During the Willow Creeks Association’s Global Leadership Summit this year Tim Keller spoke from the text of the parable of the prodigal son. He recently wrote a book titled The Prodigal God and I assume much of what he said is expounded upon in the book.

Tim mentioned that the word prodigal also incorporates the idea of reckless expenditure and because this parable involves the reckless expenditure of love by the father (i.e. God) he titled it The Prodigal God. The sub-title (aim) of the talk was to diagnose spiritual deadness and reveal the cure for it.

The parable of the prodigal son was told to Pharisees and religious folk. In Luke 10 we read that the Pharisees and scribes complained because Jesus ate with and received sinners. In the light of this Jesus told three parables, the third of which is the prodigal son.

In the parable we often miss the fact that it was not only the younger brother that was alienated from his father but so was the elder. The younger did not love the father but rather he loved the money of his father and so he asked for his share of the inheritance and goes and spends it. But the elder brother wasn’t much different and his attitude is revealed in Luke 15:29 –

“he said to the father, Behold, so many years I serve you, and I have never transgressed a command of you. And you never gave a goat to me, so that I might be merry with my friends.”

He also was after his father’s possessions though he went after it in another fashion.

At this point Tim mentioned that people try to gain salvation in two ways. The one way is like the younger brother – ignoring God and be immoral and irreligious. The other is like the elder son – be very moral and religious. But in both these ways the heart of the person is not drawn to God but rather what can be gained – salvation.

By the end of the parable it is the elder brother that is outside the house trying to save him. He is lost because of his goodness. This is what religion does. It acts morally in order to gain salvation while salvation is not gained in that manner. Religion says obey and be accepted. Elder brothers serve God to get things from God. In other words doing what they think is expected of them and s getting leverage over God. The Gospel turns it on its head – you are accepted now obey out of love towards the One who accepted you. We get a righteous record because of the Son and then obey because we want more of God himself not what can give us.

Diagnosing Spiritual Deadness

So, diagnosing spiritual deadness – it is caused by the attitude of the elder brother. At one level we believe the gospel, but persistently our hearts go back to religion – we go back to being elder brothers. Elder brothers, and here is the source of spiritual deadness, believe they’re getting leverage over God

  • Elder brothers get angry when their life doesn’t go well
  • When elder brothers are criticized they either attack or are demoralized
  • There is no intimacy in an elder brother’s prayer life – it is about what is to be gained
  • Elder brothers have a sense of superiority because of their good works. Their self image is based on right doctrine and they loath all who disagrees with them.
  • They loo down on people who have or know less as lazy
  • They get merciless – forget from where they themselves where saved

What to do about this spiritual deadness.

  • Get to a new level of repentance.Repentance that means much more than just being sorry for wrong done and confessing it. It goes to the level of repenting for the reasons behind actions both wrong and right. Repenting from that motivation behind our good actions that seeks to gain something from God.Often the elder brother/Pharisee types are even proud of their repentance. It is one more “good” thing to do by which leverage over God can be gained.
  • Break through to a new level of rejoicing.Here Tim touched on something I have never thought about before. The estate of the father was already divided in two because of the younger brother’s request. He went and spent his part of the inheritance so the only reaming part of that estate would then be the elder’s inheritance. At the return of the young brother the father commands a feast must be held and the young brother is given a ring and robe – all of it at the expense of the older brother’s part of the inheritance! Understandably the older brother is furious. Here this squanderer of his father’s possessions comes back and gets all the advantages of the household for which he has not worked and that at the expense of the older brother – scandalous!We however have an elder Brother quite unlike the one in the parable. Our elder Brother brings us back to our Father at His expense – his very life.

    This moves us to humility.

    This is cause for rejoicing.

Teaching values

Whenever we teach about moral values we should press through to the gospel otherwise it becomes moralism and phariseeism. The reason behind what we do, the motivation is not to gain leverage over God. It is not to somehow gain points with God and then get something in return but because we have been shown mercy and acceptance into God’s family.  If we teach morality without this component we will end up with people falling back into the attitude of the elder brother.


Jesus and His Stories

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a series of parables and after the first one his disciples interrupts Him asking why he tells these stories. Jesus’ answer gives us a view into his audience minds and expectations.

From verse 11 we read

He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.


Somehow the majority of Jesus’ audience spiritual eyes where blinded, even the righteous ones. When Jesus spoke plain words they did not understand the plain meaning of it. Why this spiritual blindness? I think if we investigate who these people were and what their expectations of the Kingdom of God were we might get an idea why they heard but did not understand. These people were Jews and the Jews expected the Kingdom of God to come by certain means and liberate them, the Jews, from the yoke of the Roman empire. Some of them expected the Kingdom to come by force (the Zealots), others expected it would come by political means (the Sadducees) and then there were those who expected God would liberate them if they got their act together and acted according to the Mosaic law (the Pharisees). Besides all of their different views all of them expected the Messiah to come with much fanfare and kingly splendor. So for them to hear that the Messiah came from a lowly town, born out of wedlock and He then speaking of walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, paying taxes to the Romans, mixing with the low life of the time… Jesus and the Kingdom he spoke of was not what they expected. I’m convinced that these expectations they had clouded their understanding so that they could not comprehend what Jesus spoke of. Consequently Jesus told stories that brought them images of what the Kingdom of God is really like. Images have a powerful way of circumventing our expectations and opening the mind to other possibilities.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a series of parables that He begins with “the kingdom of heaven is like…”. So the focus of these parables is to explain the nature of the kingdom of heaven or as noted in other passages the kingdom of God. The parable of the mustard seed is recorded in three gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke and in all three it is covered by only one sentence. It seems that in the Gospels Jesus had this ability to communicate something profound in very few words and this parable is one such example.

