We should next consider what Jesus says about the entry of the Gentiles into the Kingdom. The difficulty, of course, is that Jesus said quite a lot about the Kingdom, and we often disagree as to when he was speaking about Gentiles.
For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is often taken to be about a lost personal relationship with God, but many scholars see the prodigal son as representing the Gentile nations and the older son representing the Jews. And so, the analysis gets complicated — but very interesting.
In Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone), N. T. Wright explains,
This parable, like some of the others, points, for Luke, beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate the fact. Equally, as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was vital that the new communities never gave the impression to their older brother that God had finished with him. Somehow the balance must be kept.
The story is, of course, unfinished. We naturally want to know what happened next. How will the younger brother behave from now on? What arrangements will they make? Will the two sons be reconciled? Sometimes when a storyteller leaves us on the edge of our seats like this it’s because we are supposed to think it through, to ask ourselves where we fit within the story, and to learn more about ourselves and our churches as a result. Which role in the story do you and your church find comes most naturally to you? How can we move towards becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? How can we celebrate the party of God’s love in such a way as to welcome not only the younger brothers who have come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them?
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 191–192.
Who repented and returned to God? We want to personalize this and imagine Jesus is telling our own story — and to some extent, that’s true. But we Westerners rarely think in terms of the church as community. We see our relationship with God as personal and not in community — and it’s both. We should discipline ourselves to read the text both ways, realizing that Jesus and his Eastern audience thought much more in terms of family and nationality than the individual. (This is really hard for Americans to even imagine, we are so individualistic.)
And one problem with an individualistic interpretation is that there’s no room for a older brother. Who would that be in most of our individual stories? I think God certainly has the loving, compassionate, rush-to-forgive personality that Jesus gives him even (especially) when our individual stories are being told, but I also think Jesus’ was thinking here primarily in community terms.
Read from a community perspective, the older brother would be the Jews, indeed, some of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees who had been questioning Jesus (15:2). They are “older” because God had a Father-son relationship with the Jews much longer than the Gentiles.
In Luke 15:12, rarely noted, the Father divides his property between both sons. The Jews had received their land, the Promised Land, from God generations before. The Gentiles had, of course, also received their lands from God (although they’d forgotten him).
It’s therefore the Gentiles who eat with the pigs and finally come to themselves to repent before the Father — a bold and shocking prediction by Jesus.
The older brother complains about the celebration for the younger son. In fact, the scribes and Pharisees had just complained,
(Luk 15:2 ESV) “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
It was not just eating with sinners. It was also partying — enjoying their company. Therefore, Jesus’ immediate point is sinners are repenting and God is running to embrace and forgive them — and God is throwing a party with music and dancing (15:25).
But if you Pharisees and scribes have a problem with God inviting a few Jewish sinners in, just wait for when the Gentiles come pouring in!
The interpretation is controversial, but I think it’s right. Assuming it’s right, then Jesus pictures the Gentiles as the estranged brothers of the Jews, and God as Father of both. The Gentiles are restored to God’s family because they were originally part of God’s family and therefore welcomed. The Jews were always part of God’s family, and unlike the Gentiles, did not lose their memory of God. But their superior obedience led to their being far removed from the heart of God.
Jesus doesn’t say it, but he strongly hints that things won’t turn out so well for the older brother Jews, whose hearts have turned from God, in ironic contrast to the younger brother who have left sin and degradation to return to God.
And this way of explaining the entry of the Gentiles into God’s Kingdom is from a different perspective but entirely consistent with Paul’s explanation in Romans 11.
This is a much less familiar saying of Jesus —
(Luk 13:28-30 ESV) 28 “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The Kingdom will include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as people from all directions — Gentiles. But the language is clear that those coming from many different directions will be added. It starts with the fathers of the nation of Israel.
Tom Wright explains,
The promise, and warning, of Jesus is that the very people his contemporaries were eager to fight—the Gentiles from east and west, north and south, who had over the centuries oppressed, bullied and harried them—might at this rate end up in God’s kingdom ahead of them. The strange workings of God’s grace, in which, though some are chosen for particular roles, none is assured of automatic privilege, mean that some who are first will be last, and vice versa.
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 169–170.
We could spend weeks and weeks on Jesus’ many parables and other Kingdom teachings, but the point should be clear: the Kingdom does not supplant Judaism. Judaism isn’t repealed. God’s covenants with the Jews aren’t voided.
Rather, the Kingdom fulfills and completes the covenants. It is a continuation of promises made going back to Abraham, and repeated and even expanded by the prophets. Therefore, in a real sense, the Kingdom that was just now coming extends back to include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because God made his promises to them and they will be part of God’s salvation.
The Gentiles come in, not because God has given up on the Jews or rejected them, but because it was always intended that the nations be blessed through Abraham’s seed. The expansion of the Kingdom from just the Jews (as at Pentecost) to later include the Gentiles was always planned and intended.