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The lost and the unlost in the parable of the prodigal son

What is the parable of the prodigal son about? It was cited in a recent comment here as evidence that the gospel is all about sinners repenting and being reconciled to the Father—and that is certainly how it would typically be understood by evangelicals. There may be some disagreement over where the emphasis lies exactly—on the repentant son, on the gracious and forgiving father, or on the sour, self-righteous older brother, who somehow excludes himself from the process of salvation. But the consensus would be that Jesus tells the story in order to say something about the journey of repentance that every sinner must make in order to be restored to the arms of an extravagantly loving heavenly Father.

There is an argument, however, that this reading is simply one more example of our modern egocentrism—the culturally determined need we have to construct our theology around the interests of the abstracted individual, with utter disregard for the contingencies of historical context. So N.T. Wright famously asserts that in the parable of the prodigal son “Jesus was retelling the story of Israel’s return from exile, and doing so in a sharp and provocative manner” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 242). Scot McKnight is less inclined to allegorize, but the outcome is much the same: “This parable describes the repentance of a sinful son in order to picture the restoration of the nation. In it, the individual act of repentance represents the prototypical act of the true Israelite” (A New Vision for Israel, 174).

Normally I would leap at the “national” interpretation, but in this case I’m not so sure. The story of the younger son is not the story of Israel’s exile: the Jews were driven into exile as punishment; there was no voluntary return; and how do you account for the older son? Similarly, if the younger son is representative of the true Israelite, what are we to make of those like his brother who had no need of repentance?

The story is told in order to account for Jesus’ practice of eating with “tax collectors and sinners” and, no doubt, for particular instances of sinners repenting—the woman with the alabaster jar and the tax collector Zacchaeus are the obvious examples (Lk. 7:37-39; 19:2-10). It is the story of people who have squandered their patrimony as Israelites, who have become alienated, who have come to live as though they were Gentiles, but who in the end come to their senses, and whose restoration is the cause of great celebration in heaven.

What makes it especially difficult to read it as a parable about personal salvation in general terms, however, is the fact that the one who was lost is set against the “righteous” one who was not lost. The parable addresses the difficulty that the older brother has in celebrating the return of the prodigal, but he is not condemned, he is not punished, he is not thrown out of the family, he is not consigned to the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is this relationship between the two brothers, as much as anything else, that makes this a parable about Israel and not about the “lostness” of humanity generally.

The two other parables in Luke 15 make the same point. Only one out of the hundred sheep is lost, but when it is found, the shepherd rejoices with his friends and neighbours. Only one of the ten coins is lost, but when it is found, the woman throws a party. In the same way, there will be “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7). The offence, or at least the extravagance, of the rejoicing is foregrounded, but it is not all about the lost sinner who is found.

Elsewhere Jesus makes a more direct response to the same complaint from the Pharisees: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13; cf. Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:31). A Christian theology would generally look for ways to qualify what is said here about the “righteous”, but there is no evidence that the Gospel writers were uncomfortable with the implication that at least some in Israel were righteous and not in need of repentance.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). Simeon was “righteous and devout” (Lk. 2:25). John the Baptist was a “righteous and holy man” (Mk. 6:20). The rich young ruler is not told to repent—he has kept the commandments, he is a righteous Israelite. But he is told to sell what he has and join the Jesus movement, alongside the reformed tax collectors and prostitutes and prodigals (Lk. 18:18-23). Those who receive a “righteous person because he is a righteous person” will themselves be counted righteous (Matt. 10:41). At the close of the age of second temple Judaism the angels will separate out the evil from the righteous in Israel (Matt. 13:49)—not those who believe from those who do not believe, not those who have been justified by faith from those who have not been justified by faith.

This tension between repentant sinners and the righteous, between the lost and the unlost, can be explained only if we assume that it is not the spiritual condition of the individual that is at issue but the spiritual condition of Israel as a nation. It is particular individual Jews who, having returned from their various places of profligacy, who pose a challenge to the self-understanding not only of those Pharisees and scribes whose righteousness is only skin deep (cf. Matt. 23:28), but also to righteous Israel, called to rediscover itself in relation to Jesus.

Comments

I agree with everything you say about Wright’s and McKnight’s interpretation of the parable. It doesn’t work as an allegory of Israel’s return from exile, or as a picture of the restoration of national Israel.

