Misinterpreting Jesus for the sake of the gospel: parables of a prodigal son

Read time: 7 minutes

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.

Justin | Sat, 11/26/2011 - 23:16 | Permalink

Great post Andrew.  There isn't even any indication in the parable that the younger son even 'repents' at all.  Luke 15:17-20 shows that the only motivation he has for coming home is realizing he is eating pigs food when he could be having steak and chips at Dad's joint so he shams up a 'repentance' speech (which the Dad doesn't even listen to anyway) and trots back home.  The evangelical salvation paradigm makes no sense in this parable.


Why “shams up”? The expression “came to himself” suggests that what follows is a rather honest self-appraisal, and I would have thought that his prepared speech is meant to be taken at face value, even if the father interrupts him when he actually gets his chance to give it.

Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants. (15:18-19)

Doesn’t this suggest contrition? Aren’t we supposed to think that he is quite serious about returning as a servant rather than as a son?

The material well-being that he seeks and that the father graciously and generously bestows upon him would probably also carry much more positive connotations in Judaism than in our much more dualistic religious culture.

You have to keep in mind, too, that the younger son represents the “sinners” with whom Jesus was accused of associating by the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus would not have said that their repentance was shammed up, surely?

peter wilkinson | Sun, 11/27/2011 - 17:45 | Permalink

Allowing for contextualisation, Andrew, I wonder if you are right to say that Jesus is not preaching an evangelistic message in Luke 15? It was certainly good news for "the sinning classes in Israel" that he, a prominent rabbi, received and ate with them. Wasn't this evangelistic?

You say:

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.

Is this true? The older brother is, in context, representative of the Pharisees, who most certainly, and exclusively, regarded themselves as "the righteous who do good works, who keep the commandments of the living God". These were the people whom Jesus had bitterly criticised in Luke 11:37-54. The rich young ruler of Luke 18 had one of the same problems as the Pharisees - he loved wealth, and this prevented him from following Jesus. In his own way, he was just as much in need of repentance as the Pharisees. But what of those who may have been, unlike the Pharisees,  “the righteous who do good works, who keep the commandments of the living God”? Did they not need to repent? In the sense that Jesus was calling everyone to a radical new agenda in relation to God's purposes, they needed to repent as much as anyone, although perhaps not obviously from their own personal sin.   

You rightly say that the problem of the older brother 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.

But behind this is a much bigger issue, which is to do with the character and intentions of the God of Israel. The Pharisees represent those who think they understand and obey YHWH better than others. Forgiveness and generosity towards those who were unlike themselves was not part of this understanding, but which was being demonstrated abundantly in Jesus. Forgiveness of the excluded was at the heart of Jesus's death on the cross – Ephesians 2:14-16. It was about to be poured out across the world. This kind of supremely and outrageously generous forgiveness was at the heart of the good news which the father demonstrated, the younger son received, but which the older son could not understand, and rejected.

It is, of course, an outrageous forgiveness. The father honours the younger son, by giving him the best robe, placing a ring on his finger and celebrating with a feast in his honour. Surely these were honours which rightly belonged to the older son alone, by birth and merit? The parable ends with the older son "refusing to go in", and perhaps with greater justification than we often allow.

Could the forgiveness extended to the younger son, and by association to the sinners with whom Jesus ate, be limited to those in Israel alone who were received by Jesus? Is it just a story about Israel? The parable itself does not directly address such a question, but the wider context of the New Testament does, for not only were those who thought they were representing Israel eventually excluded, but classes of people well beyond Israel, “Gentile sinners”, found themselves included in this radical forgiveness, in ways which would have provoked the older son and all whom he represented to even greater fury.

In the sense that the parable is saying something about the character and intentions of God, which have implications reaching beyond Israel to the entire creation, I think it is impossible to limit the story to Israel alone. To do so would demonstrate the same limitation of understanding from which the older brother suffers, the same exclusive ethnic elitism and the same catastrophic misperception which characterised the Pharisees. The parable would then be directed against all those holding such a narrowness of interpretation, since it would contradict something about God himself, and his purposes for all his creation, and not Israel alone.

@peter wilkinson:

Yes, the story has an evangelistic angle, just not in the sense in which the term is usually understood today.

The rest of your comment seems to me to come into the category of what-about-everything-else-in-the-gospels?

The story itself addresses a particular problem—the inability of the scribes and Pharisees to understand why Jesus ate with sinners. That is the issue that sets up the three parables in Luke 15. It is also the issue that is addressed in the story. The older son has a hard time accepting the lavish forgiveness of his brother, though I still don’t think it’s obvious that the older son walks away from the parable condemned.

What happens in the story has wider implications. That is patently obvious. But I don’t think that we are, therefore, justified in trying to read those wider implications back into the story. The God who forgives the prodigal Jew is also the God who forgives the idolatrous Gentile. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus was telling a story about the forgiveness of Gentiles, which is why the parable does not come close to being evangelistic in the modern sense.

This is not a matter of “exclusive ethnic elitism”. That is a very provocative assertion. The parable is part of a larger narrative that radically undercuts the Jewish chauvinism. But it is a story limited to Israel both by internal structure (a father has two sons) and by context (it is told to Pharisees about Jewish sinners), in the same way that Jesus restricted the proclamation of good news to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Is Jesus to be accused of “exclusive ethnic elitism”?

Of course, we could tell a story like this one about the God who calls all humanity to himself, though we might have a hard time making the metaphor of a father and two sons work, and it wouldn’t be the story that Jesus told. Forgiveness is later extended to Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:11-22), but unlike the two sons, Gentiles do not start from a position of sonship or being in possession of an inheritance. They are alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. They gain an inheritance by being incorporated into the people of God.

