The Prodigal Son Story, part 3.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 July 2023

Luke 15.25-31.

There are three natural parts to the Prodigal Son Story:

  1. The son leaving and squandering his inheritance.
  2. The son returning and his father rejoicing.
  3. The elder son objecting to the celebration out of jealous bitterness.

By consensus Christians have always interpreted this story to be about someone who repents of their excessive living and turns to God, with the father as God’s stand-in.

And by consensus Christians have always interpreted ourselves as the elder son. And… we kinda don’t like comparing ourselves with this irritated man. So we insist he’s typical of other Christians. Less gracious ones. But not us.

’Cause we know better, right? We know Christianity is all about proclaiming God’s grace. And God forgives everyone! Any repentant sinner, anyone who tells God, “I can’t save myself, so you’ll have to do it,” anyone who says the sinner’s prayer and makes Jesus the Lord of their lives.

So to be like this elder brother, and say, “Oh, those dirty sinners coming to Jesus to save them—those people can’t be saved. Those people aren’t worthy of salvation”—that’s just nuts. Were we unsavable, or worthy of salvation, when we came to Jesus? Of course not, but Jesus died for our sins anyway, and we too can be saved. Anyone can.

Hence every single Christian reads the Prodigal Son Story, reads about the elder son’s bad attitude, and reacts pretty much the same way: “What a dick. Doesn’t he get it? His brother repented! He’s come to Jesus! Shouldn’t we rejoice if our wayward family members repent and come to Jesus? Rejoice!”

Here, watch him be a dick:

Luke 15.25-31 KWL
25 At this time, the elder son is in the field,
and as he comes near the house,
he hears music and dancing.
26 Calling one of the boys,
he’s asking himself, ‘Whatever ought this be?’
27 The boy tells him this:
‘Your brother is come!
Your father sacrificed the well-fed calf,
because he he got him back safe and sound.’
28 The elder son is enraged
and doesn’t want to enter the feast.
His father comes out to comfort him.
29 In reply the elder son tells the father, ‘Look!
I slaved for you so many years!
I never pushed against your commands,
and you never gave me a goat
so I might celebrate with my friends.
30 While this son of yours,
who devours your life’s work with loose women,
you sacrifice the well-fed calf for him!’
 
31 The father tells him, ‘Child,
you’re always with me,
and everything of mine is yours.
32 We have to celebrate and rejoice,
because this brother of yours is dead and lives,
and having been lost, is found.’ ”

Okay. Now here’s how the rest of us Christians have missed the whole point of this story, and missed how we actually are like the elder son. The younger son, who left his father and family and frittered away the father’s “life’s work with loose women”? Lk 15.30 Jesus isn’t describing a pagan who doesn’t know any better. He’s describing a Jew. A co-religionist. Someone who grew up under the Law of Moses, who was educated by Pharisees, who fully knew what God’s expectations are for his chosen people, who was raised better than this. Who left his family, left the promised land, to do as he pleased. To party.

Jesus is talking about an apostate.

And what does your average Christian teach about fellow Christians who quit Jesus? That they’re going to hell. That because they saw salvation, yet rejected it, they’re no longer receiving it; they’ve committed an unforgivable sin; they’ve doomed themselves. Some’ll insist they were never saved in the first place. They’re gone. They’re damned.

Some will even cut off all communication with them, lest they get all their apostasy-cooties all over ’em.

Those who insist this story’s not about apostates.

Not long after I realized this story’s not just about a repentant sinner, but about a repentant apostate, I had to preach at a chapel service, so I preached on this. And got some good hard pushback from my fellow teachers afterwards. Because they’re from one of those denominations which insist once apostate, always apostate.

They immediately quoted me something the author of Hebrews wrote:

Hebrews 6.4-6 KJV
4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5 and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, 6 if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

The author of Hebrews sounds entirely sure that if you were a legit Christian, received the Holy Spirit, experienced God’s kingdom and its power, yet abandon Christ, “it is impossible… if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance.” Jesus died once for your sins. He’s not dying again.

I agree with them: Jesus isn’t dying for our sins twice. But here’s the problem with their reasoning: They don’t understand what the author of Hebrews meant by “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh.” They think Jesus didn’t die for all our sins, past present and future, but only some of our sins—past and present, but only up to the point we quit Jesus. After that, we’re on our own, unforgiven, and doomed.

Even though God transcends time. He exists at every point of time in our lifespans, and doesn’t see them as past and future, but now. He’s fully aware of all our sins, past present and future. Because he exists in the future same as the present, these future sins aren’t possibilities; they exist. They’re real. They stand before him. He’s watching them happen, and I’m not using present tense because I suddenly forgot how verb tenses work: It’s all now to God.