But your interpretation of the parable left me scratching my head. How does it explain or justify Jesus’s practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners? There is no parallel in the parable with any of the instances you give as illustrations. 

Of course the parable is in the first place about Israel, since that is the setting of the story. But what the parable does is to turn assumptions about what it meant to belong to Israel on their head, and also assumptions about the attitude and behaviour of Israel’s God to his ‘sons’. In the end, the parable looks beyond historic Israel, simply because it is saying something which finds no parallel with Israel under the Torah, but does find a parallel with the new people Jesus was forming around himself, the embryonic new covenant people, who were ultimately to become neither Israel nor Gentile, in the historic sense.

The loyalty of the older son is set against the extravagant reception and unwarranted waste of the celebrations for the returning son. This is not about a restoration of an erring brother to righteous Israel, but an explosion of assumptions about the values of the God of Israel, and how He behaves and responds to those who least deserve his favour. It is also about the failure of those who had supposedly shown the most loyalty to Israel’s God to appreciate anything about the household and its head to which they had supposedly shown such dutiful loyalty.

‘Israel’, its ‘household’ and its God are virtually unrecognisable in the parable in the contrast of the lavish outpouring of love for the returning son and the justifiably aggrieved reaction of the older brother. If we have not sensed, and in part sympathised with the shock of the older brother, the point of the parable is missed. Jesus turns the tables on his hearers, and clearly has the Pharisees in view rather than ‘righteous’ Israel as represented by the examples Andrew gives. In fact the word ‘righteous’ is not mentioned in this story, though it might be inferred from the preceding parables. If anything, Jesus is holding the word up to inspection and re-examination.

The parable is an extended metaphor, in which Israel and its history are never mentioned. It justifiably applies itself to human characteristics and responses which were at the core of its message in its day. Assumptions about God, righteousness of a certain kind, and sin, also need to be exploded today just as much as in Jesus’s day. A contextualised gospel is effective when it does this, just as Jesus did in his own day, through the systematic demolition of cultural boundaries and barriers which kept God and man apart. Then it was at a climactic phase of Israel’s history. Today, it is a universal requirement within cultures and worldviews the world over.

How does it explain or justify Jesus’s practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners? There is no parallel in the parable with any of the instances you give as illustrations.

I’m not sure I see the problem here. The parables in Luke 15 are expressly told in response to the complaint of the Pharisees that “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Presumably Jesus regarded his practice as in some sense a demonstration or anticipation of the joy that is felt in heaven over one sinner who repents.

The central point made is that Jewish sinners who repent are welcomed by Israel’s gracious and loving God, so the Pharisees have no ground for objecting to Jesus’ practice of eating with sinners. The parable does not address the question of “what it meant to belong to Israel”: the prodigal never ceases to be a son; he takes his inheritance, but he is not disinherited; the older brother’s inclusion in the family is not questioned. Likewise, the preceding parables do not raise the question of whether the lost coin or lost sheep still belong to the woman or to the shepherd—indeed, it is precisely because they belong that so much trouble is taken to recover them. You’re reading issues into the parable that aren’t there.

Jesus turns the tables on his hearers, and clearly has the Pharisees in view rather than ‘righteous’ Israel as represented by the examples Andrew gives. In fact the word ‘righteous’ is not mentioned in this story, though it might be inferred from the preceding parables.

A Jew is righteous if he or she keeps the Law:

And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us. (Deut. 6:25)

Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea… (Is. 48:18)

The older brother has kept the commandments, therefore he is “righteous” according to the limited terms of the parable. He is not condemned; on the contrary, he is told by the father: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). Plus, there are the very similar statements in which Jesus defends his practice of associating with sinners by claiming that he has come to call not the “righteous” but sinners to repentance. You have conveniently overlooked those texts.

If there is an implicit criticism of the Pharisees here, it is only that they have failed to grasp the grace of God towards repentant sinners. Nothing is said beyond that: there is no judgment on Israel, no cross, no new community emerging beyond historic Israel. Jesus’ conclusion is simply that it is “fitting to celebrate and be glad”.

The fact that it is possible to make the parable work in a contemporary setting does not demonstrate that Jesus had anything more in mind than the need to explain to some resentful Pharisees why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. You’re reading far too much into it—and ignoring what the parable actually says. Israel and its history are not mentioned, but the context is perfectly clear: the parable addresses an issue raised by the Pharisees about the status of sinners in relation to Law-abiding Jews.

