A Book Review: “The Prodigal God”

 

BOOK REVIEW

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, published by Dutton, 2008, 139 pages, clothbound.

 

I am not a big fan of writing a negative book review, but in this instance I am making an exception. The book Prodigal God is very popular in Calvinistic circles. And since I live in those circles I feel compelled to say a few words about the book. Tim Keller is a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in downtown New York city. He is an excellent writer who is easy to read. He is a good communicator. He understands the necessity of the new heart in the life of a real believer. But having said all this I must now share my thoughts regarding his book

 

Prodigal God is a short book about the parable of the lost son or “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. Tim Keller misses the point of the parable and spends the rest of the book addressing issues that have nothing to do with the parable. Let’s first discuss his handling of the parable. Parables are folksy stories from everyday life that all of Jesus’ hearers would understand. Every parable teaches something about the kingdom of God. In response to a question from his disciples as to why he taught in parables Jesus says that he taught in parables to hide these truths about the kingdom from the Israelites and fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10. It was God’s plan that Israel not believe (except for a remnant) and parables had a role to play in fulfilling that prophecy. Parables tell us something about the kingdom. The details of the parable are not relevant except that they do tell a story. Each parable has something to say about the kingdom. Unless Jesus interprets the details, as he does in two of the parables (sower and weeds) we cannot read into the details for we would only be guessing as what they might mean for us today. Scripture interprets itself, or to say it another way, God is his own interpreter.

 

The parable of the prodigal son is all about God rejoicing over one sinner who repents. In Luke 15 we have three parables that follow the criticism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law regarding the time Jesus spent with tax collectors and “sinners.” Jesus response is to give three parables, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Each of these parables says the same thing through three different stories. The point of the parables is that the repentance of one sinner causes all of heaven to rejoice and therefore that would explain why Jesus spent his time with those who knew that they were in great need. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law did not see their need.

 

Tim Keller seeks to show that the parable of the lost son is all about two different types of unbelievers, and he spends the bulk of this time on the “religious” unbeliever as represented by the elder brother. He then seeks to find signifcance from all of the various details of the parable. To try to get something from the details of the parable is to guess as to what the parable might be trying to say. There is no way to verify his conclusions. They are just guesses. He then goes on discuss various issues regarding the church that have no relevance to the parable of the lost son.

 

The book Prodigal God is a book that seems to be a forum for Tim Keller to share his views and is looking for a text to justify his conclusions. I cannot recommend the book. Tim Keller is a very good guy but his handling of Scripture is not very good. As I close I would encourage you to let God be his own interpreter and to resist the temptation to guess as to what a particular Scripture is saying. The parable of the lost son is a wonderful parable to remind us of that most important truth, that of entering the kingdom of God by saving faith, and this is what causes all in heaven to rejoice. That is why it says, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)

141 thoughts on “A Book Review: “The Prodigal God”

  1. Pastor Bill Slack,

    I appreciate your responses and apology. I hope nothing I’ve stated before or in the future causes offense to anyone or to our King we give honor and glory. Admittedly, I have strong views on this topic, but have read this book many times over. I understand that this is a hot topic as it involves a popular pastor and author. Like Geoff and others that have problems with this book, we don’t consider Keller a hieratic. I have much respect for him and utilize a number of his resources and books when leading groups in various ministry areas. So hopefully I come across as one that recognizes Keller as a brother in Christ and a valuable asset to the Church.

    My argument is not with the foundational message of the book in that we as Christians can fall into Pharisee-ism. All have fallen short of the glory of God and can only rely on God’s grace through Christ. There is nothing we can do to merit God’s love, whether you’re a new believer or mature one. Our good deeds (or works) are a result of our response to the gospel. We ALL agree on that. This doesn’t mean we stop sinning. We at times fall into the “Pharsaical legalist” and try or at least think we are earning God’s favor. Every Christian falls into this mode frequently, so only identifying a mature Christian to this characterization is not providing the whole narrative of the problem.

