In this book Tim Keller offers his expanded interpretation of the parable most often referred to as the Prodigal Son. He says that the two sons represent two types of people into which all of humanity divides. Each of us falls into one of two categories. The first is represented by the younger brother who pursues self-actualization by following his internal desires. Those of us who are like him highly prioritize being true to our inner selves. We passionately go after our dreams. In these pursuits, we believe we are reaching personal fulfillment by breaking with tradition. We throw off the bondage of expectation. We ignore the “ought to’s” and do what we want to. The second brother, the elder, is the opposite. He does what he is supposed to do. Those of us who resonate with this character can be categorized as rule followers. We measure up and always try to meet expectations. We value tradition. We believe that if we do what we’re supposed to do, we will get a reward. We also believe that pursuing one’s dreams when it means the rejection of what we ought to do is foolishness and in the end won’t pay off.
In the parable, it’s clear to see how the younger son offends the Father. He rudely insults him when he demands his share of the inheritance in advance, which is the equivalent of saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He then makes matters worse by completely rejecting everything that makes him Jewish, epitomized in the closing lines of his rebellion story where he is feeding pigs. This younger son returns to the Father with great awareness as to how he has wronged the Father. It’s obvious that he used him to get what he wanted. But Keller, argues that the younger son is not the focus of the parable — the elder is. And, he argues the point of the parable is that the older son is just as distant from the Father as the younger. Just as the younger used the Father for what he could get out of him when he demanded his inheritance in advance, so also the elder is using the Father for what he can gain. He doesn’t actually enjoy being with the Father, he is just behaving and following tradition so that once his Father dies he can get the inheritance. Both the younger and elder brothers are using their relationships with the Father for what they can get out of it.
Keller writes well, and the book is a very quick read. He adds some more insights to the parable throughout, but the real richness of this book is its devotional character. There isn’t a lot of new or profound insights in it, just good application that challenges the reader to love God for who he is not what he does for us.