is to point out that Jesus introduces his parable as a story of “a man who had two sons.” Two sons. We can’t focus only on the one. We have to look at the other as well. So Keller carefully shows us the problem the older son has: his own sense of his goodness and entitlement actually comes between him and the father as much as (or more than) the badness of the younger son. Keller refers to these two ways of living as the way of discovery (younger son) and the way of moral conformity (older son). Most of us can probably spot ourselves in one or the other.
If you’re not reading The Prodigal God with a group right now, go ahead and watch the main teaching video on RightNow Media. It’s 38 minutes of solid Bible teaching that will challenge and encourage you and perhaps give you a taste for Bible study that you may not have known before.