    Keller stretches the parable beyond plain reading of interpretation by stating that the elder son is lost (Page 34) “…the man of moral rectitude is still lost” so I stand on my response that Keller claims him to be unsaved. By stretching this, it allows Keller to step into the troubling statement that it is better to be the younger brother than the elder as you put it, “that “type” of sinner is in THE most dangerous place a person can be in”. Either way that you understand the state of the elder brother, it’s troubling. If he is lost “unsaved”, then of course he is in a dangerous place as he is destined for hell. If he is saved as I believe the parable portrays, “My son (elder brother), the father said, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours”. Then would it be better for the elder brother not be saved. Of course not. We want to encourage faith in Christ (only) at the earliest age possible. How would we explain the “Preservation Of The Saints” principle in light of Keller’s statement? Is it dangerous to be saved? It’s only dangerous to the unbeliever.

    Overall, I believe it is not a “precise” work by Keller where he stretches the parable into something it does not state, which is a disappointment. This is why I can recommend this book. Another example is the use of the word “reckless” in defining as an attribute or character of God. God by nature does not do anything reckless or recklessly. He has a purposeful plan for His people though Christ alone.

    Again, I hope my words here don’t convey contempt for anyone that disagrees with my assessment or convictions. Feel free to challenge my words respectfully as I learn from being challenged in my faith.

    To the Glory of God alone in Christ alone.

    Russ Denning

  2. Our whole church body is going to start the bible study of The Prodigal God next Sunday. We will do the bible study in our b.s.groups and watch the DVD’s in church.

    I was not familiar at all with Tim Keller so I googled his name as well as read some book reviews (which is how I found this blog). There are claims that he is promoting Contemplative Spirituality/Spiritual Formation which I understand to be New Age. I am trying to be a berean and not be lead astray by false teachers. What I read on the web has alarmed me with regard to Tim Keller’s associations.

    I have no where near the biblical understanding of those who have posted on this blog. So I ask the question….should I do the bible study? My 12 yr old son will also be involved as he will see it in church (the DVD’s) although I doubt he will understand much.

    Thank you for any guidance you can give. I might also add that our previous pastor left in December and a new “interim” pastor is leading us.

    Janet

  3. Janet,
    I suggest that you read very carefully. Here are a few examples, plus you will find more in all the previous postings.

    Workbook p.53 and text p. 78. “To truly become Christians (not sure what this means) we must also repent of everything we did right.” The whole idea of the parable is that grace or repentance from God (the father in the parable) is offered without merit or action of either son. We are Christians because of what Christ did and not because of what we did or will do. Further, I am not sure that there are Christians and also true Christians…one is better than the other?

    Workbook p.54, text p. 83. “Forgiveness always comes at a cost.” This seems incorrect to me unless the cost was Christ’s death. In the parable, what was the cost of getting the father’s forgiveness for the older son? He got it when the father came out to talk to him. I see no cost.

    In the text starting on p.81+, Keller is suggesting the the sin of the elder brother is that he did not go out and get his younger brother. This is not supported in the parable. It is Keller’s new form of legalism and Keller continues in the text to lay great stress on our responsibility to heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, and renew the physical world. These are all things that we must do TO WIN GOD’s ACCEPTANCE–a false idea indeed. Grace and forgiveness are free, free, free; not almost free.

    On p. 45, Keller states “…the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it.” I find this strange, as I thought God’s grace came to me and to everyone without any actions on my or their part. I seem to also recall something from Luther that said “I cannot believe on my own….” Grace is always there and it is free.

    So, when reading this text and studying it (and the DVD and discussion guide), keep asking yourself if the words of Keller are supported by the parable, or if his words are adding his interpretation and dimension to the parable. And keep suggesting to yourself (and others) that grace is totally free. (This reminds me of a statement that I heard just before the administration of communion recently where the Pastor said that to receive communion, one had to have been confirmed and also believe. I think his pastor was putting some requirements on what is required to receive the grace of God.)

    Hope this helps.

