I’ve come to a conclusion: I’ll never plumb the depths of the parable Jesus told about a prodigal son. Reading through Mark McMinn’s Why Sin Matters first piqued my curiosity to take another look at the familiar parable that appears in Luke’s gospel. McMinn related how Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal haunted him, enticing him to meditate on the parable more. so last fall, I began reading Luke 15 over and over. I was hooked. I had to really understand the parable for myself. Then I read Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and marveled again, this time at the parable’s many facets highlighted by Nouwen. Last spring, I preached through the parable phrase by phrase and word by word for three months and thought I had really covered the parable. Then I read The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller and found yet greater depth to this marvelous parable.
Keller adds to our understanding of this parable in his analysis of the elder son, who represents the self-righteous Pharisees to whom Jesus told this parable. Keller exposes how the elder son desired the same thing as the younger son, his father’s possessions but not his father. Both brothers resented their father. Both were equally lost.
Keller challenges his readers to examine whether they have “an elder-brother” spirit also. Do they believe they deserve better than what God gives them? Do they possess a bitter spirit? Do they feel superior because of their good works? Do they live joyless, slavish lives of fear and uncertainty? Are their prayer lives anemic? Keller contends that the church is full of elder-brother types.
Perhaps Keller’s greatest contribution comes when he suggests that Jesus’ listeners would have been aware of a glaring omission in His parable. The cultural context (as well as the biblical context) of the story anticipates a true elder brother who would have left his father and the comforts of home to search for his lost younger brother. He would have pursued him until he found him, and then he would have brought him home to their father with much rejoicing. Keller insightfully states, “By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.” And who else could be our wonderful, true elder brother except Jesus?
If these pearls of wisdom are not sufficient to warrant picking up The Prodigal God, Keller explores the meaning of coming home and our longing for home, the very place the Prodigal yearned for after he came to his senses. If the parable of the Prodigal continues to haunt and beckon you, as it has me, then you must read Keller’s short but insight-packed book. You will come away convicted, but you will also come away understanding more about the depth of gospel love and grace. You will come away loving Jesus even more as your true elder brother who was committed to finding you and bringing you back home to the Father.