I listened to a gospel sermon at a church in one of the labour camps yesterday by a pastor I greatly respect. He retold the story of the prodigal son, with an acceptable measure of poetic licence, along the way developing his basic evangelistic paradigm. Even with the handicap of translation, it was a model of good narrative preaching—fast-paced, engaging, witty, but with a clear message. I say this because in the unlikely event of him reading this post, I don’t want him to take what I say personally. The point I want to make is a much more general one about how we use—and misuse—scripture.
According to the paradigm, the older son represents a legalistic, moralistic or religious attitude. He has no need for the father’s mercy; he will earn his own salvation by working hard, keeping the rules. The younger son rebels against the rules and chooses his own way, with disastrous consequences. But in the end he comes to his senses and returns home to seek forgiveness. When his father comes running out to meet him, the younger son learns that we are saved not by works—certainly not by works of religion—but by grace alone (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). We can do nothing to merit eternal life; all we can do is receive our inheritance as a gift.
Whose parable is it?
So it was a story about two sons. It exhibited some clear narrative-structural similarities to the story that we find in Luke 15. But was it the same story? I’m not questioning the basic message. We do not, by any means, work our way into the community of the people of God; we are “called” and “saved” by grace. But was this the message that Jesus was trying to get across when he told the story? And if not, does it really matter?
To start with, nothing was said in the sermon about context. Perhaps this would be too much to expect from a translated evangelistic sermon addressed to labourers, but it underlines the fact, nevertheless, that we tend to think of the parables as free-floating illustrations of the beliefs, principles and arguments that make up our working theology.
The danger here is that we do not learn from the parable; rather we teach the parable, we tell it what it is supposed to say. Our theology—for example, our theology of justification by faith alone—is firmly in control of the situation and will not allow itself to be intimidated by such obscure notions as context. Not when there are souls to be saved.
Not all were lost
The story of the prodigal son, according to Luke, is one of three parables that Jesus tells in response to the complaint of certain Pharisees and scribes that “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15:1-2). It is not told in response to an enquiry about how to inherit eternal life.
Interestingly, when Jesus is explicitly asked about how to inherit eternal life by a man who has diligently kept the commandments since his youth, he neither condemns his “works”—his legalism, his religiosity—nor tells him to repent and receive eternal life as a gift. He tells him to do more, not less—to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and physically follow Jesus (Lk. 18:18-22). By doing all these things he will inherit the life of the age to come, which is still not quite “eternal life” as we generally understand it.
So how does Jesus answer the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes, which is the situation he is actually confronted with in Luke 15, rather than the question of the wealthy ruler?
He tells two short stories. A man loses one sheep out of the hundred that he owns, searches for it far and wide, and celebrates with his friends and neighbours when he has found it. A woman loses one of her ten coins, turns the house upside down until she finds it, then parties with her friends and neighbours into the wee small hours. In the same way, Jesus says, there will be greater rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the many righteous people who need no repentance.
Is Jesus preaching an evangelistic message here? No, of course not. He is explaining why he receives the sinning classes in Israel and eats with them, why he associates with the irreligious underbelly of Jewish society.
The woman owns the coins and loses one. The farmer owns the sheep and loses one. So God owns his people Israel, but some are “lost”—they have become prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners. There is no problem with those Jews who are not lost—not as far as these stories are concerned. The righteous who do good works, who keep the commandments of the living God, like the wealthy ruler, have no need of repentance. But in order to grasp the significance of the coming kingdom of God, the people of the Law need to see that their God is reaching out in extraordinary mercy to the marginalized sinners.
The problem of the older son
The parable of the prodigal son makes the same point, except that the Pharisees and scribes have been written into the narrative. The two sons are already part of God’s people. They do not cease to be part of God’s people because one squanders his inheritance amongst the Gentiles and the other gets in a funk over his father’s extravagant generosity towards his wayward brother.
The older son cannot be forced by Reformed theology to stand for religious legalism or the determination to earn salvation rather than receive it as a gift of grace. There is no indication in the story that he is condemned for keeping the rules or that his place in the household is under threat. Indeed, the father responds as graciously to the unjustified indignation of the older son as he does to the repentance of the younger son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31). The reason the older son does not have to earn anything (salvation is not the issue here) is that he already has it.
But it would also be a mistake to leave the miserable fellow out of the story altogether, as less rigorous Evangelicals are inclined to do, preferring to focus on the forgiveness of the prodigal. The behaviour of the older son is precisely the reason why the story is told.
The issue addressed is whether it is “fitting to celebrate and be glad” (15:32) when a prostitute or a tax collector or a “sinner” is reconciled to Israel’s God. Jesus defends himself against the complaint made by the Pharisees and scribes by claiming, in effect, that through these ordinary acts of association with the unrighteous he is giving concrete prophetic form to what God is doing in Israel.
The problem with the first son was not that he had worked dutifully while the other had played the wastrel. It was not that he tried to justify himself by not disobeying his father’s command (15:29). His problem, which was the problem of the Pharisees and scribes, was that he could not accept the forgiveness extended towards his brother, he could not join in the celebration. He begrudged his father’s generosity.
The story told in Matthew of a man who recruits labourers to work in his vineyard throughout the day makes the same point. At the end of the shift, they are all paid the same amount, and those who worked through the heat of the day are naturally disgruntled. But the master of the house replies to one of them:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? (Matt. 20:13-15)
Those who complained are rebuked for their mean-spiritedness, but there is no suggestion that they should not have worked throughout the day in the vineyard. They were there to work. That was why they had been employed in the first place.
This is not about whether we earn our salvation or not. It is about whether as we go about doing the work of God we can allow him to have mercy on those who do not work.
This was not a trivial matter. In fact, the inability of the leaders of Israel to get the point of forgiveness was to prove their downfall. But this is a very different narrative to the story of personal salvation that the parable is coerced into illustrating in evangelistic sermons.
What are we to do about this? Until the revolution comes and a narrative-historically constructed worldview displaces the modern theologically constructed worldview, we are probably stuck with misinterpreting Jesus for the sake of our gospel. But I think we should at least be aware of the fact that the stories we tell are not necessarily the stories that Jesus told, for all their superficial similarities.