Parable refutes the legal gospel

Prodigal Gospel: Getting Lost and Found Again in the Good News by Jonny Morrison

The Prodigal Son is one of Jesus’ best-known parables. Those raised in the church could no doubt recite the story’s main plot points by memory: A son’s squandering of his inheritance on luxurious living, then returning home. A father running to embrace his child, celebrating the son’s homecoming. An older brother’s anger over a party he sees as unjust. 

As a child, I was compelled to enact Luke’s story so often at church camp and vacation Bible school that I probably played every role, my favorite being the pig from whose trough the prodigal son ate (a Midwest version of the parable, I’m sure; most biblical translations of the Luke story suggest the pigs were in a field).

Jonny Morrison’s Prodigal Gospel challenges us to take another look at this parable we think we know so well. He says the parable offers wisdom for our fragmented time, when there seems to be a gap “between our faith and world, between the realities of everyday life and the story of God our churches, traditions and even religious friends are offering.” The parable, Morrison believes, offers an inclusive story about God, one that invites reconciliation and relationship.

Prodigal Gospel compellingly argues that the prodigal son provides a new lens through which to see God’s character, as well as the good news of the Gospels. This good news is often lost when we see the parable — and, indeed, the entire gospel story — as one of shame and retribution rather than redemption and love. Morrison’s book toggles between the hope found in the prodigal son’s story and in the Gospels’ wider narrative arc. He asserts that this story “communicates the vibe and the vision” of Jesus’ ministry, as well as his life, death and resurrection.

Morrison’s interpretation is built around a claim about the nature of God. “God is like Jesus,” Morrison writes, “and all our other images, theologies or ideas about God must be squared with Jesus, not the other way around.” The parable advocates a particular understanding of God when read in the context of the Gospels more broadly. In turn, the Gospels can be best understood when we see God not as judgmental and retributive but as relational, much like the father meeting his son on the road home. 

I especially appreciate Morrison’s willingness to deconstruct what he calls the legal gospel. He uses the prodigal son story to suggest that a legalistic interpretation of the Gospels misconstrues God’s nature entirely. Many of us were taught the legal gospel: our awfulness because of the Fall, a “sin nature” we can’t escape; our unworthiness of God’s perfection; our separation from God, bridged only through Jesus’ blood sacrifice on the cross; our need to accept Jesus as our Savior, lest God condemn us to eternal torment.    

But the prodigal son and his loving father — indeed, the good news of the Gospels — offers us a far different image of God and God’s relationship to us. The father in Luke runs toward his son, despite the pain his child caused, despite the many transgressions of which the son is guilty. God does not turn God’s back on us, just as the father never turns away from either son, including the older brother, indignant at his father’s profligacy. 

Morrison says the story’s denouement shows that God is likewise blessed through a relationship to us. In the parable, the father’s relationship to his son is restored. After so much time apart — Morrison notes that we aren’t told how long the separation lasted — the father rejoices, so overwhelmed with joy and relief that he throws a magnificent party. This is not the image of a God who seeks to judge us and condemn us to hell, but of One who cherishes us and longs to be with us. Cherishes us so much that when our self-righteousness becomes a barrier to right relationship, God still desires us. 

Morrison draws attention to the older brother, stewing in his anger about a party for his feckless sibling. Responsible and loyal, the older brother resents that his labor seems unappreciated. But the father pursues him, too, leaving the party to invite him to join the celebration. The brother must decide whether to admit he was wrong to scorn his younger brother. 

Prodigal Gospel is an invitation to that party, whether we are the older or the younger brother. Like the other parties of which Jesus speaks, the one in this parable celebrates true hospitality at a table wide enough to include all: a son returned home after a long absence; a son who has remained home, faithful to his family and his work; and a father who loves each guest and rejoices in their presence. 

As Morrison affirms, this kind of love, the heart of this parable and of the Gospels, is truly good news.  


Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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