Andrew, you are quite right about Luke 15:2; nevertheless, I think you have almost completely missed the point of this parable. There is very little similarity between the older brother as ‘righteous’, and the ‘righteous’ in the examples you have given. If the older brother represents the ‘righteous’, the meaning of the word, which is mentioned in the preceding two parables, is now being held up for inspection and considerable criticism.

Your summary, that righteous Israel should receive and welcome Jewish sinners, because God receives and welcomes them, is beyond question as a general truth, but parables are rarely if ever simple moral tales like this, and I do not think this is the point which the parable is trying to make. At least one question raised by the parable is whether the ‘righteous’, in the particular form of the older brother, would ever receive and welcome the kind of people Jesus was welcoming. Other parables suggest not.

A more accurate summary of the parable would be that Jesus provides a devastating indictment of his critics in the form of the older brother, and turns the kind of beliefs and behaviour associated with his critics on their head. The parable is not intended to encourage ecumenical inclusiveness in Israel, but to shock, to explode basic assumptions.

The reception given to the returning son is intended to shock, precisely to the extent that he had offended, in the deepest possible way, the honour of his father, by wishing him dead in taking the inheritance, by squandering it in wild living amongst the Gentiles, then by eating the food of pigs. There was no grace in the Pharisees for Jesus’s company, and no grace in the older brother, who clearly reflects their attitudes, for the returning son. But then Jesus has  gone out of his way to remove any reasonable grounds for grace, yet in so doing is setting a trap for his critics.

The portrayal of the father, and his response to the returning son, is also intended to shock, especially when the association is made between him and YHWH. The father makes himself a laughing stock by running to receive the son, and falling upon him in his emotion at their reunion. The shock of this public humiliation is lost in today’s culture. The association of the father with YHWH is doubly shocking, and that YHWH might overlook breaches of the Torah of the kind represented in the younger son’s actions.

Clearly, much more is happening here than an exhortation for the righteous to receive repentant sinners. In the world of relationships, depths are plumbed which are deeper than the processes and sanctions of the Torah, with its emphasis on obligation, duty, punishment and reward. A picture of God is being suggested which entirely subverts the popular image of the Torah-giver.

In an inspired moment of story telling, it is the younger son, not the older, who reflects on what he deserves. Justice and fairness would be satisfied if he was received, perhaps, as a hired servant. He did not deserve to be received as a son. He had forfeited his right to be regarded as a son in the household - just as tax collectors and sinners had also forfeited their right, in the eyes of the Pharisees, to be included in Israel.

So the parable is raising the question of what it means to belong to Israel, just as Jesus was raising the same question in the table company he kept. Those like the Pharisees, who justifiably felt they had more right than any to belong, were now having their most cherished beliefs challenged and offended by the actions of Jesus. The ‘insiders’ were becoming ‘outsiders’, and the ‘outsiders’ ‘insiders’. The Torah was being turned upside down.

In this parable, there seems to be no parallel with Jesus (as in other parables), but the father, who is the parallel with YHWH, performs the same role as Jesus, in receiving sinners as if they had never sinned. I wonder what you suppose Jesus was doing, in suggesting this parallel with himself?

The parable, then, turns on its head conceptions of how YHWH was to be pleased through the Torah. Instead of rightful punishment and maybe reluctant inclusion under sanctions, sinners are freely received, and the ‘righteous’, apparently, are overlooked. Except that the older brother was not overlooked. He had never appreciated what was freely available to him in his father’s house. In his anger, and refusal to go in to be reunited with the lost brother, it’s clear he is seething with resentment. He has entirely misunderstood who his father is, and what is of greatest value in the household. Is he not a confederate of those who elsewhere were to be ‘cast into outer darkness’, except that he is doing it himself?

The indictment now falls on Jesus’s critics. How would they respond, since the story makes the gracious love of the father central to its message. How could they, or anyone, criticise this most moving of scenes: a reunion on the deepest level of the heart between an estranged father and child? The indictment is reinforced when the profounder message of the parable is considered: the longed for reunion of YHWH with his estranged son, Israel. 

The older brother is now left outside the house, where he has placed himself, self-excluded, while the return of the younger brother is celebrated. The parable is turning upsided down the meaning of righteousness, in the person of the older brother, and  most of all, righteousness in the person of the father, or the God of Israel.

