Most everyone knows the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and almost every convert claims it as that one moment in scripture that resonates with them the most. Unfortunately, because the parable is so well known and strikes at the chords of emotion so easily, it is more prone to abuse and misinterpretation. In fact, this is perhaps one of the most misused parables in scripture. People have attempted to twist the intent and moral of the parable into something which the Lord never intended for it to mean or infer.
Yet before we even touch on the subject, we need to ask ourselves that all important question…what is the point? More specifically, what’s the point of this parable? Let’s review how this chapter from Luke begins:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” [Luke 15:1-2]
Let’s stop right here and ask: To what is Christ responding? The immediate answer is that he is responding to the self righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes in regards to repentant sinners. Tax collectors and sinners were going to Christ and repenting, and as a result Christ permitted them to eat with him (a shadow of the “marriage feast of the lamb” they will have at the resurrection). The Pharisees and the scribes, who saw their sin as being a permanent stain and hence labeled them as permanent outcasts from society, became indignant towards Christ. How dare he accept repentant sinners! they ask themselves. Why was he willingly – if not joyfully – permitting them to eat with him? It is after this indignation that Christ begins to tell three parables, all of them involving lost things that were returned with great joy: the parable of a lost sheep (v. 4-7); the parable of a lost coin (v. 8-10); finally, the parable of a lost son (v. 11-32).
All three, as previously stated, deal with something lost being found with great jubilation, but the first two mainly deal with God’s attitude towards the found lost item. The first parable deals with a shepherd of a hundred sheep (which was actually pretty modest for the time) losing one and, instead of being content with the ninety-nine, goes out and finds the lost one and brings it back, holding a celebration with his friends. “Just so,” our Lord says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7). The second parable deals with a woman having ten coins and yet, upon losing one, turns the house upside down looking for it, and upon finding has a celebration with her friends. “Just so,” our Lord repeats, “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10). God’s attitude towards repentant sinners, Christ says to the Pharisees through these parables, is not one of hatred and judgment as yours is, but is one of joy and celebration.
Now we arrive to the parable of the prodigal son. In the parable, a man has two sons (v. 11), the youngest of whom demands their inheritance early (v. 12). Upon receiving his portion of the inheritance, the youngest son goes to a faraway country and wastes it all on “reckless living” (v. 13), which turns against him when a famine hits the land and he has no way to support himself (v. 14). He takes a job feeding pigs (a major insult in the minds of Christ’s Jewish audience) and yet finds no contentment there, longing even for what the pigs ate (v. 15-16). Eventually the man decides to go back to his father and repent of his error, and ask to be made one of his servants (v. 17-19). The father sees the boy from afar and immediately runs to him, embracing him (v. 20), and before the son can even finish his prepared apology, the father asks his servants to put fine clothes on his son and prepare a feast (v. 21-24).
At this point, the parable is not unlike the others, as it focuses on the joy of finding something that was lost – but Christ adds an extension to this particular parable. The older son, working out in the field all day as he was supposed to do, returns and discovers that his father is preparing a feast for the younger one (v. 25-27). He becomes enraged at this, and tells his father that he can’t understand his joy for the son who was disobedient, when he himself had worked faithfully at his father’s side almost all his life (v. 28-30). The father reminds the older son that all the older son owns is his (v. 31), and then ends with the famous words: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (v. 32).
Let’s stop and ask this question: who does the older son sound like? The older son sounds very much like the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the chapter. Many of them were probably brought up in religious households and had adored the Law most of their lives, and so couldn’t understand the notion that God would welcome someone who had sinned most of their life only to repent in the third act. The older son, likewise, has been model child to the father and can’t understand why the father is showing so much joy now that the problem child has returned to his doorstep.
The entire point of the parable, therefore, is an admonishment against those who are indignant and judgmental of repentant sinners. Not sins or sinners, mind you, but repentant sinners. Any other attempt to read into this parable another moral lesson or point is to commit eisegesis and forget why Christ was telling this parable to begin with.
Nonetheless, many have tried to do so, and often these attempts boil down to two main errors:
First Error: The Prodigal Son is about synergism versus monergism.
Many people have tried to use the parable as a refutation against Calvinism specifically and monergism generally. The reasoning behind this is very simple: it is said that the prodigal son “came to himself” (v. 17) and from that repented, and since there was no monergistic situation involved in his repentance, monergism cannot be true.
The immediate problem here is, as already discussed, the intent of the parable is not to discuss how God and man relate to one another in salvation, but rather how one is to react to repentant sinners. Other parables do touch on the nature of salvation, but this was not intended to discuss the topic of salvation’s mode or man’s ability, and so we should not attempt to read that into the story. The situation between the father and prodigal son is a poor example of God’s relation to mankind. For example, there is no drawing by the Father (John 6:44), nor is there any regeneration in the new birth (John 3:3). If the prodigal son is supposed to be an example of soteriology, then it only serves to prove heresies such as Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism.
