The Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15) has been a favorite of liberal theologians for a couple of centuries. It seems to be a parable designed for liberal sensibilities: An indulgent, accepting Father; forgiveness extended without a cross; a surly older brother who might represent the “conservative” face of religion who demands reciprocity and fairness. It’s the parable that seems to best summarize H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous summary of liberalism: A God without judgment accepts human beings without sin by saving without a cross.
In response, some conservatives have attempted to find the cross in the parable. Tim Keller emphasizes that the stuff that the father gives to the returned prodigal come from the father’s goods, and hence from the older son’s future inheritance. The older son resents the father’s generosity because any gain for the prodigal is a loss for his brother. So the forgiveness does come at a cost, one borne, resentfully, by the older brother. But we have an Older Brother who gives His inheritance without resentment. The older brother of the parable resents a small diminishment of the value of his portfolio; Jesus gives His very life so that prodigals like us can wear our Father’s ring and robe, and share in His festive joy.
It’s a neat Christological reading, and does have some basis in the text. Jesus tells the parable because the Pharisees are complaining about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). He is the Son who shares in the joy of the Father over repentant sinners; He is in fact the embodied joy of the Father, who isn’t angry over the fact that the Father makes such a fuss over the rest of his children. Jesus is not envious of his position, not grasping for equality with God, but rejoices when the Father finds things that have been lost. Luke 15 as a whole poses a stark contrast between Jesus the Older Brother and the Pharisees, who should be entering into joy.
Still, Keller’s reading seems somewhat forced. There’s no explicit indication in the text that the older brother of the parable is worried about the loss of his inheritance, and the damage is minimal anyway. Granted that clothing and jewelry were dear in the ancient world, the father seems a wealthy man and the older brother would have a stash even after losing one set of clothes, a ring, and a fatted calf. The older son still stands to inherit all that the father has. Perhaps we are to understand just how petty the older son is, and so to understand that the Pharisees whom he represents are angry about even the least loss of status. Perhaps we are to see just how little it costs the Pharisees to welcome sinners. Even so, to suggest that the small loss to the older brother evokes the greater loss of the cross seems a step too far.
The larger question is whether we should expect Jesus to include an entire substitutionary atonement theory in every parable. Once we pose the question, it’s obvious that His parables don’t work that way. They aren’t stories about the whole of atonement, but occasional stories applying to particular circumstances (e.g., the Pharisees complaining about Jesus’ meals with sinners). Jesus tells other parables that don’t include the cross (e.g., the king who cancels a debt his servant owes); even when the death of Jesus is in the parable, it’s not necessarily about substitutionary atonement (e.g., the parable of the tenants – the son dies, but he doesn’t die for anyone). It’s difficult to think of any parable that provides a theory of substitutionary atonement, but that is simply because the parables aren’t always offered as explanations of the cross in the first place. The only reason conservatives feel the need to find the cross in the Prodigal Son parable is because liberals denied it was there. It’s not a debate that arises from the text; it’s a debate into which this parable has been enlisted, in a way that distorts the point of the parable.
This doesn’t mean that the Prodigal Son story has no place in a theory of atonement, but to see its place we need to recognize that the gospels provide a narrative that leads to the cross and resurrection. We can see the role that the parables play in the atonement when we see how the life of Jesus is linked to His death. We need an atonement theory that doesn’t focus simply on the cross, but one that encompasses the life that leads to the cross.
We can put this point in a couple of different ways. First, the Prodigal Son parable is one of many parables in which the Pharisees are presented as the villains. That makes the Pharisees angry, murderously angry at Jesus. Jesus parables, like His meal practices, His healings, His demonstration in the temple, are among the things that the Jewish leaders object to. They form the basis for the false charges that are brought against Jesus at His trial.
Second, the atonement is a series of historical events, and not simply the single event of the cross. The atonement includes the ministry of Jesus, His teaching and gathering of apostles, His arrest and trial, His death, and His exaltation (and, Jesus’ life have to be set in the context of the history of Israel and of Adam – the whole Bible is an atonement narrative). When we isolate the cross from this context, it’s impossible to make sense of the cross. That means that the atonement is unfolded over different stages of Jesus’ life. The liberals are right about the Prodigal Son story to this extent: Jesus does offer reconciliation – better, He enacts reconciliation – prior to the cross. Sinners are sharing meals with the incarnation God of Israel. That is part of the story of the cross because it’s one of the practices of Jesus that leads to the cross. Luke 15 isn’t the whole story of the gospel; it’s a moment in the set of events that reconciles us with God. Within the narrative of Luke, the cross is a result of Jesus’ prodigal welcome rather than a cause of that welcome.
This isn’t to minimize the cross. It’s not to deny that there’s a fundamental substitutionary dimension of the atonement. The Father’s welcome of sinners to His table becomes an enduring reality in the world because Jesus is delivered up for our transgressions and raised for our justification. Jesus’ hospitality to sinners leads to the cross; the Father raises Jesus, among other things, to vindicate Jesus’ hospitality to sinners, to demonstrate that God approves Jesus’ table and to call us to follow Jesus in welcoming the outcasts. The cross judges surly older brothers, and gathers the feast of the Father so we can enter into His joy.
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute.
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