Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: On the Prodigal Son and Thinking the Eastern Way, Part 2

Now, there’s a much more subtle point that Jesus makes, that the teachers of the law would likely have picked up. In the Psalms, nearly every metaphor used for God is about his power, his strength, and his holiness. But three metaphors are used of God’s gentleness —

(Psa 23:1-3)  A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

(Psa 131)  A song of ascents. Of David. My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. 3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.

(Psa 103:13-14)  As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

David compares God to a shepherd, a mother, and to a father to show his gentleness and compassion. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about eating with sinners —

(Luke 15:4)  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lo”st sheep until he finds it?”

(Luke 15:8)  “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”

(Luke 15:11)  Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.”

God is compassionate toward his people — even the sinners — as a shepherd cares about each of his sheep, as a mother guards a coin, and as a father loves an irresponsible son.

In the Old Testament, God speaks harshly of the people’s leaders, calling them bad shepherds.

(Ezek 34:8-9)  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:

By comparing himself to a good shepherd, Jesus implicitly compares his critics to the wicked shepherds in Ezekiel who did not search for God’s flock — leading to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The parable surely stung.

Barclay notes that married women in the First Century wore ten coins on a chain, rather as women today wear a wedding ring. The coins were so important to a woman that they couldn’t be taken from her, even to pay a debt. The loss of a coin was not only a financial disaster, it would be deeply embarrassing that she failed to protect this symbol of her marriage. Imagine her husband coming home and asking how she could have lost the coin had she not taken the necklace off — and why take it off?!

Jesus taught at several levels at once. If we abstract the parables, reducing them to: “God loves people” or “God wants all to be saved,” we lose much of the message. The message is rich and complex, and bears repeated study and reflection at multiple levels. We must hagah the lesson — not reduce it to abstractions.

RVL says that the Jewish approach to the parable would be to ponder it for months, asking daily, “Did I live the parable today? Which character in the story was I?” It’s much more than a life-application moral at the end. It’s to enter the story to try to see myself through God’s eyes as Jesus reveals God to us. Hagah the story.

Church of Christ application

I grew up in the Churches of Christ. I attended David Lipscomb College. And when I finished college, my view of Jesus was that he came to earth to teach some simple moral lessons and to die on the cross so we could be saved via the Five-Step Plan of Salvation. Our job is to pursue God by getting the steps exactly right and then living a moral life, centered on regular church attendance involving 5 acts of worship. These parables were conventionally interpreted to mean that our churches should have “lost sheep” ministries to recover members who’ve become irregular in their attendance.

Jesus tells us that, rather than sitting back and waiting for us to repent and come to him, God pursues us, even to the point of suffering humiliation. God searches furiously and desperately for sinners, like a wife searching for her lost coin in a dark room before her husband gets home and asks how she could have been so careless! God goes into the desert alone, searching for a sheep for fear that the sheep might die — even though the shepherd, wandering the wilderness alone at night, puts himself in danger of hyenas and lions. He risks his own life for the sheep who can’t survive without him.

God does not, as a condition to saving us, give us challenges and tests to see whether we truly love him. God leaves the comfort of heaven to seek those who need him — even though they are impenitent sinners who no more deserve his forgiveness than the prodigal son. God is willing to be humiliated by eating with sinners — in a culture where eating with someone implies acceptance. God is willing to risk the embarrassment of running toward an impenitent son, embrace him, and wrap him in new clothes, because he can’t bear being separated.

Jesus is God. Jesus tells us and then shows us who God is. And yet we play the role of the elder son, resentful that the Father may actually forgive those less obedient than we. We feel unappreciated when God lavishes his love on sinners, and wonder where our kid goat is? Haven’t we been loyal? Haven’t we followed the rules? Why would the Father embrace those who don’t try as hard as we do?

As a result, we re-interpret God to be a God just barely gracious enough to approve us, and certainly not gracious enough to approve others. Our God is a God who waits on people to come to him in perfect obedience to all five steps. Our God keeps his pride … his dignity. Our God would never eat with sinners.

And yet … and yet God came to earth, took the form of a man, and suffered shame and humiliation, showing us his true character. And the lesson is that we should be like God.

The character in the story we should play is someone who used to be like the older brother but is now like God. And like God, we should be looking for prodigal sons, on the road but not yet all the way home, rushing toward them to embrace them, showing them a grace far beyond anything they imagine they deserve. And if we suffer embarrassment because of it, that’s good. It just makes us that much more like Jesus.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: On the Prodigal Son and Thinking the Eastern Way, Part 2

  1. John says:

    Ezekiel 34:11-12 NKJV 11 'For thus says the Lord GOD: "Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.

    God Himself will become the Shepherd. How did He do this? By becoming the Father of the prodigal, in the person of Jesus Christ.

  2. Bob Harry says:

    Yes we are like the oldest son. We want to receive more recognition from God and the Church for our life of service and all the works we have done in his name. We seem resentful to the lost sinner because of all the fun they are having and angry because we have to save them from hell. It does not seem fair. I have struggled for many, many years giving up everything for the church.

    It make me feel ashamed to say the above but it is true to some extent. I do want to spend the rest of my life just talking to sinful people, the lost, and show them the Love and toleration of Jesus.

    Our savior picked me up too many times when I was broken and restored me. He has led me into green pastures where there were not too much grass It's hard to feed sheep in Israel like Australia. The Shepherd has to continually guide the sheep to where the grass is. He leads me beside still waters. Away from the steam channel where an unknown rain can release a flood.

    we are his instruments to be used as he chooses

    Jay these last two posts are hard to comment. They are profound.


  3. Todd Collier says:

    In Mark Jesus calls Levi with the simple words "Follow Me." I would have asked "Where?" "Why?" or "For how long?" Levi just follows. We seek an end, a destination. This is why religions and denominations (even our own) look the way they do and fight over the things they fight over.

    Jesus seeks companions on a journey. Our salvation is found in walking with Him. Like Enoch of old we walk with God until we are "no more."

    None of this can be condensed into five steps to salvation, five acts of worship or five points of a theological system. This is and will always be "all in", "going large", "daily dying" with and for Jesus.

    Forget the rules, change your hearts. Then the rules you see in the text might just make sense.

  4. I noticed that it says Jesus told them one story, not 3.

    Is it possible that Jesus is the shepherd in the first section, (implying they are the Ezek 34 shepherds) The Pharisees should be like the wife in the second section (you've lost something very important – if you don't find it you will have some explaining to do, shouldn't you look for it?) and then He tells them the Father's view of a wayward but repentant son?

    My thought is that the only Son to please the Father told them this to show them how dishonorable their attitude toward the Father's mercy was.
    I do not believe Jesus is the Father in that instance.

    What do you think?


  5. Jay Guin says:

    You're right that "parable" is singular. I'd never noticed.

    I agree that Jesus isn't the father in the Prodigal Son. God is the father, and Jesus' audience would certainly have understood him that way.

    He likely is the shepherd, as he calls himself the "good shepherd" in John — and you're right that there's an implied rebuke as to the leaders who weren't seeking God's lost sheep.

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