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Three Ways to Live

This post from my own blog, June 08

The story so often referred to as the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, isn't about the prodigal son at all. Its about the older brother. Jesus is telling it to Pharisees and scribes who pour scorn on his partying with tax collectors and sinners.

He tells them about a hedonistic rebel who is completely unworthy of the love of the father, but who gets it entirely by grace. The whole point is to set up the sting in the tail. The older brother is none of that. He is dutiful, obedient, not reckless. Surely deserving? But it's the older brother (ie, them!) who misses the love of the father because he refuses his grace. Talk about a shock. The ones they despise most get in on the love and celebration of God. While they, for all their religion, miss it.

Why does the obedient son miss out on what the disobedient one receives? Three reasons:

  • He has no real relationship with the father. He is a son but he talks in terms of servitude. Instead of enjoying the father as a son his relationship is reduced to "you command, I obey."
  • He thinks he is deserving of love because of what he has done (and his brother isn't because of what he has done). And because he doesn't enjoy the father's grace himself he is unhappy with it being lavished on anyone else. "Love me because I deserve it" is the opposite of the gospel
  • He hates the delight that's going on in the father's house. He sees the music, celebration and dancing and despises it. The heart that says "I don't like God being lavish towards others" typically won't like other people's worship and enjoyment of God either

The story of the prodigal son is one of two rebels, two kinds of sinners. There is the licentious, blatant rebel who throws it all in God's face and refuses his grace, and the religious, dutiful rebel who refuses his grace and justifies his own behaviour on the grounds of obedient service. The shock in Jesus' story is that the first comes back into the Father's love and the second doesn't.

There are those who live without God in blatant, licentious ways. And those who live without God in religious, churchy ways. By definition, almost every Christian is more likely to be the second than the first. The answer to both is a third way to live. To come to the father, to receive acceptance only on the basis of his loving kindness, and to come into the party. If you are tempted to dislike exuberant worship, then in the terms of Jesus story you need to examine yourself to see if you are either in the far country with the younger son, or in the dark with the older son. Either way you need to repent and come into the warmth.


  1. The story so often referred to as the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, isn't about the prodigal son at all. Its about the older brother.

    ... alternatively it could be about the father.

  2. Hi Marcus,
    Thanks for your posts! In fact it was your original post that lead me to write a series of posts about this parable and how much it is being preached at the moment. Based on a book called 'the Cross and the Prodigal' (have you come across it?) I looked into where Jesus and the atonement are in the story of the Father and Two Sons. I found it so refreshing to get into this passage, be pierced by grace again and to think about how we preach Christ and him crucified from this passage and so avoid preaching a incarnation-less and atonement-less gospel but one that in Christ by grace leads us to the Father.
    So thank you!

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. So often the parable is merely preached as "you can come back to God regardless of how bad you have been." And it does do that, gloriously. But the punch of "you can come back to God no matter how much you have trusted in your religious works" is the bigger one for most church people (to whom Jesus is speaking). Glad you are finding Luke refreshing your spirits!

  4. Hi Marcus,

    I agree we often misread this parable as being primarily about the 'Prodigal son'. But I'm not even sure that its main thrust is 'grace vs duty' or 'rules vs relationship' either. Let me explain...

    In Luke 15, Jesus is welcoming sinners, and the religious leaders start grumbling. Jesus actually goes on to tell three parables, about a sheep, a coin, and a son - all about lost things being found. It's important too that he's speaking these parables directly to the religious leaders.

    The first is about a lost sheep from a flock of 100. When the owner finds the sheep, he rejoices - just like heaven rejoices at sinners repenting. The second is about a lost coin. The woman searches the house, finds the coin, and rejoices, calling a party - just like God rejoices when sinners repent. Both of these parables end with rejoicing.

    But the pattern is broken in the third. The lost thing (the son) is found, the rejoicing is gearing up... but someone spoils the party - they don't want to join in the celebration.

    The point of the parable is: Will you rejoice with God when sinners repent? Will you share the Father's joy in welcoming sinners? In vs 30, the older son, talking to his father, calls his brother 'this son of yours'. The tone of the father in response is invitational in vs 32 - "it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive..."

    It's quite possible that this parable echoes the message of the book of Jonah - which is all about Jonah's unwillingness to share in God's compassion towards the lost. Jonah grumbles that God shows mercy to the sinner.

    So I don't think the primary purpose of these parables is to encourage prodigals to return to the welcoming Father. But neither are they contrasting grace vs works-based servitude. Rather, the purpose is invitational - will we share God's joy in welcoming sinners, Gentiles, outsiders? Will we have soft hearts which desire all to come to repentance? Will I spend less time complaining about heterodoxy and licentousness, and more time praying that sinners will come home to the Father? And will I be as eager in evangelism as the God who searches for those who are lost.

  5. P.S. Thanks for your book 'Meltdown' Marcus - we use it a lot here in student work in Christchurch, New Zealand. :)

  6. Great to see some solid thinking on this parable.

    I we need to try to be as explicit as possible to explain how we interpret the Bible.

    Can I make the point that building theology, out of narrative, and particularly parable alone is really dangerous?

    I like what you say about the punch of this being, "You can come back to God no matter how much you have trusted in your religious works." But I want to know where you would theologically ground this in terms of other passages in the Epistles (for example) to justify and support your interpretation in terms of religious works?

    How does this wider NT theological structure of "you can come back to God no matter how much you have trusted in your religious works" relate to the challenge of real, moral, personal surrender? How does "surrender" happen? How do we hear this so much, and yet fail to act on it? Why have so many of us who have understood the gospel, able to sidestep this challenge so effectively?

  7. I completely agree with Scott's comment "will you rejoice with God when sinners repent." You might want to see my whole recent Bible message on the passage at:

    Tom, I would say the works question is the whole underlying thrust of Galatians. If you are interested, my 5 session overview is at:

    Hope those items are some help


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