New light on a much loved parable?

I wonder if your experience is anything like my friend Sophie’s. In the past few years, Sophie has been discovering new truths about life. For the past 21 years, Sophie has grown up with sayings and names for things that her family used. Only now as a 21 year-old are her friends telling her that they are not in fact the common names or common sayings! So she’s learnt that instead of saying ‘daylight-saving-frolics’ she says ‘daylight savings’ and instead of ‘clicker’, she says ‘remote control’. What she thought was true for her whole life has to be modified. She is understanding things in a whole new light!

As we come to read Tim Keller’s Prodigal God, this may become our experience.

Tim Keller bases this book on the much read and loved parable from Luke 15:11-32, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (as it’s often called). Right from the introduction, Keller sets out to show that this parable has been quite misunderstood in the past, and really needs to be understood in a whole new light. He tells us it is a story of God’s reckless grace, our greatest hope.

“Over the years, I have often returned to teach and counsel from the parable. I have seen more people encouraged, enlightened, and helped by this passage, when I explain the true meaning of it, than by any other text.” Page xiii

What a big claim! Well it’s time to look again at this parable, in all truth and humility, and see what new light Keller may shed on it for us.

Chapter One.
Chapter one straight away introduces us to Keller’s understanding of the brothers; two different ways to be alienated from God and then seek his acceptance. He provides for us the context of the parable and highlights that the two groups of people Jesus is talking to represents the two different sons. The ‘tax collectors and sinners’ who are attracted to Jesus are like the younger son, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law are like the older son. There really is such a great contrast between these two. But to whom was Jesus actually directing this parable?

Keller says the second group. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Keller argues that it is in fact in response to the attitude of this group of people that Jesus tells the parable. Jesus tells this story because of the Pharisees’ cold and stubborn hearts towards the ‘sinners,’ and their indignation at Jesus because of his acceptance of them.

“It is a mistake, then, to think that Jesus tells this story primarily to assure younger brothers of his unconditional love. No, the original listeners were not melted into tears by this story but rather they were thunderstruck, offended and infuriated.”

Already I’m finding my understanding of the parable being refreshed. I have (I assume like many others) thought of the younger son as the primary focus of the text. But it makes sense that Jesus is using this parable to show the ‘moral insiders’ just how blind and self-righteous they really are – to the detriment of their own lives and those around them.

However, I do wonder if the parable can’t be directed at both groups of people? With such an emphasis on the Pharisees and the lesson they should learn from the older brother, do we lose out on the lesson learnt from the amazing grace and love shown to the younger brother? Can’t this be just as much an offensive rebuke to the Pharisees, as an offering of grace to the ‘sinners’?

Either way, it is worth looking more closely at the place of the Pharisees and tax collectors in this parable, and how much their attitudes are reflected in our own church circles.