It dawned on me in my devotion time just the other day that we usually think the Prodigal Son was OUT and then back IN again; outside the Kingdom and then back inside, where the family belongs.
That view of the Prodigal Son aligns with the Story of Salvation in 2 Acts, a common, biblical, and faithful way of talking about God’s action for us in Jesus. The Story of Salvation in 2 Acts opens with the sinful state of a fallen world, and then moves from Wrath to Delight: we are on the OUT-side, blind, dead, enemies; and then, because of Jesus, we are heirs, beloved, IN the family.
But the way Jesus tells the parable, the Prodigal goes from being a loved son at home, to a loved son in a foreign country, to a loved son back home again. That’s the Story of Salvation in 3 Acts: a biblical, faithful, and less common way of talking about God’s action for us in Jesus. (Less common for us–not for the Bible. I haven’t done the word count, but as I read around Scripture, I think the split is about 50/50.) The 3-Act version begins with the Very Good creation before the Fall and moves from Delight, to Longing, to More Delight; from Mine with Joy, to Mine but Lost to Me, to Mine Again with Rejoicing.
This second way the Bible has for telling the story shows up in themes like Ransom, Redemption, or Treasured Possession rather than the 2-Act themes of Atonement, Substitution, or Covering Over. (I’m devoting a whole chapter in a book I am writing to those two different ways of talking. I’m hoping that book on God’s delight will be out next spring. If you can’t wait that long, you can hear me teach about the Salvation Drama in 2 Acts or 3 Acts here, or preach about it here.)
Noticing that the Scriptures can talk in both of these distinct ways has helped open up different passages for me. In fact, in the text at hand, I think the exact point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders (or between the father and the older son in the parable) is what kind of Story of Salvation this is. Is this the Salvation Drama in 2 Acts, or in 3?
According to Jesus, the father sends away a son, then recognizes the son far off, and runs to him and treats him as a son, and rejoices over him as a son, and never calls him anything but son: Mine, Mine but Lost to Me, Mine Again with Rejoicing.
Both of the sons disagree with the father on that point: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. I am out of the family, out of the kingdom,” the Prodigal says. The older brother agrees and disavows their filial relationship: “This son of yours…” he says to the father. Both sons are assuming the 2 Act dynamics of IN/OUT rather than MINE, MINE but LOST, MINE and FOUND with delight.
(Side note: my thesis is that, while Jesus does use the In and Out dichotomy, he only ever uses it in the context of what happens at the End Times, and never for the here and now time. So you can separate the wheat and the tares, and both exist already now, but you can’t separate the two until the End, because for now you can’t even tell them apart. There are both Sheep and Goats, yes; and they will end up either In or Out; yes. But that’s the Last Judgement, not the Now Judgement.)
The only character in the parable who is in any danger of being OUT when it comes to the Eschatological Banquet is the older son, who refuses to go IN to join the party. In the father’s eyes, the younger son was never OUT of the family, even when he wished the father dead and ran off with his inheritance; not even when he was eating with pigs.
Even then, he remained a beloved son who was lost. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin, the lost son never lost his identity or his value, even when he thought he had. And the return of sheep, coin, and son is a cause of celebration.
So when Jesus says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” (Luke 15), he can’t mean, “There is joy in heaven when an OUT-sider finally crosses the barrier and comes IN.” Instead, I think Jesus has to mean: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God when the precious person who belongs to me, but was lost to me, is finally mine again…”
In the context of Luke 15, Jesus is hanging out with sinners and getting an earful from the older brother types. I now think the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son tell us more than I originally perceived.
The sheep was never NOT the shepherd’s sheep; the coin was never an enemy deserving wrath. These people, these sinners, are not the bad guys, the evil ones, the enemies of God; they belong to God, and he treasures them, and it is appropriate both to seek them as if they were valuable and to rejoice when they come home.
Even while they are sinners, they aren’t OUT. Or at least, not yet. Maybe that lost sheep is actually a goat, that wheat is really a tare. We’ll find out for sure in the End Times Judgment.
In the meantime, the way Jesus lives out the Kingdom, you value the daughters and sons like beloved children the father longs for and earnestly seeks, even when they are eating with pigs.
Best exegesis ever on this topic, which has troubled me for a long time!
A story about the Father, not the son?
Well, yes; I think so. If we read the Bible as if it were primarily about Jesus and then also about me, I think you can start with seeing this parable as an insight into who God is and what he is like. And that also tells you something about who you are. Jesus seems to tell the story that way: it is really *about* the father, and it has real-life application for both of the sons. That reminds me of Luther’s “A Simple Way to Pray,” which starts with what the text tells me about who God is, what he is like, and what he is up to. Only then do you consider your response of praise, confession, or request for growth. So… yes; I think so.