From the April 2010 E-Block.
For this installment, I had planned to look into passages in which the believer is called a “friend” of God, as in John’s Gospel when Jesus says that he calls us not servants, but friends. The answer was simple enough, and didn’t require much research: “Friend” in such connotations indicates essentially an ally with whom one’s plans are shared, with no overlay of intimacy implied; thus for example Pilate is threatened with the spectre of no longer being a “friend of Caesar” – someone in Caesar’s service, not someone who had frequent personal conversations with Caesar or went to his house for a BBQ.
Unfortunately, with that being all I found, that didn’t make for much of an article.
So, we’ll also use this chance to revisit Part 1 of this series, occasioned by two findings that came along at the right time: John MacArthur’s A Tale of Two Sons (TTS), which interprets the parable of the Prodigal in the way with which we disagreed; and some questions from an earnest reader about that first article. For the sake of readers newly subscribing, we’ll provide context by reprinting the earlier article. Those who have already seen that article and do not need to re-read it may wish to page down to the next hard return line.
Exegetes who view God in a more personal way will generally take one of two approaches with this text.
- It may be argued that the father in the story is meant to represent God. Additionally, it may be said that the younger son represents the covenant of grace, while the older brother represents the covenant of law.
- Alternatively, it may be argued that although the father is not meant to be God, his reception of the younger son is meant to illustrate God’s loving grace in receiving the repentant sinner.
Is the father in the story meant to be God? If so, it should first be noted that there is little to commend such an equation, save by begging the question that an analogy to God’s grace is to be found in the first place. Jesus does not say that the father is the Father, though in the form of a parable, this is not strictly necessary. More important is that if the father here is the Father, then we are led to the conclusion that so is the shepherd who left his sheep (15:4-7) and the woman who lost a coin (15:8-9). Do we wish to hypothesize that God leaves us to our own devices (the ninety-nine), unprotected from wolves, while he goes to find one lost sheep? Do we wish to hypothesize that He is capable of losing track of us? This is an important point, moreso than we may realize, for from a cultural perspective, the unfortunate fact is that the father in this parable is a thoroughly inept fool – he commits a number of horrendous breaches of the social code, such as:
- Abandoning his place as the head of the family by acquiescing to his son’s unreasonable, insulting demands – thereby also abandoning his honor and authority in the larger village social structure.
- Similarly, doing the same with his elder son at the end of the story, begging him to go into the party (he should rather be issuing a direct order to the eldest son to participate).
- As even exegetes in favor of the two above positions acknowledge, humiliating himself by lifting his robe and running.
Relatedly, are the sons meant to parallel the two covenants of grace and law? The basis for this seems to be little more than that the younger son “repents” when he goes back to the father. But strictly speaking, the son says and does nothing that can be clearly equated with Christian repentance. The phrase “came to himself” is sometimes read this way, but there are no parallel usages in other literature that can validate this meaning, and it needs mean no more than that he came to recognize in practice how far his situation had changed. The younger son’s motivation for return is also not coherent with Christian repentance, for he returns out of need to fill his stomach, and he offers to come work for his father – which would amount to an illustration of salvation by works, if the analogy is to hold. (It is not clear whether he does go on to work for his father, but under normal circumstances, he would be expected to indeed participate in the survival of the family – in other words, work.)
In addition, there is actually little to indicate that the youngest son engaged in sinful activities when he squandered his inheritance. The older son’s charge of spending the money on harlots can hardly be taken seriously; he was not on the younger son’s tail watching what he did in a faraway land. The charge is a case of deviance labeling, a stock insult, as opposed to a clinical observation. The words translated above “riotous living” also tell no such tale of necessity; the word used does mean excess, but this is just as well interpreted in terms of unwise stewardship, of a “boy from the country” not knowing how to manage his finances in the big city. (Rohrbaugh applies the example of modern Third World peasants who spend all their money when visiting cities.)
This may be of little relevance, since the son could arguably still have plenty to repent for, notably the way he treated his father. However, it remains that there is no clear statement of repentance by the son. He admits his error, but this is just as well seen as an admission preparatory to regaining his place in the family – in other words, he is not sorry he did it because he is repentant, but because of the penalty he undergoes.
Thus there is little to recommend an analogy to the covenant of grace, for what parallels may be found are too generalized. Perhaps the most important point is that there is no parallel to the atonement in this parable – and exegetes who admit this claim that to say so is to “miss the point.” But it can be said in turn that the charge of “missing the point” itself begs the question.