There is no parallel with this kind of ‘righteousness’ under the Torah, except that occasionally in the OT, we do actually see that the God of the Torah was just like the father of the parable, in his attitude to his wayward ‘sons’. But the parable, like Jesus’s table company, is looking to a different relationship altogether, one which is reflected in the inclusion not simply of ‘righteous’ and ‘repentant’ Israel, but more fully in the inclusion of Gentiles and Jews, hints of which we get at various strategic instances throughout the gospels. We are looking at realities which were being fulfilled in Jesus’s ministry, which was itself only a precursor to the new covenant which followed his death.

In this parable, Jesus is looking at what it meant to belong to Israel and Israel’s God, and in so doing provides a glimpse beyond the Israel of the Torah, just as he did in his table fellowship. The parable is not primarily about analsying who represents whom, but is about being shocked out of complacent assumptions concerning who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. In recontextualising the parable for today, a comparable sense of shock needs to be delivered as to a 1st century Jewish audience: about the meaning of righteousness, about those whom God receives and accepts, about God’s attitude to sin and to sinners.

This parable also shows the only way in which the gospel will work effectively in today’s culture, which is in its capacity to demolish barriers created by culture, between us and God, between us and each other, as neighbours on this planet.

The timelessness of the parable is obvious - even if it is set in the culture and the climax of the history of Israel in the 1st century Middle East. The gospels do speak to us today. Jesus’s teaching leaps off the page into all ages. The attitude of the older brother is not remote and incomprehensible. The Jews under the Torah exemplified characteristics with which it is not difficult to identify today.

No, I’m not reading too much into the parable. I’m reading it as it would have been received in the context of Jesus’s time, and noting how it recontextualises into our own time. This is an exercise which we need to make, if the parable is not to become a story frozen in history.

 

but parables are rarely if ever simple moral tales like this…

Who says? Certainly not Jesus or the writers of the Gospels. The parables have been subjected to too much interpretation.

But I’m not not saying the parable is a moral tale. It’s an eschatological tale about something that is happening at the end of the age of second temple Judaism. It just happens to address a relatively thin slice of the matter, indicated very clearly and precisely by what is said in 15:2. The parable is a justification of Jesus’ practice of eating with sinners. No more, no less.

Wright does not consider the parable allegory, but rather a radical retelling.

Andrew, istm that the Prodigal Son parable could be compared with the Pharisee and the Publican.  The subject was also “righteousness” and the mercy of God.  To me they both also speak of the blindness of those who thought they were the true people of God, and those Jesus says will actually end up comprising the true people of God.  One’s definition of “true people of God” may be up for discussion, but seeing this comparison accounts for Jesus being with the “tax collectors and sinners” as per Peter above.

This is one of the few times I don’t agree with NTW!

btw, I have not continued to transcribe the Future of the People of God.  Please forgive me.  I enjoyed transcribing the amount that I did, but I kind of ran out of steam. Though the sessions were wonderful and helpful, and I wanted to see them in written form for better distribution, it’s not so immediate for me anymore, because in the interim I’ve been received into Eastern Orthodoxy, which has a different view of the church and how people “do church”  ;)   Wright’s views are congruent with so much of Orthodoxy that I have to honestly say it’s his work that was the major -though not the only- influence on my “conversion”.

I do admire your work and see some echoes of some of your themes in the small amount of Orthodox academic study on history and eschatology to which I’ve been exposed so far.  I’m reading all your posts.

Dana

 

Dana, the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the temple (Lk. 18:9-14) is very similar. There is perhaps a stronger suggestion of judgment on the Pharisee in verse 14, but the emphasis, as in the parable of the prodigal son, is on his attitude towards the “sinner”. The parable is told to some who are persuaded in themselves that they are righteous and treat others with contempt. The “justification” of the tax collector should not be interpreted in an absolute Christian sense. Jesus is simply saying that he was “right” to pray as he did; the Pharisee was not right to “exalt himself”. But is the issue really the question of who constituted the true people of God? I don’t see that in the parable—any more than in the parable of the prodigal son.

I’m very interested in your comments about the links between the historical reading of the Gospels and orthodoxy. If you ever feel like summarizing your views, I’d be happy to post it.

As for the transcription of the Future of the People of God talks, never mind—that was rather a long time ago now. But thanks for having a go at it.

