Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Father and the Two Sons: A New Parable on Replacement Theology

A good father once had a firstborn son whom he deeply loved. As a token of his love for his son, the father gave him an old and beautiful family photo album.  This photo album was very special. It not only contained pictures, but also all the great stories of the family's past, as well as records of all their ancient customs and traditions - traditions which were still loved and cherished by the family to this very day, because they represented their very fabric and identity.  The firstborn son really loved this book.  He loved to read it hours on end, over and over, because it reminded him of the venerable traditions of his forefathers, of the great love of his own father for him, and of who he was today.  The old book shaped his identity and even inspired him and guided him in his day-to-day life.

Now because the father was very good and generous, he and his wife decided to adopt another boy - an abandoned orphan.  They lovingly took the boy into their family and he truly became another son to them.  At the same time, since they now lived in the modern age, the father bought a state of the art computer for his family. This computer not only had an archive of the family pictures and traditions, but of course it could do much more: it had games, Internet, graphics and music programs, encyclopedias, videos, etc.

The newly adopted son really loved this computer - and rightly so, because it truly was a beautiful gift that the father lovingly gave to his family. But for some reason, the firstborn son was not as enthusiastic about the computer as his adopted brother. The firstborn son was somewhat curious about the computer, but he still preferred to leaf through the yellowed pages of his old family album, remembering all the great stories of old and how these had shaped his family, who he is, and how they still lived today. 

The firstborn son's love for the old book began to annoy the newly adopted son, who was much more interested in the computer than in the book.  Instead of inquiring as to why the firstborn son loved the book so much, instead of showing interest for the heritage and customs of the family who had so kindly adopted him, and instead of expressing gratitude towards their heritage, he started to denigrate it.

After all, the computer was so much better than the old book!  Why hang on to the old antiquated thing? it should just be discarded. It served a purpose for a time but now we are in the computer age. Why stubbornly hang on to all the outdated traditions described in the book? The family should just let go of them and instead spend more time surfing the net.  Sure, the old book served a purpose before there were computers. It was a kind of preparation for the computer age.  As for now, we may want to keep the book somewhere on the shelves, as a collection piece, just to help us understand and appreciate the computer better, but it no longer carries real value of its own. Surely the firstborn son was retrograde and obstinate for hanging on to the old thing and not showing more interest for the computer.

Sadly, as a result of the adopted son's arrogant attitude, the firstborn son began to hate the computer and his adopted brother. He no longer wanted to have anything to do with the computer, and he hung on even more forcefully to his old book, the cherished sign of his father's love for him.  The result was a painful division in the family. Instead of both brothers joyfully sharing the computer (and the adopted brother appreciating and respecting the firstborn son's special love for the old book) as it should have been as a result of the father's goodness and generosity, there was now jealousy and animosity between the brothers - the adopted son boasting about the superiority of the computer and scorning the obsolescence of the old book, and the firstborn tenaciously holding on to his cherished album and no longer interested at all in the computer.

The reader will forgive me if the parallels are somewhat limping (suggestions for improvement are welcome) - but I think you will perceive the analogy:

The father is God. The firstborn son is Israel. The old album is the Torah, deeply loved by Israel as the sign of the covenant between God and His people. The computer is the Gospel.  The newly adopted son is the Church (or rather Gentile Christians). Obviously, there was no need to set the computer against the book - the Gospel against the Torah.  Both were beautiful gifts, lovingly bestowed by the father onto his sons.  True, in many ways the computer is vastly superior to the old book. But as the firstborn son had a particular historical and cultural attachment to the old book, so Israel has a great love for the Torah, because it is not only the sign of God's covenant love for them but also their history book and the record of their customs which have shaped their very identity to this day. If the adopted son had truly desired to share the computer with his brother, the firstborn son, he could have simply told him about it and all the great things that it did, with enthusiasm and excitement.  But he also could have shown some interest, respect, and appreciation for the old family album and everything it represented.  This surely would have strengthened the friendship between the two boys and caused the firstborn son to be more interested in the computer.

Likewise, many supersessionist Gentile Christians rail against Israel for having rejected the Gospel. Instead of proclaiming the good news of Christ with joy and love, with gratitude and appreciation to the Jewish people because they as Gentiles have now been "adopted into the household of Israel" (Eph 2), demonstrating a humble eagerness to learn about the rich Jewish traditions (many of whom not only were divinely revealed but also shaped who Jesus was and is), they spend more time denigrating the Torah and the Mosaic Covenant - appreciating it, perhaps, for its historical value as a preparation for the Gospel and retaining the moral foundation of the Decalogue, but dismissing the rest as outdated and superseded - certainly of no practical use today for the people to whom it was given.  These advocates of replacement theology are blind as to why Israel would still love and cherish the Torah, not realizing that it is their own arrogant attitude that constitutes the chief obstacle to the Jewish people accepting the Gospel.

Before we may hope to see Israel's eyes opened to the light of the Gospel, may we pray that the veil of arrogance over too many Christian eyes be lifted, that we may come to a more humble appreciation of the root into which we have been grafted:
And if some of the branches [unbelieving Jews] were broken off, and you [gentile Christian], being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in."  Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.   For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.  Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.  And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.  For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?  (Rom 11:17-24)


  1. I think this parable is seriously inadequate as it stands, given that the old family album represents Torah and the computer represents the Gospel. For the firstborn son's attitude is expressed thus:
    "The firstborn son was somewhat curious about the computer, but he still preferred to leaf through the yellowed pages [of the album."
    That seems to imply that God's will for Jews is that they be merely "somewhat curious" about the Gospel, while still "preferring" the Torah. But that would not be a genuine Christian commitment at all.
    Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.
    St. Louis, Missouri

  2. Shalom fr. Harrison and thank you for your comment. The parable did not intend to make the point that you are raising. It describes not God's will for the Jewish people but rather a de facto situation - namely that the collective Jewish response to the Gospel has historically been one ranging from curiosity to reluctance to outright rejection - with this rejection exacerbated by negative Christian attitudes towards the Torah. After all, in the parable, the computer was destined also - perhaps especially - for the firstborn son.


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