I would further argue that a person attempting to look at the parable in a more literal sense would have to consistently conclude that it must teach one of two things:
1) The parable teaches Gnostic Dualism. Gnostic Dualism (or dualism in general) taught that there were two realms – the spiritual and the material – and the spiritual realm was good was the material realm was bad, and neither wanted to have anything to do with them. The prodigal son, after all, leaves the father (the spiritual world) for a “far country” (the material world), and only finds salvation when he returns to his father (the Gnostic enlightenment out of the material to the spiritual). Keep in mind that the only part which belongs to the father in the parable is the farm – the father did not create the “far country,” nor does it belong to him. A literal reading of this makes far more sense in Gnostic Dualism, where God is not the creator of matter, but rather a “demiurge” is, and all within that material world is owned by the demiurge or other lesser deities.
2) The parable teaches Deism. Deism traditionally holds that God is a faraway deity and a very “hands off” Creator whose attributes are mainly seen in His creation and little else (hence deists such as Thomas Paine and others would abhor any kind of special revelation, such as the Bible). If the parable of the prodigal son is to be a more literal representation of how God interacts with man, then what we see here is not only hyper-synergism, but deism. The father does not enter into conflict with the son, but rather simply permits him – with great passivity – to do as he pleases. He does not go after him in the “far country,” and let’s again remind ourselves that the father doesn’t even have any power or authority in the “far country.” This fits very well with the deistic mindset: the father is a benevolent provider, and he won’t offer any support other than showing mercy when we act as we are supposed to act.
Some might immediately say, “Of course this parable doesn’t teach any of those things – that’s reading far too much into it.” However, upon what basis do we say that these examples are reading too much into the parable, while an assumption that the son’s coming to his senses as an explanation of man’s ability is not? The easiest way to discern this, as discussed before, is to look at the original intent of the parable and its immediate context. As it stands, this parable is not about man’s salvation in regards to his personal responsibility, and we should not read it as if it is.
Second Error: The Prodigal Son is a denial of blood atonement or similar kinds of soteriology.
Many people have argued that the parable is a refutation of the idea that Christ paid, or atoned, for our sins on the cross. To cite one example:
As you can see, there’s no concept that our sins put us in God’s debt legally: No idea that somebody has to pay something before He can forgive us. He just forgives us. When the prodigal son came home, the father was already running toward him with his arms open. He didn’t say, “I’d like to take you back, son, but my hands are tied. Who’s going to pay this Visa bill?” [Frederica Mathewes-Green, Christ’s Death: A Rescue Mission, Not a Payment for Sins; source]
Such argumentation forgets a few things:
1) There are no unrepentant sinners in this parable. The father does not have a third son that enters into any kind of judgment or separation. There are two sons: a son who is very obedient to the father, and a son who is disobedient but later repents of it. Christ’s parables that do deal with judgment and those who are given eternal life and others eternal torment would seem to conflict with this parable, which ends with no one receiving judgment. Some have tried to say that the older son is left outside of the feast because he initially refuses to go in (v. 28), but the parable simply ends with the father’s words, and does not say whether the older son did go in or not. Bottom line, the parable is not dealing with judgment versus salvation, as judgment is not even displayed.
2) The larger problem of sin, death and the like is absent from this parable. While some might say there’s nothing here speaking of debt needing to be paid, there likewise is nothing in the parable similar to the very real situation of sin bringing about death, or death itself separating us from God. While there is a discussion of sin and sin bringing about misery in our lives, it ends there, and no further condition on the state of man can be discernibly seen. We must also point out that, in the same vein, such argumentation would suggest there is contradiction between this parable and others which do speak of debt needing to be paid, such as the parable of the ungrateful servant (Matt 18:23-35).
3) No one dies at all in this parable. If we are to say that the parable of the prodigal son is a refutation of the blood atonement model, then we can likewise say that this parable is a refutation of the Christus Victor model or anything similar to it, because in this parable no death of anyone takes place. It literally is simply forgiveness and nothing else – therefore, Christ didn’t even have to die. This leads us to question why Christ therefore did die. We would have to come to the conclusion of liberals or Emergents that he must have died either simply as a noble example to his followers or to make a bold statement to society.
None of the issues raised are a problem when we simply accept what the parable is trying to say at face value and within its proper context. The parable is not talking about judgment of any kind. It is not talking about the mode by which we are made righteous before a holy God. Rather, it is talking about how we are to respond to repentant sinners, and that we are to have an attitude mirroring that of God Himself.
Third Error: The Prodigal Son is a good chance to pick on the oldest son/youngest son.
A secular woman, doing research on American churches, discovered an interesting difference between conservative and liberal churches, and it involved this parable. Namely, each side chose a son to focus on. The conservative churches honed in on the sin and error of the youngest son, while the liberal churches honed in on the judgmental attitude of the oldest son.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with discussing either: the youngest son did sin and had to repent of that sinning; the oldest son was acting judgmental towards his younger brother. However, let’s once again remember what the point of the parable was, and how this is related to the two sons. The youngest son was an adamant sinner so that the parable could have an example of someone who had fallen deeply in sin and yet repented (as the tax collectors and prostitutes had). The eldest son was judgmental in the sense that he didn’t take into account that his younger brother had repented, and neither did he seem to take into consideration the love and acceptance his father had shown to his younger brother.
It is imbalanced to turn the younger son into a sermon of Law-without-Grace, just as it is imbalanced to turn the older son into a sermon on how we should never, ever, ever, ever judge anything ever, be it sin or sinner. Understanding instead that all sinners have the capability to repent – and that we are to welcome them with open arms when they do – is a proper way to handle the parable.