This is Understanding the Bible, Part 6. Parts 1-5 are available on our website and our podcast and you can catch up anytime. This week we turn to the New Testament.
The story I’ve chosen as our focus for today is The Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s one of the greatest stories ever told, and certainly one of the most recognizable in the Bible. If your Western Civ or World Lit class featured a day or week on the Bible, there’s a good chance your teacher chose this story. This story hooks readers right away because so many of us can relate to its themes: we want to gain the approval of a parent or have wondered how our children will turn out when they leave the nest. In this story we meet an obedient son and also a wandering, rebellious one. The father is mostly remembered as benevolent and good parent, but he cannot stop his younger son from bad choices, and in his concern for the younger son, he ignores and alienates the older one. And out of all the brokenness of this story, things turn out okay. There is reconciliation. There is hope. So perhaps the same is true for all our flawed, crazy families.
Today, I’m going to draw upon this familiar tale to show that you might know more about the Bible than you think you do. Jesus tells this story because it is illustrative of God’s relationship with humanity. To that end, it fits beautifully the themes of the New Testament, and also the themes of the whole Bible. As we’ve been talking about for weeks, this is a story of a covenant created, broken and restored, and that is how we have been understanding the Bible. In today’s lesson, I plan to do three things: (1) I’ll illustrate how the Prodigal Son fits the broader story of the Bible, (2) I’ll back out from there and do some general teaching about the Gospel stories that form the first half of the New Testament, and then (3) I’ll show how the broader themes of the Gospels also fit the overarching biblical story of a covenant created, broken, and restored.
So, first the story. You’ve heard the Prodigal Son before, but I wonder if you’ve thought previously of its structure as a part of the broader narrative of the Bible. The Prodigal Son begins with a covenant. It’s no accident that Jesus chooses to tell a story about parents and children. Covenants—promises—are assumed between parents and children. Parents are supposed to teach their children. Children are supposed to be raised and guided by their parents. The conventional wisdom is that when this recipe is followed, young people thrive, and when it is lacking, they do not. This is the kind of relationship with God we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the Bible, and when Jesus begins with a man who had two sons, an assumed covenant is already on our minds.
In the second part of the Prodigal Son story, the covenant is both honored and broken. One son follows in the way of his father—he works hard and waits for his inheritance. The other one strays and breaks the covenant. But after that son’s time of “dissolute living,” when he finds that he should have listened to his father, he returns home. The wayward son regrets his mistakes, and the “good” son resents his brother, and in the father’s response to both, we see that the parent loves both. Insofar as he represents God, he shows us that God wishes to be a restorer of covenants, both with the children who have obeyed and with the ones who have strayed. This restoration of the covenant happens regardless of merit; it is what we call grace. This is a story of God’s covenant created, broken, and restored.
Let’s now back out of this specific story, and show how it fits into the larger narrative of the Gospels in the New Testament and the story of Jesus Christ. The Gospels are the stories of the life of Jesus Christ and as you may remember from Sunday School, there are four of them: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the next few minutes, I’m going to add to that base of knowledge with three ideas: (1) How those four Gospels came about; (2) I’ll talk about what to make of the differences between them, and (3) what they hold in common, especially as it relates to our overall theme.
While most of us are familiar with Matthew as the first Gospel in our Bibles, Mark is actually the oldest, Matthew and Luke came along after, and John somewhat after that. Here’s how most scholars assumed it worked. Mark, Matthew and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels: they all take a common view regarding the basic storyline and order of events in Jesus life. Mark is the shortest and was written first, around the late 60s AD, a generation after Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke are each longer; they add to Mark’s basic story very similar collections of stories and lessons told by Jesus. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were authors who had access to the same two sources: they each had a copy of the Gospel of Mark, and they had a written collection of stories and sayings of Jesus that were circulating at the time. They took the stories and sayings and layered them on top of the structure of Jesus’ life they had from Mark, and that’s how we got Matthew and Luke.
John is significantly different. While some stories are the same, John does not follow the same storyline as laid out in the other three, and leaves out many of the stories that Mark, Matthew, and Luke hold in common, and adds a number of stories and sayings that are not common to the other three. John is believed to have emerged in a somewhat similar way to Mark, but in a different early Christian community. In both cases, stories of Jesus were committed to writing years after Jesus’ life.
That’s how the different Gospels came about; now let’s turn to what to make of the differences. At first, it may sound threatening that there are significant differences between the four Gospels. Why is there not agreement on the life of Jesus? Which version are you supposed to believe?
The simple answer is that there is no use trying to hide or explain away the differences between the Gospels. To acknowledge that these stories are different is not some kind of heretical ivory tower scholarship, it is obvious and evident to any careful reader. Fact: the Gospels are different from each other. But why are they different, and what should we make of that? A simple analogy may be helpful.