  4. Janet, you should definitely do the study and you should minimize the bulk of the critique on this post and its comments. My heart is very much like a Pharisee (like the older brother in the parable), and this book exposed it tremendously. The negative reviews here are definitely a minority and, I think, off based (as my earlier comments have shown). Keller’s not new age — he’s a conservative Presbyterian pastor committed to sound theology and the gospel.

    Read and watch with discernment, as you should with everything (including this blog and my comments).

  5. Gene,
    Thanks for your post, but I want to add that my understanding of believe is to repent of your sin and embrace Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Desire for Lordship is an indispensable part of saving faith (1 Cor 6:9-1). Tim Keller embraces the biblical gospel. Geoff

  6. Janet,
    Tim Keller is one of the good guys. We are having an in-house discussion between believers about how to handle parables. There are implications to our disagreements, but we must not forget arena of our discussion. We must be iron sharpening iron, but we must also remember who were are interacting with. Read the book and examine it in the light of Scripture.

  7. Thank you Geoff,

    I think we agree, using Eph. 2:8 and also sola gratia principle of Luther. I think we both agree that God’s grace is offered to all people at all times. But one must accept it, and we ascribe this ability to believe or have faith to the Holy Spirit and not to ourselves.

    I have the opinion that the DVD actually does a much better job of keeping this grace concept aligned with scripture.

  8. This is a nice intelectual debate, but when you get right down to it it is a bit like arguing wether God gave us the Sun for light or Heat. The scriptures say it was for light but we all know that its heat is also essential to life.
    It is possible for a human to hold two mutually opposing points of veiw at the same time, so surely we can hold the origional basic cultural meaning of something and not lose it just because we then hunt for further truths.
    Some preachers can weave a whole sermon from a simple dislocated snippet of scripture such as “He went UP”
    If scripture is living and I have reason to believe it is, then every time it is read new meaning may be found- as long as it is not inconsistant with other scripture – no harm.

  9. Sorry Colin, but I do believe that you are incorrect. My understanding is that taking Biblical passages out of context and assigning arbitrary meanings to them is a serious error in the interpretation of scripture. If you can assign any meaning you like to a verse or passage, you can make the Bible say anything you want. My understanding of my responsibility in using scripture is that I must try to determine what the author (or ultimately God) intended to say in a passage. I should not add anything outside of that intent.

  10. Bob, we all believe the Bible should be interprested from within its’ context. But not everything in the scriptures can be taken literally. Is everything in Revelations absolutely literal with no other implications other than what is explicitly said?
    What about what Jesus says? Do we always take him literally?
    John 11:11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” We know in this story Lazarus is dead, not just asleep. What when Jesus says we must be born again, is that literal? (john 3) or what about living water springing from our soul that we will never thirst again? Is that literal?
    Finally, what do you do with the disciples reinterpreting the Old Testament verse with new unintended meaning? Ex. Hebrews 1:13 reinterprets Ps 110 in radically different way than the original author.

    If the diciples could reinterpret scripture through Spirit why can’t we? Are they more than mere men empowered by God?

  11. Jay, thanks for your comments but I think that you are missing something. The authors of Scripture in the NT spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. We do not. We cannot say that portion of Scripture means something without proving what we say from Scripture in context. God must be his own interpreter. The authors of Scripture were unique when they put down their words of Scripture. Without getting into details at this time I do believe that we can say that the author of Hebrews 1:13 was giving God’s true fulfillment of Ps 110: 1.

  12. With regard to the parable, does it not help us to understand the parable if we learn from non-Biblical sources the societal meaning behind the concept of sandals, ring and robe that the younger son received? Does it help to appreciate the social stigma (negative) that occurred when the father left the feast? Is this interpretation? Similarly for many other items in the parable. At the same time, we need to be careful not to make up more details than than those that are already in the story. We cannot put smiles or frowns on faces, we cannot make someone have different characteristics than that he was “very angry.” At the same time, if we were an artist, we could certainly “fill in the blanks” when making a painting of this parable. Does this make the artist or his work wrong? Why not? Perhaps it is because the artist is not saying that his painting is an exhaustive study?