What about the fact that the father says that the younger son was once lost and dead, but is now found and alive? In this case, we should be careful of not reading into these terms later soteriology (or even John Newton’s hymnology). The words “lost,” “found,” “dead” and “alive” had yet to acquire such a semantic overlay; let it be kept in mind, for example, that in an agonistic setting, a deviant may be treated as though “dead”. It is in those terms that these words should be interpreted.
So what, it may be asked, do we do with the points of contact Jesus does offer us – of how, in his words in the prior, smaller parables, heaven rejoices over one lost sinner returning? We would maintain that the point of this parable is much the same as the others, effectively operating as qal wahomer: what applies in a less important case will apply in a more important case. The subjects of the three parables are 1) a foolish shepherd who abandons his flock; 2) a woman who has carelessly lost a coin; 3) a foolish, dysfunctional family. The message is thus that if even these three foolish examples give us people who are able to recognize the need to return the lost to fellowship, how much more so should God welcome the repentant sinner?
This is a direct slap in the face to the Pharisees (who, by implication, are foolish for keeping sinners at arms’ length and refusing to welcome them, much less aid them in finding a place with God). It may also subtly indicate that things that outwardly appear foolish and shameful hide within them a God-given principle -- just as the cross appears to have been a case of Jesus (divinity) dying a shameful death, which obscures, to those unwilling to see, God’s triumph through the Resurrection.
The story of the prodigal thus indeed has a message about God’s covenant grace extended to sinners. However, it is not quite the same message being found by those who see in the parable either a father who is meant to be the Father, or an analogy to the covenant of grace – and thus provides little to substantiate a relationship with God in familiar, personal terms to the degree supposed.
With that in review, we now turn to our two new entries.
John MacArthur’s Tale of Two Sons
MacArthur’s commentary on the parable was apparently inspired by his readings of Kenneth Bailey’s material on it, as he lists no other scholarly source. Oddly, thanks to Bailey, MacArthur acknowledges many of the same cultural facts noted above, such as that father was engaged in shameful behavior (see more below), and should have commanded, not pleaded with, the older son (which was a serious violation of the social hierarchy of authority). However, in order to get around the implications of these and other texts, he frequently speculates by adding to the story what is not in the text.
One interesting variation is that MacArthur thinks the father in the story is meant to represent Jesus, not God the Father.  However, this does not change any of our points otherwise. 
Let’s consider some of the questions from above as MacArthur answers them.
Did the prodigal son actually go out and sin with the money he inherited? Our answer is no. In contrast, MacArthur [60-1] claims the prodigal spent money “in the pursuit of wickedness”.
Naturally, the elder son’s description of harlots forms the basis for his case. MacArthur admits that some commentators think it is a false association the elder son is making; how does he answer this? In his words: “If the Prodigal was completely innocent of that charge, I think Jesus would have said so, because it would have reinforced His case against the elder son’s own bad attitude.”
Yes, that is the entirety of MacArthur’s answer! It is, however, misguided: Jesus would not need to “say so” because his audience would be more than familiar with the practice of deviance labeling, as well as the role envy would play in invoking someone to resort to such labeling. Indeed, the very act of labeling all by itself would have “reinforced the case against the elder son’s own bad attitude.”
From there, MacArthur attempts to reinforce his interpretation with speculative descriptions of how the Prodigal lived in sin, and goes as far as saying, “...if he could spend away the family fortune so rapidly without spending any money on loose women, he probably spent it for something even worse.” This, then, would be an example of adding on to the text what cannot be found there. Clearly, MacArthur’s descriptions is more motivated by his wish to see the Prodigal as “a symbol of every unredeemed sinner...the evil motives that drove the Prodigal are the natural tendencies of every fallen human heart”  than it is by what can be found in the text.
Did the Prodigal repent? Our answer was that there was no real evidence of this; MacArthur disagrees.  Indeed he assures us that the Prodigal’s confession “was not merely a superficial ploy to regain his father’s sympathy, or a quick-and-dirty scheme to recover the comforts of his old life” but rather a “heartfelt, deep repentance” and indeed “one of the best and clearest examples of true repentance in all of Scripture.”
MacArthur does not appeal to the description of the son “coming to himself” as evidence of repentance, so what does he offer to support the claim that this is “one of the best and clearest examples of true repentance in all of Scripture”? His reasons amount to four, if we divide them charitably.
First, he says, this must have been true repentance because the Prodigal’s response was “thought through”! Let me assure readers that unrepentant criminals are not short on “thinking through” and “rehearsing” their confessions as a calculated way of achieving their selfish goals.
Second, MacArthur notes, true repentance begins “with an accurate assessment one own condition.”  That may be so, but so likewise, unrepentant criminals are seldom oblivious to their actual situation.
