Who is the Lost Son?

Yesterday I preached on the Lost Son (see sermon below). In the Parable, the Lost Son = the Tax Collectors and Sinners that found favor with Christ; the older brother = the Jews/Pharisees who refused to celebrate with heavenly joy at their repentance. The father = Christ (it’s okay, I’m not a heretic. In the parable of the Lost Coin Christ is depicted as a woman, so there). The Parable describes the repentance of the Gentiles and “sinners” and illustrates Christ’s words: “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…”

My colleague and circuit counselor took the Lost Son as Christ, who goes into a distant land (Incarnation) and squanders his Father’s inheritance (He was called a drunkard and a glutton for hanging out with prostitutes and “sinners”), and returns to his Father (death, resurrection, ascension). This my Son was dead (Crucifixion) and is alive (Resurrection), etc. The Jews (older brother) despise Christ for keeping company with prostitutes, etc. We debated this at Winkel, and I said I wouldn’t charge him with false doctrine for preaching it this way, though I didn’t think it was right on. Interestingly, I had this same idea at the seminary when I took Luke with Dr. Just. He didn’t care for the idea either.

We had an interesting discussion about it at my adult Catechism class later on. So, what do you think? Can the Lost Son be Christ? If nothing else, it is a creative way of preaching the Gospel in this text. One thing that is interesting about this pericope is that Buddha has his own version of the story. In his version, though, the Lost Son returns, and his father hides and watches him work, and sees how much he has grown, and then welcomes him. Can you say, “Religion of works”? Clearly the emphasis in this Parable is on the grace and compassion of Christ towards the “undeserving” sinners who were made alive in Christ, who were lost but now in Him they are found.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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12 Responses to Who is the Lost Son?

  1. Chad Myers says:

    Hrm, definitely don’t like the Lost Son as Christ because the Son clearly sinned (fornication, licentiousness, drunkenness, etc). I’ve always heard your interpretation both as a Lutheran and as a Catholic. Given the context, I think that your interpretation (i.e. the son is sinners, the brother is judgemental Pharisees or perhaps all Jews, and the father is Christ or God in general) is the correct one since the Pharisees were just complaining about Christ hanging out with Prostitutes and Tax Collectors.

    One extra thing, this passage is used to defend the concept that we can loose — or rather walk away from the salvation that has been offered to us). We can squander all the grace given to us in our baptism (the inheritance), but still turn back and receive more grace and a full inheritance as before. The Lost Son had scarred himself due to his own sin, so things would never be exactly as they were, but the Father did his best to welcome him back.

    So in this context, is not the turning back of the Lost Son, and the decision to go back to his father a “work”? An act of faith and obedience? He’s not saved because of his work (it was already offered to him and remained offered), but his going back re-engaged the salvation.

    If the Lost Son had not come back, would the father have gone out to find him and drag him back home (whether the Lost Son wanted to or not?)

    IIRC, Lutherans do no believe in once-saved-always-saved as Calvinists do, right? So we are probably in agreement here. I’ve been reading too much Calvinist literature lately, methinks.

  2. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    The thing is, the father is running to embrace his son, even before the son gets a chance to say anything. For all the father knew, the son could have been planning to come and spit in his face. Repentance in the broad sense includes both the terrors of conscience, and the turning in faith to Christ. The son did not work to earn his father’s favor. It was already there.

    The other reason that Christ must be the father in this parable is that it said that the father had “compassion”, the exact same word used of Christ, who saw the multitudes and had “compassion” (Gk: splanchnizomai). I think that word identifies the father as Christ.

    No, Lutherans do not believe in “once-saved-always-saved.” A person can be enlightened, believe, and later reject Christ, i.e., turn away from Him, drive out the Holy Spirit, etc. That is why Luther emphasizes daily repentance. “It (baptism) indicates that the Old Man in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with sin and evil desire…and that a new man should daily arise and live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” St. Paul says the same: Put off the old….put on the new.

  3. Rev. Shane R. Cota says:

    Some problems notwithstanding, I do like the Christ as the Prodigal Son interpretation. When the son demands his inheritance, the word there is ousias (substance), and Christ is of one substance with the Father. Also, the fact that he sinned is not a problem to such an interpretation because, as the Epistle says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ becomes the Sinner for all of us prodigal sons. At any rate, as you said, it allows for preaching the Gospel. Though I certainly would not claim it is the definitive interpretation.

    I also like Robert Farrar Capon’s observation that the fattened calf is Christ. He is the one who drops dead, is sacrificed, so that there can be a party – and we receive that banquet in the Lord’s Supper.

  4. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    I mentioned something to that effect in my sermon–a party is thrown in our honor. The fattened calf is killed, that is, Christ our passover lamb is sacrificed, and we are invited to eat and drink his body and blood.

    On a different note, I remember a sermon you preached in Hom. I with Just, where you had this great line: in the sacrament we are filled with the “sweet inebriation..” or something like that. It was great.

  5. Bad Ice says:

    Hmmmm. I thought there was only one point of comparison…

  6. Rev. Shane R. Cota says:

    I remember that sermon. I think it was on the wedding at Cana.

    Bad Ice: One point of comparison is just no fun!

  7. Rev. Shane R. Cota says:

    With the parables (some of which are more obvious than others), I think of Luther’s comment about the Scriptures being like a multi-faceted gem. Hold them different ways and they glitter all the same, as long as the Gospel is the glitter. When you read Luther, he is incredibly loose with some of his interpretations as long as it serves the Gospel. The church fathers are also playful with the text. Just don’t preach heresy!

  8. Bad Ice says:

    I did a quick look at Kleinig’s Leviticus Commentary. Seems like pigs were used in the cult of the dead. Isaiah 65, 66

    Might add more to the “dead and found”.

    I wonder how many pastors preach “one point of comparison”

  9. Good Ice (HaHa) says:

    i like the idea and i think the sins are “givin” to him not actually commited by him

  10. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Well, it’s an interesting theory, no doubt, and one that I am sympathetic towards. I still think that the use of the word “compassion” in describing the attitude of the father links him with Christ, who “had compassion on the multitudes, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

  11. Bad Ice says:

    Hey, I like good ice. I’ve been hard-water fishing most of my life. Been through bad ice four times. It’s cold.

    I believe Psalm 91.

  12. Dave Schultz says:

    I remember once trying the “son as the Son” interpretation… But it just doesn’t work for me. Esp. after reading Bailey.
    A young pastor in my circuit recently advanced the same idea. Maybe it is something we need to play with awhile, before moving back to the older interpretation…
    I would agree with the fattened calf being Christ.

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