    Many churches this Sunday will use Matt 5:43 (+ and -). It says “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The first part is from Leviticus, but the second part is non-OT Biblical and is not found in non-Biblical writings of Jesus’ time. Some translations today (for example, THE NEW JERUSALEM BIBLE) say that the meaning which was lost through the various language changes and translations, and which is supported by non-Biblical writings of the law of the 1st Century, is that you “do not have to love your enemy,” rather than “hate him.” The next verse, in any case, has more meaning when we see that the word for love (your enemies) is agape, meaning a caring, concerning love. So what is the Biblical interpretation in this case? What is right or wrong? I do believe God gave his Holy spirit and our brains, and the same for those who went before, so we can use them to help us see the message.

    Regarding a recent comment here about Revelation, are we permitted to understand that the style of writing is apocalyptic and so the techniques of such writing should be used to help us interpret? Did the Biblical writers only have a choice of the color of the ink?

  13. Gene, I appreciate your comments. I would share with you two comments. I would view Matt. 5:43 as referring to what is taught in the Old Covenant era. Joshua was commanded to hate his enemies. Regarding revelation I would agree with you that you take into account all literary info and the context. The biblical writers at times simply wrote down what was told them, while others used historical investigation to come to their conclusions (Luke). Regardless of how it happened whatever ended up on the paper was exactly what the Spirit wanted to be there. So… when we see a NT author quoting a OT passage as being fulfilled in a way that strikes us as odd we must indulge in a second look to understand the connection. The one thing that we can say is that the NT author was in no way playing fast and loose with the OT passage. We do not have the authority or ability to make up new meanings that cannot be supported by other Scripture. God must interpret his own word.

  14. That’s the beauty of a parable….it is open to interpretation and it requires a deep connection to God and the presence of the holy spirit to guide your understanding. Personally, I feel convicted by Keller’s book. His central message is that the only path to heaven is through Our Lord Jesus Christ and only through his Grace and Mercy! I highly recommend this book as I watch men in my bible study read it and redirect their focus back on God.

  15. James, I am not quite sure what you mean by “open to interpretation”. It is clear to me that Jesus was communicating a very specific message when He told that parable. Also, that the Holy Spirit had a purpose in moving Luke to include the parable in his gospel. While there may be a bit of latitude in attempting to understand what Jesus was teaching with the parable, I do not see any way that it can be stretched to mean that Jesus was pointing to Himself as the only way to heaven. While I certainly agree that Jesus is the only way to heaven, I do not believe that the parable supports all of the stuff that Keller tries to load onto it. That’s probably why this discussion thread exists.

    I believe that John Calvin’s comments on this parable are far more valuable than Keller’s. Calvin thinks Jesus, for the sake of argument, grants a generous concession to the Pharisees and scribes while focusing on His point with the parable. That point, in Calvin’s view, is a call to welcome the sinners, who are repenting as they come to Christ, into the family of God. It will clearly cost the Pharisees and scribes nothing to extend a welcome. As a result, my appreciation of Jesus as the kind of person I really like and admire has substantially increased. Keller’s interpretation fell flat with me. Keller condemns the elder brother for failing to perform an additional task. A task, or work, that is not mentioned in Jesus’ telling of the parable.

  16. All scripture requires an interpretation, and when we fellowship together in God’s Word, Christ is present with us. Could Keller be wrong? Absolutely. Any of us, in our flawed humanity can be incorrect in an interpretation. And yes, only God is right in the end. The questions however, are these: “Does Keller’s interpretation of this parable, whether viewed as right or wrong, contradict any part of Scripture or the Christian faith? Was his overall message in the book consistent with the core doctrines of Christianity? Is there anything potentially dangerous to a believer’s faith in the book, or in other words, could it cause a brother to stumble?” If it does any of these things, and you can specifically point them out, then we should dismiss this book. If not, then we should let it increase our love for God and His grace, as was my experience.

