The Prodigal Son is not about backsliding

A Sunday School class I was helping out with went through the parable of the Prodigal Son but the interpretation that the teacher gave to the students troubled me and I would like to tell you what concerned me and why. I also found out that the interpretation that the teacher gave seems to be a pretty popular one.

I have been told that the first rule to interpreting scripture is that if you have a different understanding of the text than the original hears would have had, then your interpretation is wrong. This parable is a perfect example of how the meaning can get twisted based on the current culture and viewpoints of people today. So what is the view of today’s Christianity and how does it shape the meaning of the Prodigal Son?

Today’s Christianity says that you can be a child of God and “backslide” for a period of time, and not have to question the sincerity of your salvation. You can go off and live in a lifestyle of sin and say, “I backslid for a few years, but I was saved the whole time”. Ted Haggard was an example of this mindset, when he was exposed for having a homosexual affair with a prostitute and taking meth-amphetamines for three years and lying about it, many said, “Don’t question his salvation!” Even though it is likely that he would have continued in that lifestyle for as long as he could.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that anyone can “lose” their salvation by falling into sin, but when you knowingly live in a lifestyle of unrepentant sin, then you need to question your salvation. Ray Boltz, who says he is still a Christian after admitting he is living openly as a homosexual, is another example.

So, FINALLY, here is the interpretation the teacher gave- The father represents God and the two sons represent Christians. The one child ran away from God and live apart from him for awhile, but came running back to open arms. He was still a child of God but he had to realize that God knew what was best for him. And we need to realize that if we run from God, he is always there ready to take us back.

The Prodigal Son Returns

The Prodigal Son Returns

The first problem was, that Jesus was talking to a crowd of Jewish leaders. They were self righteous Jews who thought that just because they were born as children of Abraham, and were “faithful” Jews, they were children of God already. They would not have understood this “backsliding” concept. They would have believed that the rebellion of the second son was worthy of death.

The second was that the second son, the prodigal, HATED his father. Wanting his inheritance immediately was paramount to saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could get what belongs to me now”. Does that sound like something a true Christian would say, or does that sound like a rebel who shakes their fist at God? The fact that Jesus called him a child does not mean that he was in a right relationship with the father. God created us, so in that sense, he is our father, but this parable shows us that it is not about our heritage, but about our relationship.

The fact that Jesus started the story off where he did tells us a lot too. Jesus did not start off by giving us a son who honored his father and fell away, he started the story off with a son that rebelled against his father.

The third problem I had was that the son went off to live in a lifestyle of open, unrepentant sin. Jesus told us that the son wasted his livelihood on prostitutes and riotous living. There is a saying that goes something like, “you cannot call yourself a Christian and live like the Devil”. If you live in a manner that betrays what you say you believe, then you are a hypocrite, a pretender, you are a false Christian.

One other thing to notice about this story is the first son, the “faithful” son. If you carefully read the story, you can tell that by his attitude, he was not in a right relationship with the father either.

This parable is not about what to do if you backslide, but about true repentance and God’s willingness to forgive.

If you want to dive deeper into this parable, I suggest John McArthur’s book, “A Tale of Two Sons“. The book goes through the culture of the time and the audience that would have heard this story for the first time. It also takes a look at the two parables leading up to the Prodigal Son.

–Danny

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