Thank you for addressing this. I agree with what you are saying and I've even taught it myself (once you look at the context, as you say, the meaning becomes pretty clear).  However, the message of the parable inherently includes the gosple (not, agreed, the reformed legalism vs faith angle): The prodigal son is in fact "saved" in the story (he functions as an an example, picture or metaphor of salvation). Without this the story goes nowhere, obviously, because the older brother's complaint would not parallel the complaint of the pharisees that started the whole series of parables. So I'm all for evangelistic messages from this passage. It's really there. But I also agree that we have overall probably neglected the lesson about rejoycing when someone is saved. Still, wouldn't it be out of keeping with the general direction of the gospel to put a damper on gospel preaching from it on the basis that this is not quite the main point? Wouldn't that be an older brother type move? (Not saying you are, but one can easily imagine some know-it-all hot shot exegete making that sort of claim)


Rob (ROb?), agreed. Thanks for chipping in. There is gospel in the story. Peter Wilkinson made a similar point. The parable is about the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to the good news that God is extending forgiveness to sinners on the fringes of Israel. The forgiveness of Jewish sinners was a sign to Israel—it said something about the coming kingdom of God; and the parable at least highlights the precarious situation of the Jewish leaders who resented Jesus’ dramatic enactments of acceptance and reconciliation. The traumatic coming of the kingdom as both wrath and forgiveness resulted in the transformation of the people of God and broke open the doors of the covenant, allowing uncircumcised Gentiles to enter. This transformed people then became a startling, game-changing new presence in the ancient world, a new humanity. And the rest is also history.

So yes, we can work outwards from the parable of the prodigal son, understood in its context, to embrace the whole massive transformation that was entailed in the coming of the kingdom of God. But it doesn’t help us understand the New Testament to then stuff the whole story back into the parable. My plea is that we simply allow the parable to say what it needs to say, and then move on. I would rather we got into the habit of telling the whole story more or less as history than kept trying to make our favourite gospel-like passages do all the work.

Rich Duncan | Wed, 11/30/2011 - 13:57 | Permalink


Great stuff!  I'll tell you, after becoming a Preterist and having to go back and re-read Scripture, I have been amazed how much of it I read completely wrong and out of context.  This latest article of yours is a perfect example.  Two things popped out to me.  One, and the one you were bring out, the point of the story, and two, it's about Israel!  Not mankind in general.  Jesus came to save Israel; both houses! ie. "all Israel", Romans 11:25.

God promised to save Israel.  All the promises were made to her.  We Gentiles then can be grafted into her.  If she wasn't raised, then we (Gentiles) are lost.  Jesus couldn't have said it any better when he made a small but profound statement, "Salvation is of the Jews"!

@Andrew Perriman:


Well, actually, it's not having become a Preterist that leads to making historical sense of the historical text (the Bible), but the making historical sense of the historical text that caused me to become a Preterist.  And from what I've read, in your articles, you're so close I would even dare to use the word "shortly" or "soon" in reference to you finally claiming (or admitting) to such a position. :)


Fair point, Rich, but I still don’t see the need to “become a Preterist”. On the one hand, it sounds sectarian. On the other, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. To my mind, the issue is not whether prophecy has been fulfilled or not but whether we can live with the constraints of historical perspective. It is a matter of hermeneutics. I might admit to being something like a critical-realist or narrative-historicist perhaps, but even then these are clumsy labels and I wouldn’t want to have them stitched into my clothing or tattooed on my forehead.

Actually, in my ways I would consider myself a futurist when it comes to prophecy. I would stress the fact that the New Testament predicts highly significant future events, such as the war against Rome and the vindication of the early church. I think that the church needs to recover a  prophetic perspective on its own foreseeable future. And I certainly think we need to keep the prospect of a final renewal of all creation before our eyes.

@Andrew Perriman:


"New Testament predicts highly significant future events, such as the war against Rome"

Couple of things.  1) concering future events.  I don't see any passages that refer to anything in our future.  2) I don't see the various passages that you (bsaed on reading many of your articles) usually attribute to Rome as references to Rome. In my mind what you see as Rome I see as OC fleshly Israel.  It was fleshly Israel (land beast) that persecuted the Church.  Now that doesn't mean there are no references to Rome.  Rome being the beast from the sea in Revelation for one example.

"And I certainly think we need to keep the prospect of a final renewal of all creation before our eyes."

Again, I don't see this at all.  I don't think the physical world has anything to do with Scripture/Prophecy.  I don't buy into there being a "curse" on the physical universe, let alone it needing "fixed" (gnosticism?).   In my mind, Genesis 1 (or 2) is not an account of a physical creation.  I see Genesis as a covenant creation account.  The creation of Israel, which started with Adam, Israel's first covenant man (not first human being to exist).  I would fall under (even though I seem to be like you when it comes to labels and don't like them, but hey, the world uses them) the category of a Covenant Creationist.

God pulled Adam out from among mankind.  Established a covenant with him, and then working from there via a covenant line, eventually created Israel's as a nation, which eventually lead down to Jesus who then inturn brought all mankind (both Jew and Gentile - corporate entities) into covenant.

Thus, I see no account of the creation of the  physical universe in the Bible. Just as the Bible doesn't give us an account of the "after" when we physically die, it doen't give an account of the beginning of the physical creation.  This is because that is not the purpose/subject of Scripture.  The subject is man and his stance before God.  The physical has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that.  A rock is just a rock.  Always has and always will be just a rock.  You're probably now thinking of Romans 8.  The creation is Romans 8 is Israel.  That is why is Ro. 8:22 Paul can include something in addition to the creation when he says the "whole creation" has been groaning "together".  The "whole" and "together" shows addition of something else to "creation".  That addition to the creation is the Gentile man.

Anyway, I could go on forever.  You might want to poke around a bit here.


Here is an excellent article to start with.