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Book Summary: The Prodigal God – Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

The Prodigal God (2008) is a new interpretation of the classic parable of the prodigal son. Rather than focussing on the reckless rebellion of the younger son in the story, it focuses on the dutiful older brother who sins through obeying the rules for the wrong reasons. It shows us that we all have these problematic tendencies to be righteous and superior, but that’s not what the Christian faith is really about.

Introduction: Get a fresh perspective on what it means to embody the Christian faith.

Jesus Christ didn’t belong to any institutions. He never cultivated powerful networks or joined advisory boards to decree how anyone should practice their religion. Instead, he roamed the earth, connecting to the most marginalized in society: the poor, refugees, and sex workers.

When it first emerged as a religion, Christianity was emphatically un-institutional. There were no priests, sacrifices, or hoops to go through to become a Christian. That’s all changed. Today, the religion is dominated by people who decree themselves to be morally righteous, and therefore equipped to tell others how to practice their faith. Religious communities are rife with gossip and judgment. People have mistaken regular church attendance with a real relationship with God.

These summaries show us how to uncouple the Christian gospel from institutional gate-keepers, and create our own joyous relationship with God.

Book Summary: The Prodigal God - Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why moral righteousness is so dangerous;
  • how hitting rock bottom allowed the younger son in the parable to repent; and
  • why feasts and parties are so important in the Bible.

The parable of the prodigal son is an ancient tale of familial estrangement.

Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that Jesus didn’t discriminate. He broke bread with everyone: kings and Pharisees, sinners, refugees, sex workers, and the desperately poor. That stance garnered a lot of criticism at the time: How could sinners be treated the same as those who observed God’s laws to the letter?

In response, Jesus faced the critical religious leaders, and told them a story. This powerful parable, found in Luke: 15, is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son.

The key message here is: The parable of the prodigal son is an ancient tale of familial estrangement.

The parable tells the story of a wealthy father who has two sons. One day, he’s confronted by his youngest son who wants his share of his inheritance, and now! This was, for the time, a very unusual and disrespectful request to make of a powerful Middle Eastern patriarch. Essentially, the son was saying he wanted to be rid of his father and have the freedom to spend his wealth immediately, instead of waiting for him to die. A typical father might have violently kicked him out of the house with nothing but the clothes on his back. But this father concedes and sells enough of his estate to give the younger son his share.

The son takes the money and goes on a wild spending spree, frequenting brothels and partying until there’s nothing left. He’s left so broke he can’t even afford to eat. He ends up working in a pigsty, so hungry that he envies the pigs for their feed. Thinking about what he’s done, he repents for his earlier actions and decides he’ll go to his father to try to make amends.

As soon as he sees him, his father throws his arms around the younger son. He covers him with hugs and kisses and tells his servants to dress him in the finest robes they can find. Then he orders them to prepare a feast to celebrate the son’s return, slaughtering the fattest calf for everyone to feast on.

When the older son hears about all of this, he’s furious. “I’ve been here for you all these years, obeying your every rule”, he says. “And you didn’t even slaughter a scrawny goat for me. Now my younger brother comes back after years of living in sin, and he’s treated like an honored guest?” He refuses to join the party, even after his father begs him to.

There’s more than one way to sin.

Have you ever tried bargaining with God, promising him that you’ll pray every day, or give up an affair or otherwise please him if he just fulfills your deep desire to become rich, or get a new job, or save your sick child?

If so, your relationship with God is transactional. You give me something, and I’ll give something to you. And that’s exactly how the older brother in Jesus’s parable approached his father.

We’ve all been trained to see the younger son who ran off and squandered his inheritance as being the immoral one. Surely, the dutiful elder son can’t be at fault? After all, he’s been at his father’s side, serving him for years. What could he possibly be doing wrong?

The key message here is: There’s more than one way to sin.

Yes, the older son’s actions are beyond reproach. That is, until he flies into a rage and shuns his father for accepting his younger brother back into the fold.

The older son’s anger tells us something: he, too, wanted power over his father. He didn’t brazenly demand his inheritance, as his younger brother had. Instead, he went through all the actions of being a dutiful son, knowing that the reward would be immense wealth and all the power of stepping into his father’s shoes one day. So, he didn’t serve his father just for the love of it. He did it because he wanted something in return. When he didn’t get what he wanted, all pretense of filial loyalty disappeared.

In the parable, the father is a symbol for God. In telling it, Jesus is pointing to the fact that all of us are immoral, all of us behave improperly in our relationship with God. The younger sons of this world who put personal freedom over duty, and live according to their own rules, are the obvious sinners. But the older brothers amongst us – the regular churchgoers who consider themselves moral authorities – are sinners too. They start to see themselves as being superior to others, and they expect God to reward them for their good conduct. They have ulterior motives that prevent them from just being with God, and doing his work for the love of it. They try to seize power through their good deeds, a power that doesn’t belong to them.

So, we are all sinners. Some of us sin by breaking the rules, and others by upholding them – for the wrong reasons.

The older brother in the parable is in worse spiritual shape than the younger brother.

Imagine two patients. One knows she’s sick. She’s able to go to a doctor and get the help she needs to cure her condition. The other patient is asymptomatic. He has no idea that there’s anything wrong with him until it’s too late, and he dies.

Obviously, the second patient is worse off in this story. He has no insight into what’s going on with him, so he’s also unable to change it.

The older brother is like this second patient. He thinks that he’s doing everything right and doesn’t need to change. So he’s unable to find the humility to forgive his younger brother, or realize how badly he’s treating his father.

