Monday, March 11, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the best known of all the stories that Jesus told.  Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the greatest story in the Bible – or out of it. Like any good story, it provides many different hooks to draw us in, evoking a vast array of associations that raise as many questions as they answer.   Parables are like koans:  they break open our hearts and minds so that we can see things we couldn’t see before.  They change us.

Imagine the first people who heard Jesus tell this story.   They probably were gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath to hear him teach, or possibly just outside of the synagogue since the tax collectors and sinners among them would not have felt very welcome.  They Pharisees are grumbling about this motley crew when Jesus begins to expound upon the readings for the day.

For more than 100 years before Christ, the books of Moses, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, had been divided into 150 sections so that they could be read in their entirety over a three-year cycle.  More recently, readings from sections of the Prophets had been added.  So, Jesus would not have been commenting on a text at random, but would have been commenting on the appointed lessons.[1]

Jesus may well have been commenting on Genesis 46:28 – 47:31 and Ezekiel 37:15-28.  Both readings are about the resolution of sibling rivalries: Joseph being reunited with his father, Jacob, and his brothers, who had previously left him for dead before selling him into slavery; and the tribes of Judah and Joseph being reunited into one kingdom in which God would make his dwelling place. 

It also is possible that Jesus could have been commenting on Deuteronomy 21:15-23 and the Book of Malachi.  The verses from Deuteronomy deal with splitting the inheritance among brothers: the first-born gets two-thirds of the possessions, while the second gets one-third.  It goes on to command stoning for stubborn and rebellious sons, and concludes with instructions on how to handle capital crimes: by hanging – “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”  The Malachi reading begins with reference to a younger brother whom God loved, and an older one whom God rejected, and concludes with the promise of the return of the prophet Elijah, who will reconcile parents and children.

All of these stories of sibling rivalry, inheritance, and the difficulties of reconciliation between fathers and sons would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers.  His story of the Prodigal Son would thus have been rich with allusions and perhaps even confusing.  In Genesis, it is Joseph who runs to meet his father and falls on his neck weeping.   With the Prodigal, it is the father who runs to meet the son.  The father gives his younger son a ring and celebrates his return, while in Genesis it is Pharaoh who gives Joseph a ring and places him in charge of Egypt. 

So in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal, the father could be Joseph, or God, or even Pharaoh.  The younger son, the prodigal, could be Joseph, but then Moses was also a younger son who sojourned in a foreign land for a while before returning to bring his people home; and Jacob was the younger brother of Esau, and stole his brothers birthright, not unlike the prodigal son who takes pride of place.  The younger son would be the rebellious son stoned in Deuteronomy while the older brother is the one who gets the two-thirds of the inheritance; but then he could be Aaron, Moses’ older brother, or Cain, who slew his younger brother, Abel, or Esau or even a stand-in for the older brothers who ganged up on Joseph. 

If you aren’t confused, you should be.  The Parable is like a koan: the more we think about it the more our head hurts.  It floods us with so many possibilities that we become awash in meaning.  One of the reasons this parable is such a great story is because it resonates with and interprets so many other stories in the Bible – far more than I’ve been able to allude to here. Jesus is offering us a story in and through which we can read all the other stories in a new and startling way. 

Now, if Jesus first hearers were confused by the many allusions, reversals, and connections being made in the parable of the Prodigal Son, they were shocked by the parable’s narrative thread.   Here too, we must try to understand what the hearers assumed about their world, filling out the story in ways not immediately available to us.[2]

The first thing to note is the audacity of the younger son.  In those days, wealth was held primarily in land, which was passed from generation to generation.  While sons could inherit property while their father was still alive, the patriarch retained right of use until death.  Keeping land in the family was absolutely essential to its economic well-being and to the ties of mutual respect, reciprocity, and responsibility that bound it to the wider community. 

Upon the death of the patriarch his oldest son would inherit two-thirds of the land, while the second son would get the remaining third.  For the younger son to ask for his inheritance now, while his father was still alive, was essentially to say:  “You are as good as dead to me.  Give me what is mine.”  

Understand that this would not have meant writing a check.  It would have involved the selling of land, livestock, etc. in a very public process that would have been humiliating to the father, undermining the family’s honor in a time and place where honor was the main form of social capital.  Without it, you were powerless.

