I recently attended a local church Bible study on the parable of the prodigal son from Luke Chapter 15 verses 11 through 32 in the New Testament of the Bible. Grace and forgiveness are the main themes of this parable . The culture Jesus was confronting in the day was a highly legalistic, unforgiving, religious hierarchy who looked down upon the commoner and those who did not keep the Jewish law. These were called “sinners".
Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees who were critical of His habit of hanging out with sinners He tended to attract. The objective of the parable was to demonstrate to the intolerant, unforgiving Jews that it is worse to fail to forgive sin (the example of the older brother) than it is to sin (the example of the younger brother). The father of the two sons was the “God” figure who freely forgave, no matter the cost.
I understand all of this. And I understand that it was the perfect lesson that needed to be given to that group of people in that particular culture at that particular time in history. Why? Because their version of “morality” was excessively rigid, excessively enforced and lacked grace, understanding, and forgiveness. That was the PREDOMINANT attitude among the Jewish leaders and culture to whom Jesus presented His parable.
Do we have this same predominant attitude among most church goers and the general population TODAY? Pay careful attention to the words “predominant” and “most.” The answer has to be NO. Some of us, yes. The great majority of us, no. Maybe this was the case in churches 60 or 100 years ago. But today? You’ve got to be kidding.
What is the predominant attitude today? I’d venture to say it is quite the opposite. The highest value is “tolerance.” Tolerance of just about every aberrant behavior known to humanity. The best known and most practiced Bible verse is “judge not lest ye be judged.” Judging anything is the worst thing anyone could be accused of doing in our present culture. I have not observed a Pharisaical-acting church or person in the prior 60 years of my life.
Maybe I'm hanging out with a unique crowd, but the predominant attitude and behavior I observe today is excessive license and rebellion against any morality and most authority. This attitude is pandemic in schools, the media and especially our entertainment. We have a perverse view that we are entitled to liberty without responsibility, order or morality.
It is dangerous to second-guess Jesus. But if I were a betting man, I would bet that denigrating the elder son would not be on the top of His priority list for religious education in our culture in our time.
I could envision a more timely parable for today’s culture where the younger son left a dysfunctional family to become a devout conservative Lutheran pastor and returned to his old homestead after a few years to check things out. Upon seeing his younger brother return, the drunken older son began shouting “the Bible Thumping goodie two shoes has returned.” The father then admonishes his older son saying, “Son, if you’re going to judge, judge righteously for good, not for evil…your brother was lost, now he’s found” or something along those line.
The point is that cultures go through various up and downs: Excessive legalism and excessive licentiousness in various periods in history. The same Bible lessons are not as applicable to some of these cultural periods as they are to others. The church today is hardly guilty of excessive judging or legalism. Certainly nothing like the crowd Jesus was admonishing with his parable. If anything we need a return to a bit of fire and brimstone of a century or more ago. There are plenty of those examples in the Bible, too, but these might offend someone, I suppose. But such verses would certainly address the real needs of our culture today better than those that urge us to be even more tolerant of the amorality and licentiousness rampant in today’s culture.
When we are already blindly pandering to bad behavior in our culture, a lesson on why we should do more of it is hardly fitting.