Sunday, January 27, 2013

Excerpt from Timothy Keller's "The Prodigal God"

I'm going to make a post now that has nothing to do with my physical training and everything to do with my spirituality.

In The Prodigal God, Tim Keller analyses and discusses the famous parable of The Prodigal Son. In movies like The Wolfman, this parable is used to condemn the father's wayward son. For most Christians, this parable is used to warm hearts as we look at the father's love and grace for his wayward son. Tim Keller points out that if we leave it at that, we're actually missing the entire second half of the story. Ironically, the second half of the story, dealing not with the wayward son come home, but with the obediant older son, appears to be the point Jesus was working towards when he told the parable, as the issues pertaining to the older son address the issues of the crowd he was confronting. Tim Keller suggests that Christians should take a bit more notice of the second half (without forgetting the first half), because we have a tendency to become just like the older brother, who is a personification of the Pharisees that Jesus was busy rebuking.

Cliff's notes of the parable of the prodigal son:

- There is a wealthy man with two sons.
- The younger son requests his share of his father's estate while the father is still living. Surprisingly the father agrees. He divides his estate and gives the younger son his portion.
- The younger son goes far away and squanders his money on reckless living (the word "prodigal" means "recklessly spendthrift"). When he runs out of money he decides to go back home and try to negotiate paying off his debt to his father.
- When the younger son approaches home, the father runs out to greet him, ignores his request to work off his debt, and gives him all-out VIP treatment. The son that was dead to him and his community is back, and he joyfully forgives all debt and hosts a party to celebrate. This is where most people get up to, ignoring the rest of the story.
- The older son refuses to join the party, which is a public protest against his father welcoming back the other son.
- Just as the father came out running to see the younger son, the father comes out to ask the older son to come into the party.
- The older son refuses to come to the party, because he's done everything the father ever asked of him and never got a party, but this other son (who he won't even acknowledge as a brother anymore) gets the finest treatment. Basically, "Boo you, this isn't fair."
- The parable ends inconclusively with the father pleading with the older son to come back.

The following excerpt really stood out to me, and it fleshes out the characteristics of both the older and younger brother.


The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity. The Pharisee's of Jesus's day believed that, while they were a people chosen by God, they could only maintain their place in his blessing and receive final salvation through strict obediance to the Bible. There are innumerable varieties of this paradigm, but they all believe in putting the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfillment. In this view, we only attain happiness and a world made right by achieving moral rectitude. We may fall at times, of course, but then we will be judged by how abject and intense our regret is. In this view, even in our failures we must always measure up.

The younger brother in the parable illustrates the way of self-discovery. In ancient patriarchal cultures some took this route, but there are far more who do so today. This paradigm holds that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention. In this view, the world would be a far better place if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and other barriers to personal freedom were weakened or removed.

These two ways of life (and their inevitable clash) are vividly depicted in the classic movie Witness. In that story, the young Amish widow Rachel falls in love with the decidely non-Amish policeman, John Book. Her father-in-law, Eli, warns her that it is forbidden to do so and the elders could have her punished. He adds that she is acting like a child. "I will be the judge of that," she retorts. "No, they will be the judge of that. And so will I . . . if you shame me," he says, fierce as a prophet. "You shame yourself," Rachel replies, shaken but proud, and turns away from him.

Here we have a precise portrayal of the two ways. The person in the way of moral conformity says: "I'm not going to do what I want, but what tradition and the community wants me to do." The person choosing the way of self-discovery says: "I'm the only one who can decide what is right or wrong for me. I'm going to live as I want to live and find my true self and happiness that way."

Our Western society is so deeply divided by the two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: "The immoral people -- the people who 'do their own thing' -- are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution." The advocates of self-discovery say: "The bigoted people -- the people who say, 'We have the Truth' -- are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution." Each side says: "Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us."

