The Prodigal Son

A. Craig Troxel
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Recovering the Message of Scripture

In this special section of our "Rightly Dividing the Word" issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.

When I heard the news on New York City's WFAN that Michael Jordan was coming out of retirement to play basketball again, the voice said, "The 'prodigal son' of the NBA has come home." Here was a sports radio station in "unchurched" New York City assuming that its listeners possessed sufficient religious literacy to catch the biblical allusion as well as its meaning and significance. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible, among both Christians and non-Christians alike. Everyone knows this parable and everyone knows what it means.

People, however, have "discovered" meaning and layers of meaning in this parable that are not there. As the illustrious Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield noted, commentators have been tempted to say that the message of this parable communicates the essence of the gospel, when in fact the "heart of the Gospel" is not in it at all (B. B. Warfield, "The Prodigal Son," The Saviour of the World [1912; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991], 3-33). Surely this is a surprising if not alarming statement. And yet it is true.

Both scholars and laypeople have sought to read the essence of the gospel into the parable, and thus they have successfully read out of the gospel all that is not in this parable. For example, Warfield observed that if this parable is meant to convey the core of the gospel, then where does it teach the sacrificial death of our Lord? It is absent. That is why the Socinians seized upon this parable to defend their heresy that the Father demands no satisfaction of the Son. Modern liberals could undoubtedly make similar sport in order to peddle their bloodless Christianity. Also notice that there is no trace of the work of the Holy Spirit in the parable. There is nothing here to suggest that God's Spirit moved the prodigal son by granting him the grace of repentance through a regenerate heart so that he would "come to himself." If a modern evangelical missed this, the old Pelagians did not. Here is proof, they said, of one who moves toward God by his own power. Furthermore, we do not see a father who seeks out and pursues his wayward son. In the two preceding parables–the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin–the shepherd and the woman earnestly seek out what was lost; but in this parable the father does not seek out his son. The parable of the prodigal son was not meant to convey this point, because as Warfield notes, "What is the essence of the Gospel if it is not the seeking love of God?" Again and again, through the manhandling of the parable's sublime message, its simple point has been dulled.

The parable of the prodigal son teaches the same point that the two parables preceding it make: there is great joy in heaven when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10). This point grows in its significance when one considers that the tax collectors and other "sinners" were coming to Jesus and that this greatly offended the sensibilities of the Pharisees and Scribes. They disparaged this teacher who was willing to receive and associate with such sinners. So we are told in verse 3 that Jesus spoke these parables in response to their attitude. And yet, to the astonishment of his listeners, Jesus did not tell them explicitly why he receives and associates with sinners. Instead, he told them how heaven responds to the recovery of lost sinners. In other words, Jesus was saying, "The reason I receive repenting sinners is because heaven rejoices over repenting sinners. Your quarrel is not with me. It is with God and his angels in heaven."

The parable provokes the question of why the religious authorities would not rejoice with the father when his lost son returns, particularly when he returned penitent and humbled. Why would they not revel in what God "will not despise," namely, a contrite heart? And if one is not drawn to this father in love or to the son in sympathy, then one is cornered and forced to keep company with the older son. Of course, this is exactly where these religious authorities are.

Here then is the appropriate place to consider a lesser, corollary point of the parable, which bolsters its primary message. The older son cannot understand his father's acceptance of his brother who has squandered a large share of the family's wealth. He cannot see how so much fuss can be made over his rebellious sibling, especially when he, the more responsible son, would never dream of committing such scandalous acts. And though he has lived righteously in obedience, he has never received such a party. No, he cannot join in the festivities. It is indecent. So what will the father do?

The father leaves the house and the festivities in order to seek out this son whose heart is also wayward. He pleads with his older son who has retreated into a smug selfishness. The father explains the family's celebration and why all should rejoice similarly. His son was truly lost and even dead in his former wayward life, and his return is nothing short of a miracle. Here is the searching love of the father seeking out his older son's heart. And this is the attitude of Jesus.

Just as the father reaches out to his older son and pleads with him to adopt a heavenly attitude, so also is Jesus reaching out, as he speaks this parable, to these obstinate "older brothers" who need to rejoice in the recovery of sinners. He does not ignore them but rather invites them into heaven's mercy, which is available even for them if they will "come to themselves." And for each of them that do repent, the angels of heaven will rejoice.

Heaven still rejoices over each sinner who repents. Jesus still accepts those who turn from their sin and turn to him. The point of this parable is simple, but it is not simply a parable. It speaks not just to us but about us. It reminds us that we are unworthy to be sons, but we are regarded as such in heaven. It speaks about how we who trust in Christ are and will be received in heaven by the angels, by our Father and by our Lord–with much rejoicing.

Photo of A. Craig Troxel
A. Craig Troxel
A. Craig Troxel is the Robert G. den Dulk Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author of With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ (Crossway, 2020).
Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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