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.