Are we to conclude that everyone falls into one or the other of these two categories? Yes and no. A great number of people have temperaments that predispose them to either a life of moral conformity or of self-discovery. Some, however, go back and forth, trying first one strategy and then the other in different seasons of their lives. Many have tried the moral conformity paradigm, found it crushed them, and in a dramatic turn moved into a life of self-discovery. Others are on the opposite trajectory.

Some people combine both approaches under the roof of the same personality. There are some traditional-looking elder brothers that, as a release valve, maintain a secret life of younger-brother behavior. Police sting operations, designed to catch Internet secual predators who seek out young teens, regularly catch highly religious people in their nets, including many clergy. Then again, there are many people, very liberated and irreligious in their views and lifestyle, who regard religious conservatives with all the self-righteousness and condescension of the worst Pharisee.

Despite these variations, these are still only two primary approaches to living. The message of Jesus's parable is that both of these approaches are wrong. His parable illustrates a radical alternative.


  1. Viewpoint from an atheist. Most paths that should be followed and these haven't changed in either reason or number of people doing it.
    Travelling taught me to help people selfishly. Not expecting anything in return, but knowing I will need help in the future. This has worked well, I have usually found help when needed.
    I was pushed out of home young and went very wild, largely at my own expense and risk. I expected none to care so didn't tell them. I didn’t apologise when finding they were distressed, that came many years later in mutual understanding. I had issues to sort and an absent moral code to build.
    Those around prompted critical self-assessments, but my sudden shift in popularity and achievments turned me into a horrendously arrogant, uncaring a hole. Helping me along the path, and off it at the same time.
    Later I met a really decent person who helped me become someone worth knowing. Still being selfish, I married her.
    There’s no one size fits all path to righteousness, decency etc. I was brought up to be one of the worst imaginable, the morals and standards could have been partly compliant with many religions, including selective Christianity, but not in a good way. Those involved were also highly hypocritical.
    We need to find our own way or want to be guided. Being forced down a path is never good and those seeking to do so are not acting in the best interests of anyone including themselves.
    Most people want to be decent at some level, even if only to be treated well themselves, but we become ready at different times and in different ways.

    I don't stand in a temple asking forgiveness, I ask those I’ve wronged and work for it when needed. I don't declare every good deed as they aren’t exceptional in my life. This is selfishly treating others as I want to be treated.
    Returning to the fold. I didn’t start in it, so had to find it first. My labours have enhanced my life, good deeds have been rewarded and punished in their way, I have learned but refuse to become too cynical. I am generally happy, but will always be a work in progress.

    When religion enhances your life and helps you become a better person, great. If used for power or control and you feel dominated or in desperate need of it, time to evaluate if it’s harming you, if not, it’s at least safe, if so, seek help. Personal opinion of course.
    I confuse staunch atheists in religious debates by arguing against them as much as with them. The classic existence of God, I believe there is none, knowing its belief not proven fact, and faith makes deities real in the minds of their followers. Seem agnostic? No, I am positive there is no God, knowing this is not proven fact doesn't make me doubt it, any more than believing in one without proof stops a follower being devout. Insisting that others accept my belief means I must accept theirs.
    My son was Christian for a time and many were surprised at my support, which included attending his church. Spirituality is a journey we should all take alone, guidance can be provided but answers must be decided. The only faith I don’t agree in is blind, as such he read and assessed bible stories on their merits, and loved it. The contradiction of standards, especially old testament was the first issue. He couldn’t accept a God solving persecution and killing of his followers by helping persecute and kill others. He saw some stories were for teaching morals, Jonah and the whale which can’t swallow anything larger than an orange, while others were accounts, but feels wrong for one is wrong for all. This started him looking for holes and even allowing for bias and people remembering different things, he felt there was too much relying on faith alone. The journey took over 2 years and was taken a far more seriously than by most adults. I was surprised by his final decision as his faith was solid for most of that time. His church group leaders thought he was great too because he asked such excellent questions and showed really good understanding of the depth not just the surface concepts.

    1. "Later I met a really decent person who helped me become someone worth knowing. Still being selfish, I married her." Well played, good sir.

      I appreciate reading both your story and your son's story. Thanks for the post, Tony.


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