Kill the prodigal?

As I've been teaching Deuteronomy, this question has come up: How could God be telling people to kill their disobedient children? Dt. 21:18-21

Like the last question I attempted to address (polygamy) none of my answers leave me with total satisfaction, but they do make some sense of this puzzling reality. The first thing to remember about this law is that it, like all the other laws it is about one key thing: forming the people of God so that they can be a light to the nations. God’s heart is for the whole world and he needs a holy people in order to reach them. (Have you noticed how often the word "nations" appears in Scripture and the good ol' hymns?) God called the people to value their role in the redemption of the world above personal pain and loss.

The second thing is to recognize that Deuteronomy is very realistic and the whole chapter in which this teaching is found dealt with temptations and obstacles to fidelity to God. In ancient times (and many cultures today) the value of ‘family’ loyalty was exponentially more strong than in our own society. And the 10 commandments affirm both the importance of family (honor your father and mother) and human life (do not murder). But the operative commandment in this context is the one that demands “you shall have no other gods besides me.” This means that we suffer no competing loyalties. Our allegiance to God is absolute. Jesus faced this dilemma himself when his own family thought he was crazy and tried to dissuade him from the work which God had called him to. And he was very clear saying “my family are those that do the will of God.”

The final thing that I find helpful in wrestling with this commandment is identifying that even God himself honored it. He valued the redemption of the world above his own pain and loss. God ultimately absorbed the horror of this commandment in his own identity, as with the sin of the world heaped upon Jesus, God treated him as a disobedient son, abandoning him, punishing him, “showing him no mercy” and thereby purifying not only the people of God, but purifying the world from sin. As Jesus tells us, he came to fulfill the law, and in his death even this commandment was fulfilled to the utmost (which is why it is unnecessary for us to abide by some particulars today.)

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