Thoughts Inspired by The Prodigal God

What insight does the familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) hold for those of us interested in Apologetics? At first glance, it might seem like not much. After all, the parable tells the tale of two sons and their loving father. Most of the time we focus on the younger son – the one who wasted his inheritance in a faraway land on wine, women and song – and that provides an avenue to discuss God’s grace and love. After all, the father did forgive the younger son his sins and welcomed him home, didn’t he? If the father can forgive the waywardness of the younger son, then certainly god can forgive the sinner who returns to the forgiveness god offers, can’t he?

In Tim Keller’s latest book, The Prodigal God, he points out that the younger son’s forgiveness by the father is not the main point of the story. Rather, Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees who are criticizing the fact that Jesus is hanging around with the “undesirables” in the Jewish community. After all, Luke 15:1-3 notes, "Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to [Jesus]. Both the Pharisees and the scribes {began} to grumble, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' So He told them (meaning the Pharisees and scribes) this parable, saying…" Jesus then launches into three parables concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. His sermon (as it were) was directed to the righteous, 'church'-attending members of his audience.

Keller then asks a perfectly reasonable question: if the parable is directed to the Pharisees, which of the two sons is more like the Pharisees? The younger prodigal son or the older stay-at-home-and-try-to-do-the-will-of-his-father son? Keller’s conclusion: the elder son is the one who is most like the Pharisees and the more important son to focus on to fully understand that point of the parable.

And exactly what do we see when we focus on the elder son? We see a man who, like the Pharisees, is unhappy that the father is welcoming home the prodigal younger son(s). In fact, when the elder brother learns the younger son has returned, the elder son is angry that his father has thrown a feast for the younger son. After all, the elder son stayed home and (in his own words) had stayed home to serve the father and “never neglected a command of yours.” Making the connection Keller makes, we can see where the words of the elder son sound like the Pharisees. After all, this is exactly the attitude that the Pharisees held when they thought that they could follow the law religiously enough to please God. Paul, when describing his own Pharisee experience, echoes these same sentiments when he describes his Pharisee-self “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” (Phil. 3:6) The elder brother believed that by doing his father’s will – following his commands – he had somehow become blameless and therefore entitled to the fatted calf or the feast in his honor.

But this is the point of the Gospel. The elder brother could not earn the love of his father. The father’s love is freely given. It is given to those who come to him acknowledging their sin – their spiritual wanderlust.

But here’s where the parable becomes applicable to apologists: are we acting like the elder brother when argue for the truth of the Gospel? Are our apologetics efforts reaching the people where they are at, or are we preaching a gospel of "come to church and be a moral person"? Consider the following from Keller’s book:

The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder brother type does not.

So, when we are doing our apologetics are we acting like the elder brother and, as a result, driving away the people that God attracted? Are we acting “holier than thou”? Are we sneering at them? Are we treating them as lesser people because they don't conform to our moral standards? How many of us welcome into the church the punker? What about the ghetto king? Are we trying to reach them with the truth of the Gospel or are we trying to reach them with our churchiness?

Keller continues:

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believe\ing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message Jesus did.

When we practice our apologetics, are we trying to appeal to people’s morality or are we trying to reach people with the message of hope and forgiveness that God offered? Are we engaging in apologetics to spread our Christian morality or the message of salvation?


Jason Pratt said…
A fine report Bill.

The only thing I would add, is that (much as elsewhere in the Gospels, though this isn't always apparent), neither is the parable simply directed against the 'elder brother' / Pharisees. The father clearly loves the older brother, too, and even says "all that I have is yours!" (Though one does wonder whether the brother's complaint about not even having had a goat to celebrate with his friends is accurate or Eastern hyperbole-complaint. After all, the older brother is already the inheriting owner and operator of all that remains of his father's estate--including the gifts that the father is now giving to the younger brother!)

The rebuke to the older brother isn't that the older brother is trying to earn the love of his father (though that may be also implied), but that the older brother isn't willing to stop hating the younger brother who, in effect, has returned from hell and the grave.


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