Matthew 13:31
31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

Mark 4:30-32
30 Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? 31 It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; 32 but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

Luke 13:18-19
18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”

A Few Things About Mustard and Birds

The Mustard seed, like the parable says, is a relatively small seed. The mustard plant is a shrub that grows easily and spreads fast and it can take over a garden in a short period of time just like weeds. In Jewish culture a well kept garden was desirable and allowing mustard to grow in your garden was prohibited by Jewish law in fact it was considered a weed. The mustard shrub could grow to the size of a small tree but is bushy and not what we would call aesthetically nice to look at.

Just a few verses before Jesus was talking about birds of the air and using that image to describe unwanted influences. Birds of the air would most likely have been viewed as a nuisance by an agricultural society like the Jews of the time. Birds would be something you would want to keep away from your fields and gardens. The use of straw men keeping the unwanted away comes to mind.

Why Mustard and Birds?

Jesus was provocative in using these images to describe the nature of the Kingdom. He could have used the image of a lofty cedar tree (which also has a small seed) and of eagles that nest there. Why did Jesus use the images of a weed and birds that made nuisances of themselves to describe the Kingdom of God? My dad loved his Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible and I thought it a good idea to see what Mr. Henry thought of the parable as told in Luke 13:

Here is, I. The gospel’s progress foretold in two parables, which we had before, Mt. 13:31-33. The kingdom of the Messiah is the kingdom of God, for it advances his glory; this kingdom was yet a mystery, and people were generally in the dark, and under mistakes, about it. Now, when we would describe a thing to those that are strangers to it, we choose to do it by similitudes. “Such a person you know not, but I will tell you whom he is like;” so Christ undertakes here to show what the kingdom of God is like (v. 18): “Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? v. 20. It will be quite another thing from what you expect, and will operate, and gain its point, in quite another manner.” 1. “You expect it will appear great, and will arrive at its perfection all of a sudden; but you are mistaken, it is like a grain of mustard-seed, a little thing, takes up but little room, makes but a little figure, and promises but little; yet, when sown in soil proper to receive it, it waxes a great tree.”

Jesus was clearly demonstrating to his audience that the Kingdom of God was very unlike to what they thought it would be. The beginning of it small, like the seed of the mustard plant. No victory brought about by sword and violence, no glorious entrance of a political hero and no heralding of a moral prophet and judge to bring a nation back to obeying ancient laws but a small almost unnoticeable event – the death of a man hung between two criminals and a rumour that he didn’t stay dead*. Then there is the spread of this Kingdom. No disciplined military maneuvers, no political alliances and no getting on God’s good side by being the obeying older brother but unpredictable (John 3:5), sometimes in places where it is not wanted and the people involved in it not the beautiful and famous. The word subversive comes to mind to describe this Kingdom.

Then there are those despicable birds that take refuge in this mustard bush. Could it be that the ones that find this Kingdom attractive are those that the Jews looked down upon? The Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors and gentiles?

Our Expectation of the Kingdom of God and His Christ

I think that this parable must cause us to ask some serious questions to ourselves. It is always so easy to see how other people have the wrong idea about the Kingdom but what about us? Will we be able to get beyond our expectations of what the Kingdom of God should be and who Christ should be to be acceptable to us? Or will we stay stuck in our clouded mindsets where the Kingdom should come in a neat way and liberate us from our oppressors with the force of a super power’s army? Should those who find shelter in this Kingdom be the acceptable ones or come already repentant?

May God’s Word become alive to us, transforming our lives to reflect His gory.

* Just to make it clear – I absolutely believe that Christ Jesus rose from the dead. I’m stating here what might have been the perception of the first people who heard the news.

johncrossI have been part of the Learning Community of ekerk/echurch and Missionet since last year. The current LC is made up of a mixture of mainly Afrikaans speaking church leaders and some individuals interested in the church. They come from various denominations: Nederduits Gereformeerd, Herformde Gereformeerde Kerk, AGS(AFM), independent and others. Together we talk and learn what it is to be the Church in the world today. I attended a gathering of the Learning Community (LC) on 17 & 18 February hosted by Mosaiek in Johannesburg, and the many things discussed excited me but also made my head spin. There is much that was said that I do not fully understand yet, but my curiosity has been tickled and that is what the LC is all about.