But if God forgives us only for a finite number of sins—from birth to the time we fall away—it means during the time we’re still Christian, whenever we approach God, there are sins in our lives he’s not forgiven. How in the world can we have a full and valid relationship with a God who still holds our sins against us?

Heck, some of these folks who insist God never forgives us for apostasy, also claim our sins drive God away. As if sin is mightier than the Almighty. So again: How in the world can we have a full and valid relationship with a God who can’t abide us?

Yeah, there’s some significant flaws in our reasoning. Which is why we gotta ditch their interpretation of that Hebrews passage, and look at how the earliest Christians interpreted it. ’Cause ancient Christians did not believe once apostate, always apostate. They believed apostates could still be saved. They personally knew apostates who had worshiped the Roman emperor in order to save their own skins, and in so doing abandoned Jesus. Yet these apostates repented and became Christian again. Because they could. Because God is Almighty. There’s no sin he can’t defeat. Not even that one.

So how did ancient Christians understand the Hebrews passage? In the context of a certain Romans passage:

Romans 6.1-11 KJV
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6 knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin. 8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: 9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. 10 For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. 11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Ancient Christians believed when we were baptized in water, we crucified “our old man” Ro 6.6 along with Christ Jesus. We identify with Jesus—but whereas he dies for our sins, we die to sin, and sin is therefore no longer our master; Jesus is.

Now y’notice, whenever a Christian quits Jesus, lives as a pagan for a few years, then comes to their senses and decides to follow Jesus again, what do they typically do? Well, often they rejoin a church… then as soon as the church is about to have a baptism service, they ask to be baptized. Again. ’Cause they figure the first one no longer counts. By their sins, they undid it.

But that’s not how Christian baptism works! Jesus died for our sins once and for all. Again: Once and for all. We don’t need to be baptized again, for the same reason Jesus doesn’t need to die for our sins again. Our first baptism—whether we recognize this or not—counts. It counts to God, anyway; and his opinion is the only one which matters.

So when these ancient apostates went to the Christians and asked to be baptized again, the Christians told ’em no, it’s not necessary; they’re still forgiven! Their relationship with God was still there. Never left. They left, like the prodigal son, to go squander their inheritance with reckless living; but the Father was still eager to embrace them the moment they returned. To him they never stopped being his kids.

So when the author of Hebrews said apostates can’t be renewed to repentance ’cause it crucified Christ all over again: Ancient Christians interpreted this to only mean they can’t get baptized again.

What does it mean, “crucifying for themselves anew the Son of God and holding him up to contempt”? He says that they crucify him again for themselves and dishonor him. This is what he means here: Christ was crucified once and for all, and we have been crucified together with him through baptism. Then he says that such a one, imagining that there is a second baptism, like their [first] baptism into him, crucifies the Lord again. For what else does the one do who intends to be crucified a second time with him than to deem that Christ has been crucified a second time through the things he does? But he says that to crucify Christ a second time (insofar as it applies to him) is nothing other than to ridicule and dishonor him. For having died once and for all he is immortal thereafter, but the one who crucifies him anew posits this lie, inasmuch as he reproaches him as a liar when he says that he died once and for all. Photius, @ He 6.6.

Now, the apostle said this to teach the believers from Jews not to think all-holy baptism is like the Jewish baptisms: they did not wash away sins, but cleansed the body of apparent defilement—hence they were applied many times and frequently. This baptism of ours, on the contrary, is one only, for the reason that it involves the type of the saving passion and resurrection and prefigures for us the resurrection to come. The followers of Novatian use these words to contest the truth, failing to understand that the divine apostle, far from prohibiting the remedies of repentance, set the limit for divine baptism. Theodoret of Cyr, @ He 6

And indeed I might also say to any one who thought that this passage spoke of repentance, that things which are impossible with men are possible with God; and God is able whenever he wills to forgive us our sins, even those which we think cannot be forgiven. And so it is possible for God to give us that which it seems to us impossible to obtain. Ambrose of Milan, On Repentance 2.2.12

The ancient Christians got it right: The Hebrews passage isn’t about rejecting apostates. It’s about making it clear that when people finally repent of their apostasy, they don’t need to crucify Christ again—they don’t need to be rebaptized. Christian baptism, as Ambrose said, isn’t about ritual cleanliness; it’s about dying to sin. We don’t get baptized to feel forgiven; we get baptized to declare we’re saved. And since we’re saved, rebaptisms don’t count.

Spinning this passage to mean God won’t accept the repentant, is inconsistent with God’s gracious character. It’s inconsistent with everything else the scriptures teach us about repentance. About praying for the lost. About trying to correct and restore wayward Christians. It gives us a free pass to give up on people, and abandon them to hell.

