Book Reviews

A Tale of Two Sons by John MacArthur

MacArthur provides us with a comprehensive, readable and thoroughly biblical exposition of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  In contrast to a well-publicized study of sermons on this great parable (See Christless Christianity by Michael Horton, pp. 48-61) which twisted the story into various therapeutic explanations, MacArthur rightly explains that the parable was aimed at the hard-hearted, legalistic Pharisees and the central figure is the “good” son, not the father or the Prodigal.  MacArthur’s understanding is summed up early in the book.

The prodigal represents a typical sinner who comes to repentance.  The father’s patience, love, generosity, and delight over the son’s return are clear and perfect emblems of divine grace.  The prodigal’s heart change is a picture of what true repentance should look like.  And the elder brother’s cold indifference—the real focal point of the story, as it turns out—is a vivid representation of the same evil hypocrisy Jesus was confronting in the hearts of the hostile scribes and Pharisees to whom He told the parable in the first place (Luke 15:2).  They bitterly resented the sinners and tax collectors who drew near to Jesus (v. 1), and they tried to paper over their fleshly indignation with religious pretense.  But their attitudes betrayed their unbelief and self-centeredness.  Jesus’ parable ripped the mask off their hypocrisy (p. xvi).

Occasionally MacArthur will make statements which, while very possible and logical, are nevertheless not provable within the text.  For example, we don’t know where the elder son is when the Prodigal leaves home (pp. 59, 154), or that the father wanted to reach his son before he gets to the village where he will receive scorn (p. 113), or that the town’s people saw the father’s reception of the son (p. 117).  But these are minor issues which do not significantly mar the overall content. 

The book includes a useful Appendix on how to interpret parables.  This is especially helpful in light of much postmodern emphasis on “narrative theology” as opposed to propositional and objective truth.

I would highly recommend The Tale of Two Sons for its specific teaching on the Prodigal Son parable and for examples of how to approach parabolic biblical literature.