Interpreting parables: the prodigal

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the famous parable of “The Prodigal Son.” The younger son demands his inheritance early, wastes it, then returns to the father, groveling to be treated like a servant. The father welcomes him lovingly, returning honor to him, while the older son grits his teeth in anger that the younger son was accepted.

Everyone focuses on the younger son and the father’s love for him.
It is a great picture of a father eagerly accepting a son he thought was lost, even though the son’s actions caused him great pain. We like to imagine this is how God receives sinners. And, to a degree, our imagining would be accurate.

There are two problems with our typical treatment of the story.

First, we leave out the older brother. A key component of interpreting parables is to look for the reason Jesus told them. Though it doesn’t happen always, on many occasions the author who recorded the event tells us why the parable was given. In Luke 15:1-3, we are told why Jesus told the parable of “The Older Brother.” Scribes and Pharisees were out of sorts because Jesus ate with ‘sinners.’ Verse 3 says ‘so he told them this parable.’

Luke actually records three: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and “The Older Brother.” All three emphasize that there is joy when things thought to be lost were found again. But the point of the telling is in 15:25-32, where the actions and attitudes of the older brother are recorded. He despised his father for glorying in the younger son’s return, because he (the older) had always been there, dutifully obeying the father though he apparently did so with no love in his heart.

Jesus was equating the older brother’s hatred with that of the scribes and Pharisees, who thought that ‘sinners’ were not worthy to receive grace. The parable is still hard-hitting today, when many of us look down on those we think are not worthy of mercy, or to hear the gospel, or to receive our time and energy.

Second, we treat the story as an evangelistic tool. That is, we tell the story of the younger son with a view to persuading men to repent and return to God. It is true that the story contains a marvelous picture of a loving father who welcomes home a wayward son, with all its facets of unconditional love and forgiveness. But a crucial element is missing: substitution.

Our sin separates us from God, like the younger son’s greed and waste separated him from the father. But even if we recognized that fact, and wanted to return to God, God would not — indeed, could not — accept us merely on our desire, no matter how sincere. In God’s economy, our sin incurs a debt against his honor that must be satisfied, and because we cannot satisfy it, there must be One who can. In fact, God provides One who can, and Jesus lived a substitutionary life and died a substitutionary death to provide a life of obedience we couldn’t live and to die the death we couldn’t survive.

Is “The Older Brother” a good story of forgiveness? Sure. But the point of the story, as told by Jesus, was to jab us in the eye and make us repent for feelings of superiority over those we consider worse ‘sinners’ than ourselves.

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