The younger brother, on the other hand, has hit rock bottom. He knows he’s behaved badly and is able to see his own actions clearly and seek forgiveness. From the outside, his life looks like a big mess. But actually, he’s spiritually in a better place than the older brother.

The key message here is: The older brother in the parable is in worse spiritual shape than the younger brother.

Righteousness and moral superiority are dangerous. Believing yourself to be superior robs you of humility and the ability to connect with other people. On a personal level, that can look like a refusal to forgive someone who doesn’t measure up to your high moral standards, and an inability to be able to put yourself in their shoes.

On a broader, societal level, self-righteousness and moral superiority are the drivers of racism and classicism, fuelling violence and discrimination. When whole groups of people believe themselves to be uniquely blessed by God because of how they practice their faith, or for their inherent superiority, that’s a recipe for big trouble.

The older brother in the parable is religious, but his faith is motivated by fear. Fear can motivate us for a while, but it doesn’t set a strong foundation for a life of devotion. And it also robs us of joy. When you’re worshipping God for the love of it with no strings attached, you’ll experience the beautiful intimacy of that connection. You’ll be thoroughly fulfilled because you’re being true to yourself and your faith, no matter what’s going on in your life.

There are many ways of losing that connection with God. But you can always find your way back, if you’re only able to admit that something’s wrong.

Jesus died on the cross so that we can find our way home to God.

Do you ever feel homesick? Or like you don’t really fit anywhere? Like you’re missing something – or someone?

The theme of losing your home – of exile – is central to the stories in the Bible. It starts in Genesis when Adam and Eve were expelled from their original home in God’s garden. And with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, we learn again and again about people being displaced, and longing for home.

The key message here is: Jesus died on the cross so that we can find our way home to God.

The parable of the prodigal son, too, is about two brothers who lost their way. One, who left home to explore his own destiny and ended up mired in debt with no community around him. The other, who stayed home but ended up rejecting his closest family.

But the parable also reveals something very important: that there’s always a way back. When the younger son comes home, his father – symbolizing God – runs to meet him and welcome him back. When the older son has a temper tantrum, his father comes outside to reason with him lovingly. God’s love is infinite and unconditional. He doesn’t make either brother grovel, or beg for forgiveness. He gives His love freely.

The older brother was so angry because his younger brother’s re-entry into his life would end up costing him dearly in material terms. He’d have to share his inheritance with him, even though his brother had already spent his share. The older brother in the story cared more about his wealth than he did about his brother. And many of us think in similarly materialistic terms.

If we want to learn how to be generous, how to model ourselves in the image of God, we only need to look at our ultimate big brother, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was immensely powerful. But instead of profiting from that power he gave it all up, for us. He allowed himself to be stripped bare and ridiculed. He died on the cross for us.

Essentially, Jesus gave up his life so that we can come home, home to the God who’s always there to welcome us back into the fold.

The feasts in the Bible symbolize the sensual, material world that God cares about so much.

One of the very first miracles that Jesus performed was turning water into wine. He was at a wedding, and all the alcohol had run out. So he used his powers to create more and keep the party going.

That may seem like a superficial purpose for a miracle. Why was his first act not curing someone with a terminal illness, or something similarly weighty?

The truth is that the Bible doesn’t take partying lightly. There are countless descriptions of “party-feasts” – sumptuous banquets featuring laden tables and “aged wine.” And it’s no coincidence that the parable of the prodigal son ends with such a feast, starring the delectable fattened calf. That dinner was the ultimate symbol of God’s forgiveness and generosity.

The key message here is: The feasts in the Bible symbolize the sensual, material world that God cares about so much.

There’s a mistaken belief that God wants us to sacrifice all sensual delights. But if that were the case, why did he make this world so dazzlingly beautiful, full of sights and smells and tastes that bring us so much joy? No, God wants us to experience all of that. And, in doing so, experience his love and generosity.

He doesn’t want our religious beliefs to be abstract and theoretical. He wants us to be able to sense him, feel him, and experience the sweetness of our faith. Instead of building our belief on a foundation of fear and anxiety, we can build it on that embodied joy.

But just feeling our faith isn’t enough. We need to live our spiritual values. Take a look at how you’re spending your money, and treating your loved ones, and at the work you’re doing in the world. Are your beliefs aligned with your actions?

We also need to share our faith. Only in community with other Christians can our beliefs really flourish. The writer C.S. Lewis once commented that we can only know one facet of another person. To know the whole person, we need a community to draw out all the different sides. The same goes for God. By worshipping him in community we come to know him, and Jesus Christ, most fully.

You’ve been invited to join the feast. Will you come inside and take your place at the table?


The key message in these summaries is that:

The well-known parable of the prodigal son has been misunderstood. It’s not about how sinners like the younger brother can be forgiven. Rather, it’s trying to teach the “older brothers” among us that to live devoutly can be sinful too. Following the rules because you want to earn God’s love leads to spiritual deadness. It’s based on fear rather than love. By accepting that we are all sinners and learning from Jesus’s ultimate generosity, we can build a faith based on love instead of fear.

About the author

Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. His first pastorate was in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has nearly six thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start more than three hundred new churches around the world. He is the author of The Songs of Jesus, Prayer, Encounters with Jesus, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Every Good Endeavor, and The Meaning of Marriage, among others, including the perennial bestsellers The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.


Religion, Spirituality, Christian, Theology, Christianity, Faith, Christian Living, Inspirational, Bible Study and Reference, Jesus, the Gospels and Acts, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Christian Spiritual Growth

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