The Prodigal’s Substitute

I want you to re-imagine the story of the prodigal son. Pretend you’ve never heard it before and think about what your reaction would be if it went something like this. A man has two sons, and one day his younger son comes to him demanding his inheritance. The father decides to divide his property and give each son their portion. Not long after, the younger son gathers together his part and sets off for a distant country where he wastes it all on wild living. He ends up selling himself as a hired hand and is tasked with feeding hogs. Eventually he becomes so desperate for food that the slop he’s been feeding the pigs starts to look good. Stay with me because from this point on things are going to be a little different. While in the distant country he remembers that the workers on his father’s farm always had more than enough to eat, so he decides to go back home and beg his father for forgiveness.

On the way home he starts to worry about what his father’s reaction will be. He remembers times in the past when his father lost his temper and violently beat some of his servants. As he approaches the house, the fields are empty, and there’s no one in sight. He cautiously approaches the door and waits several minutes before finding the courage to knock. After a few moments that seem like an eternity, the door opens slowly and he sees his father. Instantly he falls to his knees begging for forgiveness. His father tells him to stop and explains that it doesn’t matter how much he begs, someone must be punished for the sins he has committed. Meanwhile the older brother has overheard his little brother’s cries for mercy and he comes to the door. He asks his father if there is any way that he can be punished in his brother’s place.

The father knows the law well, and under normal circumstances this would not be allowed, but because of the extraordinary faithfulness of the older brother, the father makes an exception. All three men go outside to the family altar, and the older brother takes the place of the sacrifice. As the reality of what is about to happen sets in, the younger brother pleads with his father to spare them both. The father explains that this is the only way, he turns toward the altar, says a prayer, and pours out all the wrath he has stored up against his rebellious son onto the faithful son. As his brother lays dying, the young man weeps uncontrollably. The father takes the younger son in his arms and tells him to look at the blood that has covered the ground and remember that it is his brother’s blood that has earned his right to come home. Each week the father reminds his son that it was only because of his brother’s sacrifice that he has earned the right to be loved again.

This is no longer the story of the prodigal son. This is a completely different story. The characters and the setting are the same, but the meaning of the original has been lost. This is one of the most common ways that the gospel is told in American Christianity. Hundreds of people are baptized every week after hearing this version of the story, so it is no wonder why they’re leaving the church in the thousands. If you were the younger son in this story, would you feel safe in your home? Would the warmth of your brother’s love be enough for you to forget the haunting memories of his murder? Most of all, wouldn’t you be furious at your father’s insistence that it was “necessary,” when deep in your heart you knew that he could have spared you both? I thank God that this is not the version of the story we find in the scriptures, but it breaks my heart that this is the version people are hearing from the pulpit almost every Sunday.

The image or symbol representing Luke’s gospel is that of a “winged ox.” For millennia scriptural commentators have associated the ox with Luke’s gospel because his perspective represents the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death. I believe that Jesus’ death was sacrificial. I believe that Jesus suffered our punishment so that we would not have to (a form of penal substitution), but I do not believe he suffered that punishment at the hands of the Father. Over the next few weeks I would like to share another version of the parable of the prodigal son, and explain in further detail how it is that I believe Jesus died for our sins.

Part 2

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