I finally got around to reading Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God – a wonderful exposition of Jesus’ parable of the two lost sons. Keller helpfully emphasizes the neglected aspects of the parable – the focus on the older son, the theme of exile and return, the importance of the previous two parables as context for the two lost sons.
Keller’s description of the sin of the elder brother is insightful. Pride and self-righteouness are just as spiritually dangerous as wanton immorality; indeed, the sins of the elder brother are often more dangerous, more insidious and subtle. Too often, our sense of frustration in life is indicative of our sharing the elder brother’s view of the world: we’ve done our part; we deserve more from God. Whether we have given ourselves to open rebellion or self-righteous pride, we need to cast ourselves upon God’s grace alone.
But for all the strengths of Keller’s exposition, my favorite part of the book was a quote from “The Weight of Glory” by C. S. Lewis. As Keller develops the theme of exile and return, and our constant sense of homelessness, he summarizes it all with a German word that is nearly impossible to translate directly into English: Sehnsucht, “profound homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones.” To explain the concept further, he turns to Lewis on p. 93:
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Now we wake to find… [w]e have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken in…
Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be re-united with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.
This is pure poetic gold, and I commend it to your meditation. That home for which we long is the fullness of God’s presence in the new creation, perfect union with Christ and with his body. But as Keller so beautifully points out, God is gracious to give us tastes and experiences of that future home, that future settledness, in the life of the church. After making skillful use of a Lewis quote (from The Two Loves), Keller says on p. 127:
Lewis is saying that it took a community to know an individual. How much more would this be true of Jesus Christ? Christians commonly say they want a relationship with Jesus, that they want to “get to know Jesus better.” You will never be able to do that by yourself. You must be deeply involved in the church, in Christian community, with strong relationships of love and accountability. Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.
Well-worth an evening’s reading with iced tea, my wife’s company, and Echoes.