The younger son not only breaks up the estate, he means to leave with his portion, leaving his parents more vulnerable in their old age: with one less son and one-third less property to depend upon.  If this younger son is not to become a pariah, he has only one option left if he ever wants to return home:  be better hit it big with his share of the estate and shower everybody in town with enough booty and honor to make up for the shame he has brought upon his whole family.

Of course, that is not what happens.  He looses everything in the most degrading way possible:  wasted on whores and Gentiles.  When he finally comes to himself, he decides that maybe he could get hired on as a farmhand at his dad’s place.  At least then, he wouldn’t be hungry.  So he sets his face toward home.

This is a risky move on his part, underscoring how low he has sunk.  He knows that he will not get a very welcome reception in his hometown.  In fact, what he has done is so reprehensible that Jewish custom prescribed a ritual for just such an occasion as his return.  It was called the qetsatsah (kweat-sat-sash) ceremony.  The villagers would gather around him and break earthenware jugs filled with burnt corn and nuts, shouting his name and pronouncing him cut-off from the community.  It was a rite of excommunication, and no one could have any dealings with him thereafter.  He was as good as dead.

The prodigal son is rolling the dice.  Maybe he can sneak into town before anybody notices.  Maybe he can earn enough over time as a common laborer to pay his father back; maybe, maybe not.  It isn’t easy to move out of the place of shame once you’ve landed there; at least, not under your own steam.  It requires an act of grace.

That is exactly what happens, and in the most astonishing way.  The father has been waiting for his wayward son all along, and runs to meet him while the son is still a ways off.   He knows what will happen once the villagers get wind of his son’s return.  He is willing to do anything to promote reconciliation and reunion, and, in fact, does the unthinkable.  He races to occupy the space of shame in place of his son.

Imagine what the neighbors must think when they see Dad running to embrace his deadbeat son.  They live by Aristotle’s dictum: “Great men never run in public.”  Fathers don’t run to sons; sons run to fathers.  But if Dad can get to him before the village does, he can save his relationship with this son, and his family’s relationship with the village.  The price he will have to pay is his own honor, the loss of respect from his friends and neighbors.

He literally wraps his son in the cloak of honor to save him:  giving him the best robe (which would have been his own), putting a ring on his finger (a signet ring, a sign of authority), and sandals on his feet (only a slave walks around barefoot).  He then orders the slaughter of a fatted calf for a feast.   He is throwing a party for the whole town, using up every ounce of his rapidly diminishing social capital to foster reconciliation.  For Dad, relationship means more than anything  - more than honor, more than wealth, more than life itself.   He bears his son’s shame, so that he can give him back his life.

What of the older son?  He is pissed.  When he hears the party and learns what it is about, he remains outside in a huff.  His refusal to join the party is yet another insult to the father.  Can you blame him?  Nobody asked if he wanted to be reconciled with the brother who squandered their inheritance and left him with the burden of taking care of the family.  As Barbara Brown Taylor observes, "Dad never threw a party for him, and, dammit, he is the good son." 

So Dad endures yet another walk of shame in front of the whole town, to implore him to come in.  What a pair these sons are: one is preoccupied with being fed, the other with being right; neither seems much interested in being at peace with others.  We never know if the younger son was truly repentant.   We never find out whether the older son eventually joined the party.  We do know that Dad continues to patiently wait outside, betting the farm on reconciliation.

The greatness of this story lies in its invitation to see that relationship is more important than pleasure or piety, more important than self-realization or self-righteousness.  Reconciliation is everything, and God is a bottomless abyss of compassion poured out continually in the hope of reunion.  Dad – or Mom, if you like – wants us to come home and be at peace with one another.  And God will do anything, pay any price, endure the greatest shame – even death on a cross - for the sake of restoring us to life in love.

God is throwing a feast for us yet again today.  And you are invited.  In fact, you are the guest of honor, or are you the host, or maybe the person sulking outside? Does it matter?  The point is that the party is going on, and God is waiting patiently, watching attentively, for the last guest to arrive. 

[1] James Alison, “He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27b):  How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible Reading? at  Alison offers a brilliant reading of the Prodigal Son parable, illuminating the scriptural background upon which Jesus was very likely commenting.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor does this beautifully in The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family at 

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