What this misinterpretation is totally consistent with, is this elder son in the Prodigal Son Story.

So yeah, this character in Jesus’s parable is absolutely about us Christians. Because if we insist God doesn’t forgive apostates—and therefore we don’t have to forgive apostates—that’s exactly who we’re like.

The older son’s unforgiveness.

In the other Prodigal Son Story articles, for convenience I’ve been referring to the prodigal as Micah, the dad as Eli, and the elder son as Joram. I’ll do that here too.

Joram overhears the partying, calls a “boy” (who might’ve been a literal boy, but ancient Judeans had the bad habit of referring to their servants and slaves, regardless of age, as “boy”) to tell him what’s happening, and the boy gives him the good news: Micah’s back! Eli’s thrown a barbecue! They’re gonna eat the good calf!

This is not good news to Joram, who proceeds to throw a hissy fit and won’t come to the party. Eli goes out to comfort him—the verb παρεκάλει/parekálei, “he is comforting,” usually means “he is assisting,” ’cause the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls our Comforter, Jn 15.26 does the bulk of his comforting by helping us. Helping us remember, helping us understand. Eli wants Joram to understand why he’s doing as he’s doing.

Jesus, in telling this story, wants us to understand why we should rejoice when an apostate repents. We get why we should rejoice when ordinary sinners turn to Jesus—they’re saved from sin and death, and getting into God’s kingdom! But we don’t always get why we should rejoice when apostate Christians turn to Jesus: Didn’t they quit? Should they be allowed back in? Shouldn’t we make ’em perform a bunch of acts of contrition first? Jump through a bunch of hoops to prove they really repented?… ’cause they might fall away again. Shouldn’t we punish them, or make them suffer, for abandoning us, for going out to sin when they should’ve been suffering for Christ along with the rest of us? Shouldn’t we make it so they can never, ever be put into positions of leadership again?

’Cause we Christians totally do all that stuff to repentant apostates—assuming we even let ’em back through the doors of our church buildings. God forgives all. We don’t.

Joram here makes all the very same complaints Christians do when an apostate wants to return to the fold:

Luke 15.29-30 KWL
29 “In reply the elder son tells the father, ‘Look!
I slaved for you so many years!
I never pushed against your commands,
and you never gave me a goat
so I might celebrate with my friends.
30 While this son of yours,
who devours your life’s work with loose women,
you sacrifice the well-fed calf for him!’ ”

When Emperors Constantine and Licinius legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in February 313, ancient Christians were pissed when all these apostates who quit Jesus in order to escape persecution tried to rejoin their churches. When Mikhail Gorbachev formally recognized the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union in 1988, some church leaders were likewise pissed when Russians started going back to church, and made it just a bit harder for them to go through their rites of Christian initiation. And no doubt some Chinese Christians are gonna be pissed if ever the Chinese government legalizes their underground churches, and people who used to play pagan try to rejoin them, and claim they never really left.

They reflect the elder son’s rage: “God, I slaved for you! I never disobeyed you; I suffered quietly. Then freedom breaks out and these dirty f---ers show up. What the what? Shouldn’t they have to make up for what they’ve done? Why do they get taken back with open arms and celebration? What about me?

What about you? You get God’s kingdom, and you’re whining because you didn’t get a barbecue? You do realize you can always throw yourself a barbecue. It’s not forbidden. It’s not hard to do, either.

But much of Joram’s whining is really about how, deep down, part of him isn’t serving his father out of love for his father. He’s hoping to get rewarded. He’s bitter and jealous because this feels like Micah is getting rewarded, whereas he did everything he was supposed to. Doesn’t seem fair.

And as Eli points out, it’s not a reward; it’s simply celebration. Micah was dead to them… and now he’s alive. He was lost, and now is found. He’s back!

There is some sense of penalty Christians try to extract from Eli’s statement, “everything of mine is yours.” Lk 15.31 Micah squandered his inheritance, which means the only stuff left to inherit, all goes to Joram. The only problem with this interpretation is the fact all Christians inherit the kingdom of God alike. Longtime Christians and newbies alike. Jews and gentiles alike. Men and women alike, slave and free alike, young and old alike; all of us inherit the kingdom. Apostates who repent—yep, they also inherit the kingdom they previously abandoned. So while Micah might no longer inherit his father’s land, this part of the story does not apply to God’s kingdom. Every analogy breaks down at some point, and here’s where this one does: Our repentant prodigals aren’t going to be left in outer darkness.

So for this reason we, and our churches, should absolutely not leave them in outer darkness. When they repent, let them in! When they don’t, keep praying for them, and encouraging them to return to Jesus! God wants everyone to be saved. Apostates included.