An acquaintance recently posted some thoughts about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, sometimes called the Parable of the Two Sons. He tried to make the point that the parable is not about repentance but about the terrible, judgmental attitude of the older brother, which he equated with “professional clergy,” and the loving and non-judgmental heart of the Father. Here’s what he writes:
The younger son did not come back home to “repent”. He came home because he was at the end of his self-destructive rope, only to find that the One he considered “dead” did not hold it against him. He came home in order to survive and be menial servant, but his father receives him as a son.
The parable is no more about repentance than the previous two parables. The emphasis is on the character of the Father (only love) and the contrasted religious character of the older son (anger). It highlights that Father is not the angry, vindictive, retributively just, judge that religion wants him to be.
Unfortunately, he has missed the point. Jesus wasn’t saying that judging sinners was wrong, but that refusing to recognize repentance was the problem. Put another way, Jesus embraced repentant, forgiven sinners, and welcomed them into the kingdom of God.
This parable, as also the previous two parables, are all about repentance, since the younger brother does repent (“I have sinned against heaven and before thee…” are the words he rehearses on his way home) and repentance is exactly what “coming to his senses” means; check St. Paul in 2 Tim. 2:25
“That they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil having been held captive by him to do his will.”
To suggest that there is no caution or warning here to erring, straying, and rebellious “younger brothers” (since the “context is all about the Father’s love”) is to take the Scriptures out of context. Which is ironic, since my friend’s original purpose was to try and correct people who read this parable out of context.
Speaking of “context,” let’s not forget that Jesus’ ministry was all about repentance; after all, “repent and enter the kingdom of God” was his first sermon, which came on the heels of the prophetic ministry of His forerunner, John the Baptist, who himself preached repentance in the wilderness–a sermon which the Pharisees, by the way, thought they didn’t need.
Whether our sins are hidden under a religious decoration or exposed for all to see, Jesus in this parable makes it clear our standards should be the same as God’s: both in judging sin and in welcoming repentant sinners. All this is also largely why Luther called repentance a picture of the entire Christian life, in his first of ninety five theses at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.
Think about it: if you read this parable of the Two Sons and are convicted and humbled to learn that you’re more like the younger brother, you’ll have hope in knowing the Father is ready and even eager, in merciful and forgiving love, to welcome you back.
On the other hand, if you read this parable and discover, in reading, that you’ve been carrying around a self-righteous attitude toward people who’s sin is more flagrant, but no less wicked than your own secret haughty pride–an attitude that is like the older brother–then you’ll have hope in knowing the Father invites you to His feast, too, and that “all He has is already yours.”
In both cases, however, the Father’s willingness to forgive presupposes an underlying warning: no repentance, no welcome. No sorrow over sin, no admittance into the Father’s house. And in case you didn’t notice, you’re supposed to find yourself in this parable. That’s why Jesus is telling it.
But he’s also telling it because there is an implied Third Son, the Obedient Son who not only stayed home (instead of getting the inheritance and spending it all on wild living), but also who also welcomed, rather than scorned, the repentant younger brother who returned.
This Third Son’s name is Jesus, and He was the Obedient Son who needed no repentance, but instead, went to the cross for other people’s sins, dying in their place. By his propitiatory sacrifice, He brings peace on earth, and peace in our hearts, in the kingdom that is launched by His death, burial, and resurrection.
Both older and younger brothers are in desperate need of this Savior, and in order to embrace him, they both must repent. That’s the bad news: whether younger brother or older brother; whether layperson or pastor; whether Bible scholar or Bible student; whether our “context” is always right or whether it is often wrong.
But the good news is that God is a Father who always welcomes us back in love when we repent of our sins, turn from our wicked ways, and thereby, like little children, enter the kingdom of God.
PS. The image at the head of this post is from Artkid; check out his other stuff here.