Sorry for those who read the entry I posted earlier today.  The online lectionary I used skipped to March 21 for some reason and I didn’t catch it.  Interestingly, an Episcopal site I looked at has a different passage for March 21 for Year C.  Very interesting.  The post I had up will repost next Monday on schedule.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is so familiar that it’s basic thrust is familiar to most.  There are three main characters in the story: 1) the prodigal, 2) the Father, and 3) the elder brother.  The Father obviously represents God, whose willingness to forgive is a main point of the story. 

Joel Green and Mark Baker have well pointed out in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross that the Father seems fully able to forgive the prodigal without anyone needing to repay the money he squandered.  While we should not build a theology of atonement on one parable, I do believe this picture of God’s authority to forgive is part of a convincing case against any rigid sense of penal substitution.  God would have been authoritative enough to forgive even if no one had paid.   

We know that the prodigal represents us, the whole world, alienated from God.  “All have sinned” means that “all are prodigals.”  This is a completely appropriate Christian way of applying the parable.  In its original context, however, Luke 15:1-3 clearly leads us to see the tax collectors and sinners with which Jesus ate as the prodigals Luke has in mind.  These are indeed sinners in contrast to the righteous.  In Luke, Jesus does actually refer to Pharisees as righteous.  They were actually keeping the Law.  The prostitutes and tax collectors were not.  You cannot listen to Matthew and Luke without acknowledging that the Pharisees are called righteous in contrast to others who are designated “sinners.”

But this is a parable of reversal.  The elder brother, often missed in reading the parable, represents the Pharisees and others in Israel who begrudged what God was doing with the younger brother.  Most of us sympathize with the older brother–wouldn’t most of us feel the same way.  But he disrespects his father, whom we remember was a supreme authority in the ancient home.  By the end of the story, the prodigal brother is forgiven, but the elder brother has become a prodigal.  So the Pharisees, many of whom were to be commended for actually trying to keep the law, end up as prodigals themselves.

So we often begrudge God’s grace to those who do not deserve it.  We forget that we too once were prodigals.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32