  17. Workbook p.53 and text p. 78. “To truly become Christians we must also repent of everything we did right.” This is something we do in light of the free gift of God’s grace. It brings us to repentance, not just of our obvious wrongs, but also of any attempts to use doing right as a means to a manipulative an end. We must search our hearts to find the seeds of any sin, and some are hidden under the guise of “good”.

    Workbook p.54, text p. 83. “Forgiveness always comes at a cost.” In forgiveness, the father gave up ( as cost) the pride and “right” to call his son out on his actions. He simply forgives and the rest is sacrificed ( as cost). Christ’s sacrifice is the ultimate example of sacrificial cost for forgiveness.

    In the text starting on p.81+, Keller is suggesting that if the older brother would have gone after his younger brother out of love, he would have been acting as Christ acts. It is just a way of showing that the older brother had a choice, and he chose the path of anger and bitterness. Far from legalism, it is simply the truth that every day we have choices between doing our will or God’s will. Our responsibility to heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, and renew the physical world are some of these daily choices. We do not do them to win God’s acceptance. The whole book is dedicated to changing that idea from duty to pleasure; to do God’s will out of pleasure and not because we think it garnishes us more grace.

    On p. 45, Keller states “…the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it.” Don’t read more into this than is there to be read. Until someone hears the Gospel, they do not know they need God’s grace. And for those already saved, the elder-brother mentality could lead us to take God’s grace as a given. When we stumble, we can beat ourselves up, as if we forget that God’s grace is free and right there for us. We can become prideful and think we can do things on our own, even fix our stale walk with God. In this case, we have forgotten that we need God’s grace on a daily basis.

    In the end, to have the most vibrant, fulfilling, and gracious walk with God, we must daily check our hearts for both the younger brother free-will sin and the older-brother prideful sin. God’s grace is freely there for us. When we turn to him, and his grace fills us, it acts as a catalyst that brings changes in our choices, wants, and desire. We cannot think of the behaviors of the Christian walk as prerequisites for God’s grace. They are the outpouring of His grace in our lives.

  18. JP,

    Simply denying the validity of the objections is ineffective. You have not explained how your denial fits with what Jesus intended when He told the parable. Although the Bible supports most of what Keller says, all of those teachings cannot be supported within this parable. That, I think, is the heart of the objection to this book.

    Jesus clearly did not expect that the older brother should have lived up to the example set by Jesus Himself, and He certainly did not suggest that the older brother fell short because he failed to perform one task (i,e. to go out and bring his younger brother home). The idea that performing one additional task would have enabled the older brother to “pass muster” with the father is legalism.

  19. “Simply denying the validity of the objections is ineffective. You have not explained how your denial fits with what Jesus intended when He told the parable.” I’m not denying the validity of the objections. I’m offering an explanation that satisfies their questions.

    “The idea that performing one additional task would have enabled the older brother to “pass muster” with the father is legalism.” That isn’t what Keller is communicating. He is simply showing that the older-brother had another choice. Just like we have a choice every day.

    The more I read on this site, the more a common theme keeps popping up: No one else is interpreting the Scripture correctly, except for the people the authors of the blogs agree with, then they are just reading God’s interpretation.

    The truth is that all Scripture is interpreted, even by the people who think theirs is THE interpretation.

  20. I have read this scripture a few times and am in the middle of doing a bible study with it at church. I believe that the father is demonstrating acceptance. It does show jealousy on the elder brother’s part, which is a natural feeling and reaction to the situation. And the elder brother did speak up for himself, expressing his feelings and emotions to the father. The father also explained his feelings and emotions on why he was having such a lavish celebration. In this parable everybody spoke up, everyone. Both sons told their father of their emotions, and frustrations. Both brothers did the right thing in approaching their father and opening their hearts up to him with their thoughts and feelings. And the father loving both of his sons, explained himself as well. Maybe this parable is not only about forgiveness but about having open communication, listening and understanding.

