The following is a reflection on N.T. Wrights article, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?” practically applied to the parable found in Luke 15:11-32. The article can be found online here and is worth reading through at least once. It is a challenge for Kingdom people to re-think the ‘how to’ when it comes to interpreting and sharing the gospel message.
The message of grace and forgiveness found in the story of the prodigal son is fundamental. I doubt many people would argue that point. The problem is that the fundamental note—often the only note—our current culture is hearing lacks almost all reverberating overtones. It’s a sure thing for a preacher to deliver the good news that even the worst of sinner only need turn around and can expect to be met with their heavenly Father’s arms wide open, just waiting to lavish forgiveness upon them. The problem is that when we preach only this fundamental note, even if it is because that is what we believe resonates best with the listener or most accepted in our tradition, we are undermining the very teachings of Jesus.
I use the word undermine, because the fundamental note isn’t equal to a false gospel, but it will become eroded without being further built up. There is depth to the story found in Luke 15:11-32. It is profound and multi-layered. Each layer has a message and Jesus intended that the whole of the story would be heard. There is a power in teaching and interpreting the Bible. There is a power that can be used to elevate certain aspects and pass others depending on a multitude of reasons. This is not the kind of power Jesus came to give us though.
The way the Bible is interpreted and taught is what will eventually become the dominant worldview for a tradition or even larger portions of the corporate church. In our country it is easy to own a Bible and, for many, it is easy to read it as well. The message, fundamental and overtones alike, are right there for all to read and interpret for themselves. The problem is that everyone comes to their Bible with the fundamental notes already sounding …. The parable of the prodigal son is about a broken sinner who turns back to the Father and finds unending grace, love, and forgiveness.
There is a harmonious tale being told by Christ in this story. A story that challenges our ideas about family, motivates us to rethink our ideas about the father, and re-examine our interactions with him. There are cultural overtones worth discussing and knowing; like what it meant to be a Jewish family living in 1st century Palestine. There can be dis-harmonies if the hearer doesn’t understand honor and shame in the same context as Jesus. Jesus was preaching grace and forgiveness, and He was preaching so much more.
The church has been given authority to teach and preach the gospel—fundamental tones, overtones, and harmonies alike. There are sinners who desire to hear the good news that God will be waiting to forgive them on their return. There are others in need of good news as well. There are people looking for the good news of a God who invites everyone to the party. There are people seeking good news about a father who is willing to relinquish his honor, in order to bear our shame. There are people desiring to hear good news about a family that places restoration above reputation and reconciliation above righteousness.
The church can begin by telling the story in a new way, in a way that includes all the harmonies without forgetting the fundamental notes. And then the church can begin living the story until the whole of the message resounds to the world around them. The message that sinners are always welcome is a fairly unchallenged notion of the Christian church, but there are others that aren’t quite as obvious. This message challenges the church to be more—to be a place where you find a relationship with the Father (not just forgiveness), a place where the hope is complete restoration (not defining ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), and a place where the fatherless find their family that is bigger than God the Father alone but the whole church body. It is time for the church to challenge the world’s worldview and become immersed in the melody of the gospel.