A couple weeks ago I read Tim Keller's new book, The Prodigal God, a short – only 140 reduced-size pages – study on Jesus' familiar story in Luke 15. Often called "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," the parable, says Keller, is misnamed, as both sons are "prodigal" (or lost). Keller, however, goes on to argue that "prodigal" is misapplied even as an adjective in this sense, as it more accurately describes the "reckless extravagance-having-spent-everything" love of the father rather than the lostness of the sons.
In typical Keller fashion, he identifies the parable's message and meaning as coming down to a choice among three options: the irreligious way (as seen in the younger son's unmitigated pursuit of self-discovery); the religious way (as seen in the older son's legalistic pursuit of moral conformity); and the gospel way (as seen in the initiating love of the father toward both).
Most helpful for me were Keller's thoughts about the older son's sense of superiority and pride at his younger brother's return from a life of hedonism. He writes:
"At the end of the story, the elder brother has an opportunity to truly delight the father by going into the feast. But his resentful refusal shows that the father's happiness had never been his goal. When the father reinstates the younger son, to the diminishment of the older son's share in the estate, the elder brother's heart is laid bare. He does everything he can to hurt and resist his father. If, like the elder brother, you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want." (39)
"What happens, then, if you are an elder brother and things go wrong in your life? If you feel you have been living up to your moral standards, you will be furious with God. You don't deserve this, you will think, after how hard you've worked to be a decent person! What happens, however, if things have gone wrong in your life when you know that you have been falling short of your standards? Then you will be furious with yourself, filled with self-loathing and inner pain. And if evil circumstances overtake you, and you are not sure whether your life has been good enough or not, you may swing miserably back and forth between the poles of 'I hate Thee!' and 'I hate me.'" (50)
A little slow at the beginning while walking through the text, Keller picks up the pace in his application of the passage, channeling C.S. Lewis in both his thinking and writing as to what the parable means and what we are to do with it. As in The Reason for God, The Prodigal God is another very readable volume for the irreligious, the religious, or those of us who swing between the two – all in need of the gospel.
(Note: If you're not a reader, here's a free mp3 of the sermon the book is based on – definitely worth a listen).