Thinking Out Loud

February 26, 2010

Peter Rollins Makes His Point Well, Despite My Earlier Misgivings

As you might remember, back in the summer I abandoned my reading of Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic. It was just too “out there” for me.  Or so I thought.  But last night I decided to read the final six or seven short essays and while I’m not sure if it was me or Peter Rollins, something changed in those final pages to the point where, while I’m still not 100% comfortable with a full endorsement, I have to give the author some measure of credit for really thinking through some popular Bible narratives.

I thought I’d look at this one, the story we call “The Prodigal Son” only because it reminds me of the Rob Bell Peter Walking on Water Controversy which is still getting comments.   This should drive some of the same people equally nuts.  But I don’t believe for a minute that there is a singular interpretation to everything that Jesus taught, nor do I believe that there are not some additional, deeper nuggets of truth lurking under the surface, awaiting discovery.

Rollins begins by re-telling the story, albeit somewhat abridged.   The younger son has claimed his share of the estate, left home and hit bottom.

There was no life for the young man so he thought to himself, I have had a good time in the last few years, but perhaps I should now return to my Father’s home.  For there it is warm, and while he will be angry, he may take pity on me and let me work as a hired hand. And so he began his return journey.

Rollins then narrates the son’s return, the father’s joy, the reinstatement of the son, the celebration.  And then,

Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.

As with all 33 stories in the book, he then moves into a commentary section. And then…

…The question we must ask concerns how much of what he baptize with the name forgiveness is really worthy of that name.

…In politics…forgiveness is strategic and comes with conditions…

…In the world of work…forgiveness can be a great strategy for helpign to ensure return business and a good reputation…

…When it comes to religion…as John Caputo notes in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? forgiveness all too often comes after a set of criteria have been met, namely an expression of sorrow, a turning away from the act, a promise not to return to the act, and a willingness to do penance.  Forgiveness thus follows repentance and so cannot take place until repentance has occurred.

…But what if Jesus had an infinitely more radical message than this?  What if Jesus taught an impossible forgiveness, a forgiveness without conditions, a forgiveness that would forgive before some conditions were met?

…Is it not true that the conditional gift of forgiveness, without the need of repentance, houses within it the power to evoke repentance?  …It is impossible to change until we meet someone who says to us, “You don’t have to change, I love you just the way you are.”

What if a forgiveness that has conditions, that is wrapped up in economy, is not really forgiveness at all, but rather is nothing more than a prudent bet?

Rollins then quotes verses 17-20 of Luke 15:

17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father…

Rollins continues,

It would initially seem that the repentance in the story came before the forgiveness.  Yet is the younger son really repentant here?  The text says he came to his “senses,” that is, he started to make a sensible calculation.  One would expect the narrative to claim something like, “in repentance he returned to his father’s home,,” but the story describes the son’s internal monologue as a strategic decision rather than a change of heart.

But even if his repentance were genuine…the father’s response shows no economy is at work in the kingdom.   After all, we read these powerful words, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion…”

The father has no interest in whether or not his son is repentant.  All he cares about is the son’s return.

…The radical idea of forgiveness…is already embedded in the original story.   It adds a conclusion that imagines how such unconditional love may have actually provided the power needed to precipitate a change of heart in the son, rather than his experience of eating with the pigs.

There is a depth to this insight.   Perhaps I would have done better to simply leave the author unnamed, given the polarization that’s out there.   Maybe we all need to see on what personal level we need to take the story to heart.


  1. […] Link:  I really thought Friday’s piece on Peter Rollins’ interpretation of The Prodigal Son story would have evoked a comment or […]

    Pingback by B(link) and You’ll Miss It « Thinking Out Loud — March 3, 2010 @ 5:59 am

  2. Hi there Paul & his many readers:

    You have to check out a book by Kenneth Bailey called, “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes”.

    In this book, Jesus is often described as using a parable with a hanging ending. He doesn’t always say (in fact more often than no) what the final fate/ending of a story’s central character is! Final judgment being what it is, in God hands, may have something to do with that. Jesus often points the most likely direction/fate of the individuals referenced in parables, in order to have us ‘err on the side of caution’ at worst, but at best, have us seeking ‘a better way’ through the Life in the Spirit and under His Gospel of truth and repentance.

    Blessings on all!

    Martin (now go find that book! It’s one of the best out there!)

    Comment by Martin Barrret — March 5, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  3. I am still where you were. I read the first few parables in this book and honestly saw, well, what I thought were to many, I’ll say, inconsistencies. Like this:

    “The father has no interest in whether or not his son is repentant. All he cares about is the son’s return.”

    This statement doesn’t make sense. The whole idea of repentance is, “to return to God,” turn away from sin and return. So the father has no interest in repentance, all he cares about is the son’s return?

    This is like saying “he doesn’t care about repentance” rather “ALL he cares about is” repentance. The son ‘returning’ home is repentance in our understanding of this Scripture. Peter seems to me, sometimes, to speak with the deepest thoughts, at the shallowest levels. And that seems to resonate, sadly, with lots of Christians these days.

    Don’t get me wrong, Peter is very intelligent, but he seems to use that intelligence to just come up with these really cool, deep, words that really have no great transformative value, except confusion.

    Well, I know this post is old, but I just found you, googling Peter Rollins.

    Comment by Jason — November 7, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    • I think what Rollins is trying to say is that only when the son is actually home and sees the magnitude of his father’s love; only then does he realize the unmerited grace and favor he is receiving and then, at that point, it hits the son at a deeper, emotional level.

      So while it conflicts with the theological way we understand repentance as “turning,” it does infuse a greater dimension into the story.

      I’ll give him credit for that one.

      …Since this post was written, Rob Bell had Peter Rollins at Mars Hill for a Sunday Morning Q & A thing in lieu of a sermon. Parts of that were equally “out there.” …I love what Bell and Mars are doing, but if I lived in Grand Rapids I’d probably make my church home elsewhere. Everything is constantly teetering on the edge.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 7, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  4. I hear you. Also I agree about Mars Hill. I’ve visited, things are going well there, but I would probably find a different home if I lived there as well.

    The only thing I can say to the analysis about what Peter probably means is…well, it’s just not backed up by much Scripture. Peter says, “What if Jesus taught an impossible forgiveness, a forgiveness without conditions, a forgiveness that would forgive before some conditions were met? …It is impossible to change until we meet someone who says to us, “You don’t have to change, I love you just the way you are.” But that’s not the image we get from Scripture.

    The whole of Leviticus 5. (make this sacrifice, do this, burn this, kill this and you will be forgiven)

    “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7

    “We have transgressed and rebelled and you have not forgiven.” Lamentations 3 (when we don’t change, we’re not forgiven)

    “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” James 5

    “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1

    These are just a few, but they seem to point to a God that forgives, WHEN a person returns, turns, moves away from sin towards Him. Is forgiveness there, available, already prepared and ready to be given, absolutely, but we still must turn, confess, pray, etc.

    Now let’s really blow our minds. If you happen to lean towards reformed thought (and I do mean, just lean, I still struggle with some reformed thoughts), but I do lean that way. We can’t change, turn, pray, confess, unless God leads us to do it…hmmm. That’s a completely different topic =). Thanks for the discussion.

    I know I have a lot to say, but I’m in Phoenix, away from home (Florida) sitting in a hotel room and this is great conversation, entertainment, thought, study…it’s something to do.

    Comment by Jason — November 7, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

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