  21. JP, Thanks for your comments. Your first comment did not seem to catch what I was saying. In my review of Tim’s book I acknowledged that he said some very biblical things. But, the book is about the parable of the prodigal son. As a book about that particular parable it
    does seem to miss the mark and not interpret that Scripture accurately.

    Your second comment seem also to miss my comments in the review. I gave my thoughts as to what I believe to be the more accurate interpretation of that parable. You then took me to task for stating my views in evaluating the works of others. I do believe that my views are the right ones or else I would not hold them. I believe that Tim Keller would say the same thing. That is not the issue. The issue is which views accurately reflect Scripture in context. I would venture that you JP would also say that same thing. The important truth for all of us is to be willing to have our own views challenged and be willing to change them if it is pointed out to us by others that our view is not biblical. I have changed my views on a number of issues over the bast 36 years since I graduated from seminary. I do not want to ever think that I could not be wrong. But in saying that I do say that I believe that my current views are correct.

  22. Victoria, I appreciate your comments. But I do not think that the parable was given to teach us about how we are to react to one another. It is one of three parables, which are given one after another, to teach us that God delights in one sinner who repents. That is why Jesus spent time with those who the Pharisee thought were not worth spending time with. Jesus came to seek and to save those who were lost. The Jewish leaders did not believe that they were lost.

  23. Geoff,
    Thank you for your explanation. You are right with your explanation.
    I haven’t studied the bible as extensively as some. I have read the preceding two parables. it is good to have discussions like this blog to help understand parables such as this one. The bible, can be eye opening and confusing for me at times.
    Victoria.

  24. JP, thanks for your comments. as pointed out, the comments of Keller often do not align with the parable, although they may be true based on other sources.

    Regarding grace, Keller’s book does not do a good of a job in conveying that grace is totally free as does his DVD. Nevertheless, God’s grace is there even if you do not know you need it.

    Isn’t one point of the parable as originally told that the second son thought that his obedience was sufficient to get the father’s grace? But that was false! But grace was there without obedience?

    ” to truly become Christian…”. Certainly, as a Christian, we do respond to God, but to truly become….? I think that it is false to say “truly” in this expression as there is no ranking of Christians. And again, to become a Christian, it is merely God’s grace, not our action. But does the parable address the way to truly become a true Christian?

    Thanks again for your comments…they would be a good addition to the book and/or study guide. It would be fun to have several of the people in this discussion meet and work with Tim should he revise the book…fine tuning for the most part indeed.

  25. Gene and Geoff,

    I absolutely agree that he shouldn’t have used the phrase “to truly become a Christian”. Sometimes a poor choice of words can incorrectly communicate our intentions. Maybe he should have said “to better your walk with Christ” or “to fully search your heart” as a better phrase. As to whether I would hold my own views as right and someone else’s wrong: I would only do so in relation to essential doctrines of faith such as Jesus is God, He did rise from the dead, etc. But as for what truths people can differently take out of this parable, we are all right. How is this possible? If what we take out if it is truth ( all real truth is God’s truth) then we are all separately correct, unless what we say contradicts God’s word. So Tim is right, you are right, I am right, and Victoria is right. If someone only interpreted this parable for the younger son, they would miss out on receiving even more of a higher view of God through Tim’s interpretation. This is how Jewish Rabbis held the Torah, as an “80-faceted ruby” through which many beautiful insights of truth could be seen. If a new Rabbi came along, with a true but different translation of something, two other rabbis would affirm their approval of the new Rabbi teaching by placing their hands on Him. Even if they didn’t see it that way! It is beautiful. “For where two or more are gathered in My name” right. So let us all enjoy the different insights into God’s truth, while working together to combat those who actually teach false doctrine.

  26. What I really see going on in this thread is two groups who are approaching the question from different points of view. One group is concerned with the exegetical accuracy of a text in it’s own right. This is where I stand. The other group is looking for good systematic theology. Keller’s book contains excellent systematic theology. However, that does not make it good exegesis of a text. His analysis turns the parable into an allegory. Geoff is right, it is one of three parables that illustrate a point. I would add that they do it in a spiral like way in that they progressively hone in on the point with the third driving the point home. Parables aren’t allegories, they are illustrations from common situations used to make a point.