Well Andrew, maybe I don’t have enough academic study under my belt; a large chunk of what I know is from NTW or connected with him somehow.  His take on Paul’s defining who constitutes “the true people of God” is very forceful, and I see it as one of the commonalities between Jesus and Paul, an important congruence.

 I see Jesus through both parables saying to the people listening (especially any religious leaders that might be hanging around - and we know they were), “You think you know who is the kind of person toward whom God is pleased to run, with whom God is pleased to include in the group of people identified as dikaioo.  It’s not who you think.  It’s surely not someone who treats others with contempt (Didn’t the older son treat the father with contempt in upbraiding him, and the younger son with contempt in ignoring him?) and it’s more likely to be someone who knows his/her need of God and approaches God with humility.”  I’m not interpreting the “justification” of the tax collector in an absolute Christian sense.

But I have made two substitutions in my mind as I’m reading the NT, based on my very scant Greek vocab. and washed through with NTW, and now the Orthodox phronema as well.  One is that I read pistis as “trust/loyalty” - with more weight on the “trust” side.  (The word “faith” for me is like the word “god” for NTW; I’m not sure we all understand what we mean by it.)  The other is that I read the dik- words as “faithfulness to how God intended humans to be in the first place (“kept in bounds” -among other things- from Abraham to Christ by the the covenant)”, not as anything like sinless perfection.  So with Wright I see the covenant aspect of the dik-words, and how that is related to the “lawcourt scene” of God declaring who is “in the right” as part of the “(new) covenant people”.  I think the dik- words also indicate something that was meant to go beyond the covenant as well, back to what God had in mind for the “original adam” and forward to what God has done in Christ as the “second adam” to enable all of humanity, not just the Jews by virtue of their Jewishness -variously defined-, to enter into that rock-bottom faithfulness as they are en Christo.  I was driven to find one English word which could at least come close to expressing the sense of the one Greek root, because I was frustrated that we have used two English roots, one Germanic (righteous-) and one from the Latin (justif-), and I think this has been more confusing than helpful.  I’m not one of those who insists on “word-to-word” translation; I’ve studied a language to fluency (modern German) and I know that’s impossible!

As to the Orthodox overlaps, I’m at a point right now where, when I encounter them, I say to myself, “Wow, that’s an interesting commonality,” and the pile of them is growing, but I’m nowhere near formulating a view that I could summarize.  Could be a good Thesis topic someday, though… hmm…  If you want to get a flavor of a little of it you could listen to this

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_new_year_and_the_end_of_the_age

(or wait for the transcript to be put up and read it).  Fr Tom studied with some fine teachers back in the day, and he approaches knotty topics from a good pastoral sense without watering down.  There’s such an interesting mix of “standard” end-times vocabulary with a very clear streak of Resurrection as New Creation (very, very deep in Orthodoxy) and its implications.  They exist side by side in O. -perhaps more like along a spectrum from “educated with exposure to lots of ideas” to “not educated and not interested in it”- without people getting too worked up about that dichotomy.  Dichotomy/paradox is par for the course.  Orthodox tend to get more worked up about other things :)

Dana

 

I would think you are right and wrong. Surely Christ is dealing with Israel in all His parables. yet this same parable is about a sinner who comes to his senses; Gentile or Jew; Peter, or Cornelius.

The elder brother in the parable is “an exact picture of the Jews of our Lord’s time. They could not bear the idea of their Gentile younger brother being made partaker of their privileges. They would fain have excluded him from God’s favor.They steadily refused to see that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs and partakers of Christ with themselves. In all this they were precisely acting the part of the “elder brother”.” -JC Ryle

So surely Jesus si speaking the truth to the Jews, and to all sinners as well.

“Come unto Me, ALL….”

 

Don, I think Ryle’s comments would make a lot of sense in relation, say, to Paul’s argument in Romans. But it seems very unlikely that Jesus intended the younger brother to represent the Gentiles.

The younger son starts as part of the same family as the older son. Scripture never suggests that the nations at some point departed from a state of unity with God and Israel.

The relationship of sonship and the associated inheritance only makes sense with regard to Israel.

The whole point of the son being forced to work among the Gentiles feeding pigs would be lost if he were a Gentile.

So the parable makes sense only with reference to Israel. It can be reapplied rather awkwardly today to speak of the sinner who comes to her senses, but that would be a quite serious misreading of Jesus’ intention.

