I was stunned! It was 1958 in Jerusalem. A British scholar and churchman, Dr. Kenneth Cragg, was lecturing on the Muslim-Christian debates of the Middle Ages. He had just pointed out that the Muslim scholars of the period loved to quote the parable of the Prodigal Son as evidence against Christians. The reason was that, in the story, a son who leaves his father (God), goes into a far country, gets into trouble, decides to return home, is on his arrival welcomed, and his return is celebrated. He needs no incarnation and no atonement, no cross, and no salvation. There is no mediator between the two of them. He simply returns home and his father accepts him. Ergo: Jesus is a good Muslim.

After 40 years, the shock of that speech is still with me. In fact, that lecture inaugurated my personal pilgrimage into the mind of Jesus of Nazareth with this famous text as a road map. Was there any response to this centuries-old Muslim challenge?

This story badly needs to be rescued from familiarity and from its traditional cultural captivity. For centuries, we in the West have read the story in the light of our own cultural presuppositions, which have dulled its cutting edge.

I spent most of my childhood in Egypt, and from 1955 to 1995 our family lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, where I taught New Testament in seminaries and institutes. For all of my adult life, it has been my privilege to study the New Testament while living and teaching in the Middle East. Indeed, when I began to take seriously the traditional Middle Eastern culture of which Jesus was a part, the parable of "the father and his two lost sons" began to unfold for me in a new and exciting way. In the light of that culture, available through early Jewish and ...

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