Imagine asking any four people you know to tell you a story that happened decades ago. Perhaps you call four friends from high school or college and ask them each to tell you about a series of events in which you all participated: your fraternity pledgeship or your road to the state championship in soccer. Each friend’s version of the story is bound to be different, involving different events, details, and characters, because that’s how storytelling works. And the fact that each version of the story includes different details does not make any one of them false. This is similar to what we’re dealing with in the Gospels. Each one of the four Gospel writers selected stories and sayings of Jesus that were most memorable to them and wrote them down in the order they remembered. This was not a police report or notes from a scientific study, held to common standards of accuracy. It was an exercise in spreading the faith and telling the inspiring story of Jesus’ life. To that end, there are details in each of the Gospels that are different, but there are also major themes that are the same.
Even though the Gospels are different in the details, there are parts of Jesus’ life that each one of these stories have in common. One way of thinking about it forms the structure of many writings from traditional Christian theology: the idea that the four Gospels all make reference to Jesus’ birth, his ministry, his death on the Cross, and his Resurrection. (For more on this idea, see William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 2001). These matters are dealt with quite differently in each of the four Gospels. Take Jesus’ birth, for instance: Mark says very little about the birth, but does make sure you know how his story ties back to the Old Testament; he wants to establish “where Jesus came from.” Matthew and Luke tell much longer birth stories about Mary and Joseph, complete with family genealogies, and stories of shepherds and wise men, but Matthew and Luke each provide different stories and details. John doesn’t do any of that, but provides his own more cosmic and philosophical explanation of where Jesus came from: “In the beginning was the Word…” These are all ways of talking about Jesus’ birth. The Resurrection is dealt with similarly: Mark says almost nothing of it, but makes sure we know that the Tomb was empty; that way we know that the story is not over. Matthew, Luke and John all tell stories of the Resurrected Jesus, but each one includes different details.
To explain what is important about these common events in the Gospels, think back on the analogy I made to a memory from high school or college. Imagine for a moment that the story you asked your friends to tell was about a teacher or mentor you all shared, someone who had a profound impact on the direction of all of your lives. Each friend would share different stories and details, but the themes would likely be the same. You would get the sense from everyone’s story that the person you were talking about was a source of great wisdom or compassion or encouragement. And there would probably be a few common events where you saw those values really shine through. These unforgettable characteristics that shaped your lives would be more important than the differences in the details. This seems to be how the Gospels worked.
Think once more about those four elements of the Gospels: birth, ministry, Cross, and Resurrection. The beautiful thing about these four elements is that through each of them, there is an opportunity to reach a great variety of people who might come to know and follow Christ. Some feel most drawn to the story of Jesus through his birth and where he came from: he’s the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes for a Messiah and is the Son of God, but also human like us. Some believe that his ministry—his teaching and healing, and gracious forgiveness are the most important thing. Some are most drawn to the story of the Cross: that like a ritual sacrifice, there is a way that the death of Jesus unites him in common cause with all of us, who will one day die, and that in his death he ritually cleanses us of sin. Still, others focus on the Resurrection, the idea that Jesus saves mortal, fragile human beings and also saves the world by showing that death does not have the last word in life, so we should live as people of hope.
John Calvin, the father of our Presbyterian faith, said that all of these had their place. He wrote that the miracle of Jesus is not about one of these four parts of his life, but that Jesus saves us through “the whole course of his obedience [to God].” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.5) That has always suggested to me that all of us are going to be drawn toward different parts of Jesus’ story, and we may like one Gospel version better than the others, and that’s okay too. Part of the gift of having four different storytellers is the many chances that give each of us to be drawn into the story.
The other common thread to all four of the Gospel stories takes us back to the theme we’ve been following throughout this sermon series: a covenant created, broken, and restored. In this common story of Jesus’ life through birth, ministry, Cross, and Resurrection, each of the four Gospels traces the story of God’s Covenant. Jesus is born into the world to establish (or reestablish) God’s covenant—to show us how to live according to God’s way. In Jesus’ ministry, we see that some accept the covenant, others reject it. Jesus’ followers rally around his teaching and his way of life, but others reject that teaching and way of life. In the most profound rejection of the covenant, human beings put Jesus to death on the Cross. But then, even in the face of death, the Resurrection story demonstrates God’s continuing fidelity to the Covenant, and God’s desire to restore relationship with us. Jesus’ life is a story of a covenant created, broken, and restored, a story we’ve been hearing from the beginning.
The remainder of the New Testament will be devoted to how the early church started to tell the story of Jesus when his earthly life was over. We will turn to those final books of the Bible in Part 7. Amen.