Friday, June 26, 2015

A Missional Hermeneutic Applied to a Prodigal Son

The Church of Jesus Christ in North America is slowly awakening to the reality that the 21st century represents a watershed moment. Alex McManus, innovative leader, has observed poignantly, “The Western world has lost its faith in the shadow of church steeples.” The truth of this statement is self-evident as populations continue to rise while the influence of the communities of faith declines.

In response to this morass, leaders have responded by talking about the need for “missional churches.” I wholeheartedly agree with this solution as it resonates with the revealed heart of God in the Scriptures, but the problem remains in how to create a missional ethos within both new communities of faith and also within existing communities. Without substance, a call for a missional ethos can merely be another program or trendy buzzword.

It is my belief that the movement toward a missional ethos must be propelled by a missional hermeneutic that unleashes God’s people to become a missional community that reflects God’s character in the world. What is a missional hermeneutic? I have discussed various aspects of this elsewhere, but let’s suffice it to say that a missional hermeneutic is one that focuses on the Scripture’s call to conversion. There are two loci for a message of conversion: first, the Scriptures call God’s people to reconvert and recommit to God’s Creational intentions for humanity (mission, holiness, and authentic community), and second, the Scriptures invite outsiders to become insiders by becoming part of the people of God as they seek to serve as a missional community that reflects and embodies God’s character in the world. In other words, the desired response to any reading, teaching, or preaching of God’s word is conversion – nothing more and nothing less.

Such a hermeneutic allows old texts to regain their old vigor. When Scripture comes to life, God’s people are propelled into the world as God’s witnesses.

Let’s look at a familiar story that may have lost its poignancy for many due to misreading its missional intent. The story is the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. If you have been around a community of faith for any length of time, you have likely heard scores of sermons based on the power story of redemption of a lost son who returns home and experiences a profound reconciliation with a father who is quick to forgive and celebrate his return. Many of us have found ourselves in this story, but let me suggest that most of us have only scratched the surface of this powerful narrative. A careful reading of Luke 15 serves as an effective test case and illustration of the power of a missional reading.

First, let us make three observations about the context of Luke 15.

Jesus is responding to the challenge of religious authorities to his mission.
The narrative frame for Luke 15 is found in vv. 1-2. The narrator informs us that outsiders were coming to Jesus to listen to his message. Who were these outsiders? They were tax collectors and sinners, i.e., persons believed to be outside of God’s covenant community and unworthy for fellowship. Yet profoundly, these are the sorts of persons with whom Jesus routinely interacted. The religious leaders and Bible scholars of Jesus’ day were taking exception to this. They were offended that Jesus was engaging these lost persons.

Luke 15 as a whole is about the missional heart of God
In response to this fundamental opposition to his work, Jesus tells a series of stories about lost things—a sheep (vv. 4-7), a coin (vv. 8-10), and a son (vv. 11-24). Each story is a portrait of God’s heart for the lost. In each story, there is an emphasis on celebration. There is a party thrown in celebration of each lost item’s being found. Vv. 7 and 10 emphasize the joy in heaven for the salvation of every lost person. Each story has a character representing God who focuses outward on the lost. My great-grandmother used to say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most of our churches agree with such conventional wisdom. Yet the heart of God is like a man who leaves 99 sheep to find one lost sheep or a woman with 9 coins who focuses on finding one.

This however is the heart of the good news of the Gospel—God longs for the salvation of all people. He desires to restore relationships with lost people. This has been true in Scripture since God’s poignant call in the Garden of Eden, “Adam, where are you?”

This is no way downplays the destructiveness or ultimate consequences of sin. But it is a clarion call to God’s people to gain God’s heart for the lost and to be willing to embrace and accept the outsider as a person for whom Jesus Christ went to the cross. This involves a willingness to be open up the community to receive such persons into authentic fellowship.

The Climax of Luke 15 is not the story of the Prodigal Son, but the story of the Older Brother
God’s desire to celebrate the return of a lost son is the source of the conflict in the epilogue of the Prodigal Son (vv. 25-32). In fact, based on the overall context of Luke 15, the conflict between the Father and the Older Son is no mere epilogue—it is the heart of the message of Luke 15. The older son represents the religious authorities with whom Jesus is in conflict in 15:1-2.

Notice that there is no ending. Jesus leaves his audience hanging. What did the older son do? Did he join the party? This narrative invites us as readers to work out the ending for ourselves.

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© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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