This specific gathering of the LC was dedicated to feedback of the (re)formation conference held last year in Wittenberg and Berlin and further development of ideas born there. For more information on the (re)formation conference visit In short the (re)formation meeting was organised by ekerk/echurch and people who are in the forefront of the post-modern church were invited to discuss what the 21st-century Reformation might look like. From the booklet we received at the gathering:

“Blending academic and real-world knowledge and experiences, the group will describe how God is bringing life to His Church in various nations, consider what the future Church may look like, and identify steps that disciples and leaders might take to facilitate God’s activity.”

The speakers that presented the subjects of discussion included George Barna, Mark Batterson, Chris Seay, Johan Geyser, Stephan Joubert, Christian Schwarz and Leonard Sweet.

During the LC I wrote half a note book full of notes, and to reproduce all of it here will take me months and will probably unintelligible to most. So here is just a few of the highlights:

Johan Geyser:
Johan Geyser talked about The Movement towards an Integrated Holistic Spirituality. He mentioned movements from a mechanical to a holistic paradigm; from a static to a dynamic world view; from classic to quantum science; from institutional to network structures; from visionary, strategic leadership to spiritual leadership… All this is impacting how spirituality is being experienced today.

The question was then asked: How must the church look like in this new and changing world. He then spoke about the tendencies of the Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern world.

So how should the church look like?

  • Should we go back to the fundamentals, the church of Acts 2? He joked about people saying we should do this but then quickly add that they will exclude the selling of all property.
  • Should we redesign church from the start


  • Should we look back to the roots and then into the future? (Ancient-Future Church)

The last point seems to be happening all over and there is already talk of a collective awareness in the church regarding it.

Johan then talked about how he sees this move towards a holistic spirituality happening for the individual. He mentioned the practice of silence, Lectio Divina, voluntary displacement (liminality) and embracing mysticism. (The mysticism is not referring to Eastern mysticism but that of the Church fathers)

He left me very curious to pursue what he said further.

George Barna:
We watched the session of George Barna at Wittenberg that they recorded on DVD. George is one of those people who seems to know what is happening all over the world, and I guess that is a good thing since he made it his job to inform the church of trends. He mentions 9 things that he sees God doing on the North American church context:

  1. A leadership shift from old to new
    a) Fading leaders of the last 3 decades (nationally known and followed) to…
    b) Baby boom generation leaders – transitional leaders to…
    c) Emerging leaders (locally known and followed)
  2. The leadership mantel is moving from the North American churches to other countries.
    He feels that the American church were not responsible with the blessings they received and had a heart of arrogance rather than brokenness. The American church became fixated on maintenance, is selfish and made a career out of Christianity rather than a calling. (Wow, harsh words!)
  3. God is eliminating the stranglehold of old institutions.
    Seminaries – training models; Institutional churche structures is passing and networks based on relationship is becoming more important.
  4. God has been amassing resources in the American church and it is filtering through to the rest of the world.
    The income of the collective American church is an estimated $50 billion p.a.
    $5 billion of it goes into buildings which might become shopping malls in 50 years time.
  5. God is expanding ways faith can be expressed.
  6. Faith is becoming a controversial aspect of life.
    It’s being discussed everywhere without reservations.
  7. God is stirring a great interest in the need of the poor and downtrodden.
  8. God is shrinking the world through technology to make the church one body.
  9. God is allowing greater friction between world faiths.

After his session we talked about how what is happening in the Afrikaans (mainly white) church in South Africa is similar to that in the American church and we agreed there are many similarities, especially the points about institutions, resources and the interest in the need of the poor.

Chris Seay:
This session was also a DVD recording of the Wittenberg conference. Chris talked about how schism is the spiritual cancer of the church. He quoted a friend of his saying that the greatest schism within the church is between the clergy and the laity. To collaborate with God’s redemptive work in the world is opposite to collaborate with consumerism. The schism between clergy and laity is something that makes religious consumerism flourishes. The church has become so entrenched in this culture of consumerism that it adapted its methods to it to the point that only professionals can do church. The modern church has become what the Roman Catholic Church was before the reformation where the church became a stumbling block for people to connect with God. The modern church teaches people that you can only serve God and relate to Him if you do church the way we say. The church has enriched itself at the cost of the Kingdom of God.

He told the following parable to illustrate his point:

He has four children. Imagine his eldest was very successful at sport and became very famous and rich because of it. He has multiple mansions with more rooms than he has children and grand children. Each house has multiple garages with exotic cars filling them. He spends his money on all kinds of indulgences. Now imagine his other three children extremely poor. They have no opportunity for education and neither have their children and grand children. They live in the most terrible circumstance imaginable where they have to drink the same water they bath in. They do not have enough food and are starving to death. The eldest brother knows about this but does nothing about it. How will he as father feel about his eldest son? He will surely tell him that is not the way he was raised.

How does God feel about the church spending its blessing on indulgences when their brothers and sisters are starving? What is God saying in the Bibe about our brothers and sister that are suffering?

I went away convicted. I must rethink the way I live and what my priorities are… I made the following resolution:

I want to move closer to God and want to move with God in fulfilling His purposes for the church. I will do this through all means currently at my disposal. I will investigate new ways of experiencing God where He can transform me to what He intended me to be from the start.