“The younger son starts as part of the same family as the older son. Scripture never suggests that the nations at some point departed from a state of unity with God and Israel.”

I would contend that there is a separation of Israel from the nations for the sake of the nations:

I have called you out…You will be my treasured possession…etc.

Israel considered themselves to be the nation in right relationship with God, all others, even mix-breed Israelites (Samaritans) were not in good standing with God.  The Pharisees of that day raised the bar further, viewing unrighteous individuals, like those Jesus ate with, as a hindrance to God’s salvation of Israel, much in the way that some fundamentalists and Westboro Baptist blame the homosexual community for the United State’s woes. 

Isn’t there a difference between Israel being called out of the nations and the nations departing from an original oneness with YHWH which included the Pharisees—or whomever is represented by the older brother? The second part of your comment I agree with.

I see your thought Andrew. I’ll have to study it a bit. I’m thinking Jesus came to Jews first as He decsended from His glory in heaven,  he certainly had Gentiles in mind, and in His heart as well.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant  depart in peace,
according to your word;
  for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
  a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”-Simeon [Luke 2:28-32]

 

Have a joyous Lord’s day in the truth of His grace and love.

Andrew,

I was just re-reading this section of JVG. I noticed that NTW does seem to see the Pharisees in the role of the elder brother, even though he also says all of the things that you have noted above about Israel’s return from exile. It appears to me that he thinks that Jesus was subverting the narrative of exile, and placing the Pharisees in the role that should have been occupied by “the Samaritains”.

If this is true, then the Pharisees would have probably viewed themselves in the position of the younger brother. While you are right to say that “the Jews were driven into exile as punishment”, I’m not sure that we should consider that aspect as part of the context of this parable in Luke. I appreciate Dana’s mentioning of the Pharisee and the tax collector; this is an important parallel.

What is at issue is the Pharisaic attitude towards sinners. While the older brother represents, from Jesus’ perspective, the position of the Pharisees, it is the younger brother, from the perspective of the Pharisees, who would have better represented them in the story. They had rebelled against God, but God would welcome them back with open arms because He is a God of grace and love. They would be brought back into their land, currently occupied by the Samaritans (who apparently would be opposed to their return).

But Jesus’ retelling of this narrative, the Pharisees are opposed to YHWH’s forgiveness of “sinners” (just as the Samaritains might have been opposed to the return of exiled Israelites), even though they have been “in the land”, God’s children, and heirs of the promise of forgiveness and return from exile all along. They long for the promised return from exile, but are unwilling to show the same mercy that they have been shown, to the “sinners”. By employing the narrative of exile, I’m not sure that NTW is saying something much different then you are trying to say.

I could be wrong, certainly, and I’m intersted in your thoughts…

“What makes it especially difficult to read it as a parable about personal salvation in general terms, however, is the fact that the one who was lost is set against the “righteous” one who was not lost. The parable addresses the difficulty that the older brother has in celebrating the return of the prodigal, but he is not condemned, he is not punished, he is not thrown out of the family, he is not consigned to the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth”

That’s assuming that the older brother is indeed “righteous” and that this is the “end of the story.”  The brother’s righteousness is only by his own testimony.  The power of a parable is the critique is not always explicit and it allows the listener to find themselves caught up in the story and that it creates space for them to respond.  For a movement so dedicated to context, I’m surprised that Kenneth Bailey’s works have not been cited yet. 

In summary, Bailey makes a compelling case that from a Middle Eastern perspective, the older brother is just as unrighteous as the younger brother because of how he treats the father.  The younger son brought great shame on his father by calling for his death (give me my inheritance) and the father bears that shame when he grants his wish instead of beating him.  The father also takes on the younger brother’s shame when he runs to him upon his return, something a self-respecting middle-eastern man would never do. 

The older brother also brings shame on his father by slandering his younger brother (the brother accuses the youngest of whoring around, not the text) and by refusing to enter the party at his father’s request and by slandering his father (I have been your slave and you are miserly) .  The whole village is watching both of these interactions and watching the father bear the shame in steadfast love, never striking them or punishing them. Neither son is righteous before the father, our context just condemns the one and accepts what the other has said or done at “face value.”