Third, MacArthur indicates that repentance to salvation involves not just change of mind, but “a fundamental worldview change” and “a powerful, penetrating, soul-shattering, life-altering, attitude-changing, wholesale U-turn.” While we only partially disagree (after all, a Jewish person who repents would require less of a change in worldview than an atheist does!) it is little but imagination for MacArthur to see just in the Prodigal’s “very first thoughts” (!) evidence of a “markedly different man, from the inside out”. That cannot be wrested from the smattering of words offered in the parable.
Finally, MacArthur says  that the “ultimate proof his repentance was genuine” was that the Prodigal made his confession directly to his father! It is hard to see how this proves a genuine repentance; after all, to whom would the Prodigal make his confession otherwise in order for it to be most effective? And again, the criminal is far from being someone unwilling to confess to their victims if it serves their purposes.
In sum, none of these points adequately provides evidence of a true repentance (as opposed to a self-serving confession) by the Prodigal.
Other ideological interpolations. I said that MacArthur frequently adds to the parable in order to make it seem more like his interpretation is valid. Here are some examples:
- 111-112: MacArthur adds in details of the father “scanning the horizon daily” from some high vantage point for his son because, “How else could he have seen him while he was still a long way off?” I can only say that MacArthur has apparently not lived in a flat place like Florida. No vantage point would be needed; or else, it is a simple matter for village gossip to have spread from those working in the fields into the town itself.
- 113: We are told that the father running “illustrates the truth that God is slow to anger and swift to forgive.” Given that, as MacArthur even admits, an old man running would look like a fool to his fellows (in that culture, old men only proceeded at a stately, measured pace to preserve their honor; and by lifting his robe, he would be “showing leg” and thus violating social codes concerning exposure), it is hard to see this as illustrating such a truth, unless we wish to posit it in a qal wahomer fashion as we have (that is, the lesser example of the father validates the greater example of God/Jesus). Later MacArthur acknowledges that the father humiliated himself, but says (130) that this reflects the humiliation of Christ on cross. Again, this could only be sustained at best as a qal wahomer, especially since the father receives no vindication after his self-shaming.
- 155, 177f: MacArthur invents the idea that the elder son was not invited to the party for the younger son because he’d be a “wet blanket,” the father having known that he was evil and selfish from his past deeds. Needless to say, none of this is justified by the text. At most, one commentator has pointed out that in asking for a kid to celebrate with his friends, some distance is indicated in that it was normal to celebrate with family. However, the word used, “friend,” is the same one we have noted at the start of this article; it is not clear enough who these “friends” are (they could refer to business associates) to indicate whether celebration with these persons is somehow in conflict with celebration with family. It may be the case, but it is simply not clear. In any event there is no justification for ascribing to the older son any particular evil or selfish past deeds that would distinguish him from any other person. MacArthur attempts to support this imaginative explanation by noting that the elder son claims never to have violated the father’s commands; therefore, MacArthur says, he must be a proud hypocrite. Really? Then what are we to make of Paul’s profession to have been blameless in terms of the law before he became a Christian (Phil. 3:6)?
With that, we now turn to our second “guest,” one of our readers who made some earnest inquiries about the prior article. Some of what was offered are questions we will answer; others are objections to our interpretation. I have reformulated some of these points to serve as inquiries that might come from anyone.
Why did the father run to his son and kiss him and hug his neck? That does seem rather intimate, regardless of who the father represents. Why did he do this, and what does it signify?
By our reading the father ran because he was acting as quickly as possible to prevent his son from being stoned or killed by the other villagers who would regard him as a deviant. The fact that he had abandoned his family made him an object of shame; thus as well the “welcome party” was a way of getting the villagers to also accept the son back into village life (and also forgive him for setting the bad example of running away in the first place – something the villagers would fear their own sons might be inspired to do).
The shows of affection were likewise a means of protecting the son from reprisal, and also indicated that the father had accepted him back into the family. Intimacy would play no automatic role in this. However, it remains that these would all be seen as shameful expressions by the father.
If a deviant person was viewed as “dead” or “lost” doesn't that fit in perfectly with the typical analogy as well as the “later soteriology”? Yes, but whether that “later soteriology” is present is the very point at issue.
With the 99 sheep, some commentaries say we should assume the shepherd had someone watching his flock while he was away, so maybe he wasn’t foolish. Maybe. But if that is the case, then maybe we should consider this in light of John 10:11-13:
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
By this reckoning, the shepherd is still foolish for leaving his sheep in the care of a hireling. Perhaps it is simply best to say that this would be a question, either way, of pressing the parallel too far; this is a danger only if we take it too literally rather than as a qal wahomer.