I went to my church’s Bible study group last night, and we’re going through Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, which concerns Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son. One lady there asked me a question, and, in retrospect, I think that my answer to her was rather inadequate, but I’m somewhat glad that I didn’t say more than I did (although I wish I could have expressed myself more articulately).
The lady asked if there were other ways to interpret the Parable of the Prodigal Son than Tim Keller presents. The question initially struck me as difficult, for, to be honest, I really have not studied the Parable of the Prodigal Son that much. I answered that Tim Keller himself used a bunch of commentaries in formulating his presentation. I then referred to a lecture by N.T. Wright in which I heard that the son by requesting his inheritance was wishing his father dead, a point that Tim Keller makes in his book. Then I said that Tim Keller himself in the book responds to those who appeal to the Parable of the Prodigal Son to argue that blood atonement is not necessary to be forgiven by God, and so there is apparently a view out there that differs from that of Tim Keller. I then remarked to the lady that I’m not sure if I answered her question. I think that my comment may have evaporated in people’s minds, since it was inadequately presented.
After I went home and thought about her question, I formulated how I could have responded to it. Tim Keller is obviously approaching the parable from a distinct theological perspective. He is a Calvinist, and so he says on page 75 that we know God is working on us if we sense our lostness and want to escape it, a desire we couldn’t have generated on our own. And, of course, there are many Christians who are not Calvinists. Tim Keller also believes in blood atonement, that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, and he reads the parable in light of that belief. He notes that the elder brother in those days usually went after the straying younger brother at cost to himself, and that the father’s forgiveness of the younger son entailed a cost: the cost of the robe, the ring, the fatted calf, etc. Similarly, Keller argues, Jesus forgives us at cost to himself, for Jesus was humiliated as well as suffered and died for our sins.
But do many biblical scholars see blood atonement in the parable? I have not read a lot of commentaries on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I did one time read a view by scholar Henry Cadbury that the author of Luke-Acts does not believe in blood atonement. Granted, there are a few references to it in Luke-Acts, and, if I’m not mistaken, Cadbury does not regard those passages as authentic to the work. That may strike many of you as rather arbitrary, but many times, in the presentations of the Gospel that we encounter in the Book of Acts, there is no reference to Jesus bringing atonement by paying the penalty for our sins. Rather, the focus is on Jesus being exalted, and somehow that coincides with Jesus being God’s instrument of forgiveness. Perhaps Cadbury’s view is that the author of Luke-Acts believes God exalted Jesus by raising him from the dead and then gave him the keys to the kingdom: Jesus’ persecutors thought they were winning by putting Jesus to death, but now God has given Jesus the authority to forgive. What, then, was the significance of Jesus coming to earth? Not every scholar would say that Jesus “came to earth” according to Luke-Acts, in the sense of being God and becoming flesh. Rather, in Luke-Acts, Jesus could have been a spectacular human being conceived by the Holy Spirit, who was exalted by God and made an agent of forgiveness. But there are different perspectives on Luke-Acts, as some maintain that Luke-Acts is consistent with classic Trinitarianism.
I also could have pointed out that there are different views on the atonement: the Christus Victor model, the ransom model, etc.
Another point I could have made concerns how revolutionary Jesus was being in his telling of the parable. Tim Keller presents Jesus as saying things that would have shocked his audience. The father, for example, was compromising his own dignity when he ran to meet his son. But would this have been overly shocking to Jesus’ audience? Within rabbinic Judaism, there was the idea that God humbled himself at times. The Hebrew Bible is a story about God forgiving people who have dishonored him. I don’t think that Jesus cornered the market in having the idea that God humiliated himself out of love for people.
But I’m not sure how people would have reacted had I said these things. This is a mainline Protestant church, but its view of the Bible is rather traditional. Would the people at the study have been open to the idea that there are different Christologies and views on the atonement in the Bible? I doubt that they would have accepted the idea, but perhaps they would have heard it as one view out there among others. I could have come across as smart in the group, but instead I appeared inept. But, at the same time, I don’t feel that everything that I think should come out of my mouth in a Bible study group, whose purpose is to edify, and my thoughts are not always edifying. These are people who have had experience living the Christian life of service to others and fellowship with God. They may not need to hear my beefs with Christianity. But I do comment, every now and then, when I see a need.