Also, in terms of nationhood vs. individual salvation, what would a national repentance look like other than the persons within that nation turning personally and corporately back toward their God?  And if the majority would not, for the minority (or remnant) to continue in their repentance still. 

Another thought, if we answer that question in the affirmative, and we accept the premise that Israel’s story has always been on behalf of the other nations, can we not see layers of implications here that carry forward or even parallel with Paul’s writings that the older brother (Israel) is/will be jealous of the younger brother (gentiles) being accepted fully by the father?

I’m not sure this is an either/or. 

One detail that is often overlooked in this parable is the fact that the younger son, while welcomed home with a party, has, in fact, squandered his inheritance. Everything the father has now belongs solely to the older son.

Imagine if my estate is worth a cool million. My two sons, Irving Straightliver and Charlie Sheen are each set to inherit $500,000. But Charlie asks his father to give him his portion, then goes out and blows it all in Vegas. When he comes home, contrite, I welcome him back… but he has to live out his days as a penniless slave to Irving.

So this is not a parable about God’s laxity toward sinners and sin, but about the Jew’s “hemmed in life” is its own reward, but it is appropriate to rejoice when one (such as a sinner of the gentiles), who has not endured such discipline, is spared their life by repentance.

The younger child, the disobedient child, is lost – even before leaving home. The lost child rejects the Parent as though the Parent were dead. Even in rejection, the Parent is exceedingly accommodating and generous. Then, this wandering aimless child lives a selfish and self-directed life and, as the child desires, a life without the Parent. Finally, the life of the child reaches a place on the path where there are no options and there is no direction forward or out. There is no chance of rescue, no charity, no hope, no family, no meaningful life and no life with meaning. There is complete separation from love and kindness and family and friendship and companionship, it is an abomination of an existence – this is death and this is hell. At such a time under such circumstances, what happens next is natural and unavoidable – the child goes home. It is not a choice. It is an inevitable continuation of the path and journey that is traveled by every lost child. The Parent has been waiting and watching because the Parent knows that some day that lost child will reach the inevitable conclusion of the unavoidable journey, the last mile of which always brings the child home. When the Parent, who has been waiting and watching, catches that first distant glimpse of the returning child; the Parent rushes out to retrieve the child, once lost and now found, to shower the returning child, again, with generous hospitality and generous accommodation and a generous re-inclusion in the family and to begin a totally maxed-out celebration. In this parable, the child never even gets to finish a well-rehearsed speech of contrition and humility. All that matters is that the wayward child is home – for the child was never lost to the Parent, the son was only lost to himself, the daughter was only lost to herself.

The older sibling, the obedient child, is not happy. (Tangential Question: Is the obedient child like the nine coins safely gathered in a known location or the ninety-nine sheep left in the wilderness?) The obedient child wants to know: why is there a celebration for the lost when there has never been a celebration for that which was never lost? Why is there no harsh judgment? Why are there no punitive consequences for destructive decisions and a selfish unproductive wasteful life? Why is there a Parent’s happiness for a bad child – a disobedient child who never lived in accordance with the lessons and wisdom and will of the Parent? How could there possibly be room in the family for a stubborn and rebellious child who lived wastefully in rejection of the Parent’s abundance and generosity and hospitality and love? Why is there no final conclusive inescapable justice?

The Parent warmly affirms the unbroken love that the Parent has and will always have for the obedient child and gratefully acknowledges the value and sacredness of the accomplishments and stewardship of this steadfast sibling. The faithful life of the obedient child has immeasurable worth and divine appreciation. The life of the obedient child has not been in vain.

The Parent also rejects rejection. There has been enough separation. There will be no more separation – separation is finished. There will be a judgment. There will be justice that is final and conclusive and inescapable. Instead of an eternal punishment of bitter harshness, the judgment will be the repair and repatriation of the lost child. Instead of punitive isolation and abandonment, there will be acceptance and inclusion and accommodation and restoration – and a great party to which all are invited.

excerpt from:
RECLAIMING THE GOOD NEWS - an epistle
by Doug Sloan
http://dmergent.org/2010/08/05/reclaiming-the-good-news-an-epistle/

Hi Andrew

With a sermon on the lost coin and the lost sheep to prepare for this Sunday, given the above, who might we identify today as the ‘righteous’ and who might be the ‘lost’? What might they need to be ‘saved’ from? Or is this now a category error?

Hi James. If it’s not too late, I’ve tried answering your question here.