The Prodigal Son parable, a famous teaching about faith and ethics, appears to be at odds other Christian moral ideals.
I recently watched a YouTube video by Rabbi Tovia Singer that discussed how the “Prodigal Son” parable fundamentally conflicts with the Christian teaching of “Atonement,” which sparked my interest in this well-known parable. It appears that the famous parable is actually at odds with other core tenets of Christian teaching.
In case you are not familiar with this parable, contained exclusively in Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 15:11-32), here’s a quick summary:
A land owner has two sons, and the younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. The father complies with the son’s wishes, and then this son leaves for another land, where he fritters the money aware until he is destitute. He is forced to take a job feeding pigs, and even envies the food that the pigs eat.
Eventually, he comes to the realization that his father’s servants have food, and somewhere to live, so he decides to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and ask that he serve his father as a servant.
When he approaches the family home, he is spotted by his father, and even though the son asks to be treated as a servant, the father greets him with delight, and treats him with fine clothes and special food.
The older son hears all the commotion. When told about his brother’s return, he gets angry and confronts his father saying that he (the older brother) has served the father loyally and faithfully all this time, but has never received any such recognition. The father says “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I think it is pretty obvious that the father in this parable is meant to represent God, and the sons are just “God’s children,” as in the “human race.”
What stood out to Rabbi Singer (and indeed myself) is that forgiveness was not granted through the sacrifice of Jesus. Instead, it was the sincere repentance and humbling of the wayward son.
Hang on a minute, how can this be?
Christian teaching insists that forgiveness can only be given by asserting that Jesus is your “Lord and Savior” and that you acknowledge his death on the cross as being a sacrifice that takes away your sins.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that this parable seems to be encouraging a wayward life, and then repenting, and you will then be rewarded. Contrast this with the faithful son, who gets nothing for his loyalty, except when he finally receives his inheritance.
Jesus seems to reinforce this view when describing the parable of the “Lost Sheep” (Luke 15:4-7):
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
Again, the loyal and faithful sheep are left to their own devices, while the one “sinful” sheep is brought back to the fold with much joy and celebration.
Even Martin Luther seems to have embraced this concept of being a sinner when he stated:
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.” [My emphasis]Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from: Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche SchriftenDr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590.
This seems completely contrary to the supposed ethics espoused by most evangelical Christians, who abhor any sin. Yet, it seems that unless you are a sinner who later repents, you will not receive rewards—that these rewards are denied to those loyal and faithful Christians who have never sinned.
So where does that leave Christians? Do they follow what Jesus himself taught, that forgiveness comes through true repentance, or do they follow what later Christian theologians “interpret” was the path to salvation: belief in Jesus’s sacrifice to take upon himself one’s sins?
One would think that Jesus’s own pronouncement would carry the greater weight, but Christian theologians insist forgiveness can only be achieved through the shedding of Jesus’s blood. What a dilemma!
It seems that I am in complete agreement with Rabbi Tovia Singer when he suggested that the “Prodigal Son” parable contradicts Christian teachings.
David Austin is a retired Englishman now living in Australia. He is a life-long atheist who moved from being more of an apatheist when he was a guest in a church and was harangued by the pastor. He felt he needed to understand the arguments concerned that he has now studied at great length. As a former Senior Electronics Engineer working mostly in Digital Technology (with a Bachelor of Technology degree), and working in computing for so long, logic is important to his work. He is passionate about church and state separation and is active in secular groups to try to reduce the negative influences of religion in society.