This week’s passage from Luke 15 is considered to be one long teaching moment by Jesus. It’s helpful to remember that in the Greek, there are no punctuation marks. No periods, commas, and exclamation points. In order to translate a passage in Greek, the entirety of the text must be taken into consideration. The prodigal son is one of the more fully developed parables that Jesus told. Many who don’t belong to the Christian faith know and use the teachings of this parable.
None of the characters are two-dimensional. All three express strong emotions in such a way that they invite readers to connect with them. From the perspective of the elder son, it’s the story of how he is steadfast and faithful while his feckless, prodigal brother squanders a fortune and is then welcomed home. From the perspective of the younger son, it’s the story of how he foolishly asks for, receives, and then wastes his inheritance on dissolute living. Chastened and nearly starving, he realizes his father’s servants are better off than he is, and so he formulates an apology and returns.
From the perspective of the father, this is a story about losing a son and, in fact, regarding that boy as dead. It was very unusual that a son would ask for his inheritance before his father died, yet even knowing that this was not a wise choice on his son’s part, the father acquiesces. In giving the inheritance to his son, the father shows surprising disregard for his own rights and honour.
The drama of this story takes off when the younger son practices his apology over and over. In it, he confesses his sin and recognises that he has forfeited his position as son. When the father sees his son across a field, he runs to meet him and we get a sense of hurried excitement. Some theologians wonder if the father is running to protect his son from scorn from his village. The father never seems to judge the sincerity of the younger son’s confession and never waits for explanation. Instead, he orders slaves to “put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it.”
Though honour and reputation were valuable commodities, the father again seems to care little for his own honour that was likely damaged through this incident. His joy is palpable. And later, when confronted by the angry, hurt elder son, the father responds with compassion. He calls his elder son teknon, which means child. It is a form of affection that affirms their relationship. The father pleads with the elder son. He reminds him of their bond as parent and child, saying to him, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” He tries to persuade him to accept his younger brother, “this brother of yours.” In the end, we don’t know what the elder son chooses to do. Neither do we know what happened to the younger son. To be forgiven can catch us at our most vulnerable state. We have no ground to stand on; we simply accept.
Through this parable we can see that the church is to be a means of grace and a herald of truth—not either/or. We Christians often can’t seem to decide whether we are a museum for the saints or a hospital for sinners.” Many Ministers would say that their fears about choosing one of these options should not, perhaps, form competing visions for local church life, but sadly they often do. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is the same kingdom of God he enacted, and it is the same kingdom to which he summons the church.
The church is to proclaim and practice reconciliation, that being the essence of the kingdom: the reconciliation of all of us to God and the reconciliation of each of us to the other, and neither the proclamation nor the practice of reconciliation can finally exist without the other. Either emphasis, without the counterweight of the other, leads to ruin. The “hospital for sinners” model can leave believers awash in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” namely, “grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.
It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God . . . the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner” The “museum of saints” model, on the other hand, can chill non-believers and even the faithful with a cold and impassive shoulder. An austere, compassionless rendering of the gospel leaves people knowing that they are not righteous but also not necessarily that they are forgiven.
In either view, what might be called true doctrine and true community seem independent of each other. For
, however, authentic community and particular
doctrinal confessions of the gospel are interdependent. The church is not a
group of volunteers who have chosen Christ, but saints chosen by Christ—called
and given identity through a particular confession and hope: truth and grace;
ministry and message; not one without the other. Saint