The Prodigal God

June 21, 2012

If you are saved not by works but by grace, then you shouldn't fault others for not living up to your works.

Contemporary Christianity has an image problem. Research in another book I’m reading, UnChristian, confirms what I see among my own generation: that Christianity is viewed especially by the young as being out-of-touch with the message of Jesus. Among people aged 16-29, 85% of non-churchgoers and 47% of churchgoers attached the label “hypocritical” to Christianity today–and each successive generation sees these figures rise. Why should this be? Especially considering that one of Jesus’s favorite pastimes in the Bible is railing against hypocrisy, and he makes is pretty clear that no mortal is in any position to judge another (“let he who is blameless cast the first stone”). Surely, some of Christians’ reputation for hypocrisy is based on a misunderstanding: people think being a Christian is about being perfect all the time and judging those who fall short, when in fact it’s about recognizing one’s own imperfections, being grateful for God’s love regardless of them, and extending that love to all mankind. While this misunderstanding is unfortunate, it has to come from somewhere, and Prodigal God is written from the assumption that Christians need to take responsibility for how they’re perceived or else face increasing hostility and ultimately irrelevance.

In this book, Timothy Keller argues that one of Jesus’ best-known stories, the “Prodigal Son” parable, while ostensibly about forgiveness, is even more about how easy it is for the righteous to play into accusations of hypocrisy. It’s important to know what prompted the story. According to Matthew, Jesus was hanging out with some tax collectors, prostitutes, and other folks of low repute when a group of Pharisees came along. (The Pharisees were a diverse cultural group but tend to get caricatured in the Bible as a bunch of assholes who think they’re better than everyone else because they follow a lot of laws.) “Psh, look at Jesus,” they sneer, “Giving sinners the time of day…what a joke!” So Jesus tells them a story.

The Parable

He tells of a father who had two sons. One day, the younger son, eager to set out on his own, goes to the father to demand his inheritance early, which the son promptly takes to the city to waste on booze and hookers. Once broke, he ends up having to get a job as a farmhand–feeding the pigs better food than he himself can afford. So he decides that he’ll go back to his father, apologize, and ask not even to be taken back, but just for a decent job.

So he journeys home and as he’s walking up the road to the family estate, his father sees him off in the distance and runs out to greet him, throwing his arms around this wayward child. The son apologizes deeply, but the father won’t hear any of it. He tells the family servants to bring his best robe for the son and to slaughter the fattest calf in preparation for a feast. “My son was lost, but now is found!” he exclaims.

Now when the elder son who stayed at home working all this time hears of the feast, he refuses to take part. His father pleads with him to join the celebration. “But dad,” he protests, “I work my butt off for you every day and you’ve never thrown a feast for my friends. But when my brother, who has squandered your wealth returns home penniless, you slaughter the fattest calf? WTF?” The father replies, “Son, everything I have is yours, but we should celebrate because your younger brother was lost, and now he’s found.”

The Point

To understand this, let’s work backwards. The father says “Everything I have is yours,” and we should remember that the elder brother still has his inheritance. His life is in no way diminished by the return of his brother. (Except relatively. Human psychology is like this. A Harvard study shows that people would rather have $1000 when everyone else has $1000 than have $1500 when everyone else has $3000.)

Most readings of this story focus on the younger brother, and thus see the message as “Isn’t the father (symbolizing God) a nice guy? He’s so forgiving.” But if that’s all, then the older brother might just as well be left out of the story. The older brother’s inclusion becomes important when we remember the context: Jesus tells this story in response to the Pharisees faulting him for spending time with sinners. Like the Pharisees, the older brother wants not only to enjoy the rewards of being dutiful, but to deny those rewards to anyone else. On Keller’s reading, the older brother is just as blameworthy as the younger brother, perhaps even more so, because while both brothers prove ungrateful to their father for what they’ve been given, at least the younger brother acknowledges it.

As any Christian knows, heaven isn’t something you earn. It’s something you couldn’t possibly earn that God lets you have anyway, just by believing he will. “Prodigal” means “recklessly extravagant,” and the point of Keller’s title, “Prodigal God,” is that God is being reckless in just giving away love and eternal life for free, and isn’t that great news for us. This is, I think, the crux of how Christianity works. People have this tendency to be petty jerks, so Christianity creates this notion that everyone has been given the greatest thing ever, free of charge, so isn’t it ridiculous to focus on trivial differences and can’t we just be decent each other?

This is what the elder brother doesn’t get. He’s set to inherit his father’s whole estate–it’s practically his already–and he’s up in arms about someone else, someone less deserving, getting a little something nice too. It’s just like the Pharisees snubbing Jesus for giving his attention to sinners. If you truly believe God has given you everything, even though you don’t deserve it, what business is it yours who else gets such a gift?

Of course, nearly every Christian I know understands this. The biggest problem for Christianity’s public image are those in the spotlight who claim to speak for Jesus while espousing intolerance and fear. They are more like the Pharisees howling in judgment than like Jesus ministering to the disreputable. These folks, while vocal, are only a small minority. Still, everyday Christians must take responsibility for them: speak out publicly against their misrepresentations, and be out in the world showing the alternative, true face of the religion.