Listen to this Islamic interpretation of Luke 15:11-32:
In this parable the Father obviously represents God while the younger son represents humankind. The son leaves home, gets into trouble and finally decides to return to his Father. He “yistaghfir Allah” (he seeks the forgiveness of God). On arrival the Father welcomes the son and thus demonstrates the he, the father, is “rahman wa rahim” (merciful and compassionate). There is no cross and no incarnation, no “son of God” and no “savior,” no “word that becomes flesh” and no “way of salvation,” no death and no resurrection, no mediator and no mediation. The son needs no help to return home. The result is obvious. Jesus is a good Muslim who in this parable affirms Muslim theology. The heart of the Christian faith is thus denied by the very prophet Christianity claims to follow. Islam with neither a cross nor a savior preserves the true message of the prophet Jesus.
This is how Kenneth Bailey opens The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants. In his book, Bailey interprets the parable in light of the cultural paradigms of the first century Mediterranean world. He finds a warrant to introduce the atonement in this parable because the father bore the public shame of his prodigal son’s “death wish” (asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive) by running publically in the street to embrace the prodigal son. A dignified man in the Middle East would never run without great cost (public shame) to himself. “This parable depicts a father who leaves the comfort and security of his home and humiliates himself before the village. The coming down and going out to his son is a parable of the incarnation. The costly demonstration of the unexpected love in the village street demonstrates a part of the meaning of the cross” (67).
Clearly the Muslim interpretation is flawed with eisegesis, trying to insert the Islamic concept of salvation into the parable. Let’s not forget to interpret the the parable in light of the crucifixion narrative and Jesus’ words in Luke 9:22, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
But I wonder if Bailey goes too far as well? Parables were not meant to teach a summary of everything in Biblical faith, but instead to highlight one main point. Luke 15 illustrates God’s extravagant mercy for sinners (something, by the way, that Islam and Biblical faith have in common). Read this from the New American Commentary on Luke 15 (pg. 410):
The question has been raised about whether this parable teaches that God’s forgiveness is “free.” Did Luke believe there was thus no necessity of an “atonement.” One cannot require in a parable such as this, which teaches God’s love for the outcasts and the hostility this encounters, a complete doctrine of the atonement as well. A parable is not meant to serve as a shorter catechism of all Christian doctrine. Luke expected that this parable would be interpreted in light of what he had already said in his Gospel (cf. 9:22), what he would say shortly (cf. 19:10; 22:17–22), what he would write in Acts (4:12; 13:26–39; 20:28), and what they had already been taught (perhaps a tradition such as 1 Cor 15:3–8). The purpose of this parable is to teach essentially one basic point dealing with the situation described in 15:1–2. To ask more of it than this is unwarranted.
The church must continually examine the significance of this parable. Will we be the church of the elder brother or the church of the loving father?
This is the same route Tim Keller takes in The Prodigal God. He warns, “This story is a great metaphor of sin and salvation, but we can’t press every single detail literally” (76). Keller continues:
Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost the one granting the forgiveness. (83)
The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the the younger son, somebody had to pay! The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way. But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.
But we do not…(84)
Praise God for Jesus, who absorbed the cost of forgiveness in our place on the cross! But the point of the parable does not take us there.