  27. Indeed, you are correct in that Jesus came to save those that are lost and there are none so lost as those that believe their living according to the dukes and their stellar church attendance makes them righteous. Furthermore, Jesus was addressing this parable to the Pharisees.

  28. I enjoy reading this blog and all the comments, Mark (on 3/19/2011) is right that both groups are coming from two different perspectives. One group is looking at the product (“as long as it is edifying and doctrinally sound…”) and the other group is talking about the process (“how do you dig it out from this specific text”). At a glance, we can say both are valid.

    The danger is if we are concerned with only the product and not careful with our process, all we left is a system of theology (creeds etc) to check against our interpretation. With those who are not trained or well-versed in systematic theology, they may develop a habit of interpreting a text anyway they see fits. But for those who are for both process and product, they have the process to serve as another guard rail to check their interpretation. When the emphasis is more on the process, there are great freedom and discoveries.

    There is an observation from the text that may give some weight to the interpretation. In Luke 15:3, the word “parable” is singular, not plural. To that I read, Jesus was giving three stories as one parable to make his point. So we have to bundle up the “three stories” and interpret it as one parable.

  29. Mr. Lun,
    I am interested in your approach that says these are three stories but one parable. In verse 11 it says (in the NIV) that he continued. I think that the verse could mean Jesus continued preaching and not that he continued with the parable. But if you are correct, maybe we should continue into the next chapter with the next story/parable and include it as well. The chapters were not in the original, as you may know. Can you shed more light on the basis for your interpretation? Thanks

  30. Gene,

    I only bundle the three “stories” found in chapter 15 together and treat them as one parable. I do not extend the bundle into chapter 16. For it is clear that in 15:3, this parable is for the Pharisees and the Scribes. And as for the next parable in chapter 16, it is for the disciples (v16:1). Definitely different listeners, possibly even different occasions. So I won’t tie the parable in chapter 15 and chapter 16 together and treat them as one parable.

    When looking at the stories in Luke 15 as one parable, I look at the common thread among all three of them. Their common message is that when the lost is found, there is celebrative joy and this joy is shared with those (friends and neighbors, vv. 6, 9) around the “loser.” And there are also elements of illogicality and “irresponsibility” common to all three stories. Jeopardizing the safety of ninety-nine and go to find the lost one? And after finding the lost one, call his friends and neighbors together, possibly for a feast, doesn’t make sense financially. So is the second story, lost a coin in the evening (or in a dark place) and upheaving household furniture (possibly a straw mattress) while an oil lamp is lighted. That’s dangerous. The straw-made, twig-made, household furniture will catch fire easily. Why not wait till the morning? Why waste the precious oil? All these, I think, demonstrate the urgency and how much the lost matters to the “loser”. In the same vein, we can find these elements in the third story. Of course, with some twists (differences). That’s why the third story is introduced with “And he said” (v.11 NASB, ESV).

    I believe this introductory phrase is the author’s way to signify to the readers that the third story is a little different than the previous two. But that’s another issue. I do not see the “losers” in verse 4 and 8 are alluding to God in their respective story. Jesus is clearly speaking to the Pharisees and the Scribes, and he starts off in verse 4 with “What man among you” (NASB). The “you” here is referring to one of the Pharisees and Scribes, not a shepherd. So Jesus is saying, “even you, the Pharisees and Scribes, will act joyously when ….” Jesus is comparing the celebrative joy when the lost is found. As for the second story, I do not recall the Bible ever use a female to allude to God. So I am not taking the first two “losers” as images of God. Again, the comparison is about celebrative joy.

    Following this line of thought, we can draw more similarities and contrast between the first/second story and the third story. We can also find the “loser”, in this case the father, acts illogically and “irresponsibly.”

