I received an e-mail from an active member of our church the other day, asking me some questions that came out of our discussion of the parable of the prodigals (Luke 15). I thought the questions were very good. My answers are regrettably short, but I thought they might serve to inspire further thoughts and conversations. So, here they are:
Question: I know this is beyond the breadth of the parable, but nevertheless it seems an important theological point. What would happen if the younger son left again? Would he be taken back again? What does that say about the father and the nature of forgiveness?
My Answer: The nature of parables makes any answer I give to this question pretty pointless. But, I would ask: why would he want to leave? And, if he did, I suppose he would be accepted again. Why not?
Question: How do older brothers repent and find joy? In practical terms, if you're finding your righteousness in a good work, say praying, can you really avoid self-righteousness by ceasing to pray?
My Answer: I have occasionally counseled elder brother types to take a step back from their religious practices in order to re-evaluate what they actually believe about God. Beyond that, and more importantly, repentance and joy are gifts of the Holy Spirit, so only by the power of the Spirit is such a thing possible. As Jesus responded to the question "how then is anyone to be saved," "with people, it is impossible; but not with God, all things are possible with God."
Question: How do we evangelize 'younger brothers' when the ideas of rebellion and sin are no longer part of our culture? I'm from a place that only preaches the 'gospel' to older brothers, expecting that most of the auditors are coming from basically a fundamentalist background, but now most people from my generation forward have grown up rejecting the ideas of obedience and rebellion. In other words, how does this parable affect evangelism.
My Answer: Great question. I don't believe we have to tell people the bad news before we tell them the good news (as many of my evangelical friends and teachers used to say). The Holy Spirit convicts people and brings them to faith. Our task is to live lives of love and service in the world, and share our experience with others. Then God will do a work, or he won't. There is no effective technique to our evangelism. Our only tools are love and prayer and our own witness. The younger brother didn't seem to care about rebellion and sin, either. He just cared about getting his needs met. And when he finally encountered the Father at the edge of the village, he was overwhelmed far past his expectations. Today's younger brothers will have an encounter with God as their life circumstances and the Holy Spirit conspire together. Our faithfulness to love and pray is important, but not essential to this process.
Question: Who are the younger sons? Unbelievers, rebellious Christians, or both?
My Answer: Anyone who displays their rebellion against God as "leaving," as opposed to those of us who display it in our hearts. In Jesus' situation, the younger brothers were Jews who were not participating in the religious system of the day, but were involved in some sort of unrighteousness. That would indicate rebellious people from a religious background, if we were to do a one-for-one correlation of the parable with our day. But I think such correlations are dangerous, and ultimately futile.
Question; How do we preach and teach motives for holiness that come from the gospel and not older brother-ness?
My Answer: Here's how: we don't preach motives for holiness. We preach Christ. And as people walk with Christ, we teach about the behavior that is Christ-like. We don't try to motivate people to do what is right. We admonish them, correct them, instruct them, and rebuke them. But motivation is a bad idea. And, by the power of the Spirit and through love of God and for God and from God, people will walk in repentance and holiness.