A few days ago, I shared a version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son called “The Prodigal’s Substitute,” that I think accurately reflects how the gospel is often preached. If you haven’t read it yet I would suggest you do so before reading this post because it will be essential to understanding just how differently the gospel can be shared even when we think we’re telling the same story. I also want to remind anyone reading both stories that although I believe the version I am telling in this post is much closer to the truth, it still doesn’t tell the whole story. I plan on following up this post with one or two articles about how I think the nature of the trinity and the incarnation makes the language used to communicate the penal substitutionary view of the atonement technically true, but the way it is communicated false. In the version of the story you’re about to read you will see how Christ experiences substitutionary punishment, but how it is taken on through a voluntary choice made in solidarity with the Father, and suffered with us in a way that allows us to escape slavery and freely take on the burden of those around us.
Each story begins the same way, with a rebellious son demanding his inheritance and wasting it on wild living in a distant country. The beginning of this story is similar to the lives of many people today, but it’s not the same for everyone. Yes, everyone has “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but not everyone rebels and leaves the house of faith. Many people today are raised in the knowledge of faith and spend their lives committed to Christ. I mention this because sometimes the gospel is preached in a way that makes it sound like it is necessary for a person to rebel against God before they can truly be “saved.” It is true that he who is forgiven much loves much, but it is also true that it is not necessary for us to turn our backs on God in order to understand how much he loves us. It is common to hear people teach that we can’t truly know joy unless we experience sorrow, but I want to challenge you to watch a toddler play who has never experienced sorrow and then tell me they don’t truly understand joy. With these concepts in mind, we turn back to the story.
The younger son sells himself to a local farmer as a hired hand, but in this story, the son’s debt to the owner grows over time to the point that he ends up enslaved, “owing his soul to the company store.” He remembers what life is like for the servants on his father’s farm, but because of the debt he owes to the slave master he is not free to return home. A messenger arrives back home at his father’s house telling him of his son’s enslavement, and the father along with the older son who has stayed at home, work together on a plan to redeem the younger brother. Both the father and the faithful son would trade places with the rebellious son, but the father is not able to make the journey, so the older son goes in his place. He makes the journey to the distant country and along the way he changes his appearance, from that of a wealthy and privileged heir to a poor and desperate servant, someone the slave master will be convinced he can manipulate. Upon arrival he successfully sells himself as a hired hand as well, and suffers in the fields beside his brother.
He has altered his appearance so well that his brother does not recognize him at first, but late that night in the bunk house the older brother reveals his identity and his plan. The next day when the guards are distracted, they are both going to make a run for it. They agree that if they get separated, they will meet back at their father’s house. When the time arrives for their escape they start to sprint towards home, but they quickly loose sight of each other in the fields. The older son knows that if he doesn’t turn back, they will both be caught. All along he knew he would have to give himself up for his brother to make it home safely. The older brother stops running. He’s immediately captured by the plantation guards, executed on the spot, and buried in a shallow grave. His brother keeps running, makes it home safely, and waits anxiously for his brothers return.