  31. Mark,
    The problem with both views you expressed is that they rely on human wisdom and reasoning and not on the Holy Spirit. Sure, both should be used but clearly the Holy Spirit is the security and not logical methods of any kind. As Geoff has said, “God must interpret His own word” and the Spirit leads us into all truth. This view scares many who do not put their trust in the holy Spirit and therefore put their hope of interpretation in methods and theology alone. Instead let it be the leading of the Holy Spirit as confirmed in the scriptures and not our understanding of scripture that confirms God. Theology is the tool of interpretation, interpretation the tool of the Holy Spirit.

  32. Jay,
    Thanks for your comments but I do have a concern about them. Your use of the concept “leading of the Spirit” does not seem to be biblical. The concept is only used twice in the teaching passages. The key passage is Romans 8:14 where Paul is saying that believers will grow because they are being led by the Spirit into a changed life. We are not called to rely on the Spirit but to use our minds and to acknowledge that it is the Spirit who is changing our life and producing fruit. In interpreting Scripture the believer is to use his mind in understanding how God interprets his own word. The believer uses his mind while understanding that it is the Spirit who enables us to grow and understand. Therefore, the Spirit always gets the credit while we put forth the intellectual effort.

  33. Geoff, I agree we must use our minds as well as our heart soul mind and strength. The issue is not which one to use but what is the core principle. Galatians says we are not only led by the spirit but that we live in it as opposed to the flesh. The mind can either be focused on the spirit or the flesh. Paul sometimes says he is using human arguments which are clearly inferior to Godly ones. Why are they inferior arguments? Because God’s arguments are based in truth from a heavenly perspective, where as ours can be out of foolish earthly wisdom – though equally logical it starts with false premises and understanding. The Spirit is God in us to lead us into all truth, in the way we should go, a counselor, a guide, Jesus spirit that will teach us to be more like Him, to have the mind of Christ, and not the wisdom of human foolishness or worldly thinking. So if the Spirit is not the determinat then we must rely on our own minds and Earthly interpretations of scriptures, which didn’t work too for the Hebrews in understanding the Messiah from scriptures. Did Phillip just think his way to the Eunich?

  34. Jay,
    Galatians 5:18 seems to say the same thing as Romans 8:14. Believers are going to change and bear fruit because the work of the Spirit will cause that. They are not like unbelievers (those who are under law) who are a slave to sin. The Spirit does indeed work in our lives in a most intimate way but we are not told to follow the Spirit or to invoke the power of the Spirit. We are told to follow Scripture and give God the credit and acknowledge that the Spirit is the person who is causing us to live for Jesus. Just some thoughts to consider.

  35. Hi, I just recently read this book and it was the fastest I have ever read a book. Mainly because I couldn’t believe someone would distort the message so much. I have sections crossed out and sections highlighted that are not true. These are Jesus’ words and we can’t change them and think it’s ok. First of all Jesus says there is only one son that was lost., Keller keeps saying it should be called “The Two Lost Sons”. How do you say this when out of God’s mouth He says to the older son, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” He’s not lost. This parable is about rejoicing when the “Lost” is “Found”. If a mass murderer repents at the hour of his death, are we supposed to rejoice? Yes Why? Because this is what Jesus is teaching me through this parable. Granted I’m totally going to an extreme case to make a point. Jesus is our great teacher, lets sit down at His feet and learn from Him.

  36. This book was brought to my attention by a pastor considering it for a book study.

    I’m stuck on the title: “Prodigal God”

    Keller’s reasoning is that God is the one that is “wasteful and reckless in extravagance,” referring in short, to God’s out pouring of grace toward the lost.

    If I follow that line of reasoning, doesn’t that describe the gift of the Father, the grace through faith in the Son, as wasteful and reckless?

  37. Jay, I do not think that the Spirit communicates with us in a manner that let’s us be certain that it is the Spirit without using Scripture.

  38. Thomas, in all fairness to Tim Keller I think that he meant that our God is full of compassion and delights to save. We may quibble with the choice of words but his intent seems to be quite biblical. Geoff

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