I just read a pretty out-there interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son. (or lost son or two sons or whatever). The author, who is deserving of immense respect*, quite confidently stated how the prodigal son was about the grand story of Israel coming back to God. The lost son, you see, is not so much representing an individual person’s path back to God but the nation of Israel’s return for Exile. The message of the parable – and of Jesus – is so much larger than just one person being able to come into relationship with the God who forgives them and accepts them upon no merit of their own. So it is argued. No only is this interpretation completely novel, it also tears down what so many have always believed about this telling of the Gospel message. In essence, it is about the Big Story of Israel’s Redemption and not about little ol’ you or me.
There’s a trend in theology. It is to minimize the individual side of salvation and the Gospel. For the most part this is to be applauded. There is a tendency to make Christian a kind of “just me and Jesus thing”. But there’s more to it. The Good News (and all it’s implications) is so much more than that. It is about the Lordship of Jesus over all, the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny, the Kingdom of God coming into the world, and the future restoration of all things. It is about non-Jews coming into the family, so to speak. It is about God making a People for His Name. It is about God’s purposes for the entire Creation. It’s about so much more than you may first think. But… but… but… Is it still about sinners coming to be forgiven by their Maker?
Contra the normal saying, sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest. The Gospel of Christ is so much more than an individual sinner coming into saving faith but it can never be less!!! While the prodigal-as-Israel-coming-out-from-Exile may be intriguing as a grand theme we must remember that this parable is set up by two previous ones. A shepherd leaves the 99 to find his one lost sheep. A woman combs her house to find her one lost coin. And the setting is one where Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners. Individual sinners. Individual souls who will not enter the coming Kingdom unless they repent and return to God. And there’s joy in those two parables. But what is the joy? We’re told (twice) that there is no greater joy in heaven than over one sinner who comes to repentance. Turns out the Gospel is still good news for poor sinners.
As a pastor I must never forget this is what people need. As a normal disciple I can’t forget that this is what I have to share with others. As a Christian who falls and fails and continues to sin against my Father, I can’t ever forget that He loves me and will receive me (me!) when I turn back and return to Him.
The Gospel must remain good news for individual sinners!
* I read this in N T Wright’s voluminous tome Jesus and the Victory of God. There is so much to commend in it that I can’t even begin. But just because a man is a theological genius and is incredibly right about 95% doesn’t mean he can’t miss a simple truth that has been in front of his eyes since Sunday School.