Sermon Notes / March 10, 2013
“The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons”
Imagine Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath where he hears read Deut. 21:15-23:
On Inheritance Disputes When There’s More Than One Wife
If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.
Example: Jacob’s oldest son Reuben was born to his less-favored wife Leah, and Joseph was the oldest of his best-loved wife Rachel. Jacob strongly favored Joseph against this commandment in Deut 21.
On Stoning Rebellious Sons
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
Example: should have the Prodigal Son of Luke 15 been stoned to death?
On Quickly Burying Hanged Criminals, God’s Accursed
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.
Example: Jesus. St. Paul writes in Gal. 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”
The two sons in the parable represent two basic groups of people that most individuals fit into most of the time:
- Elder Brother: the religious folks who are obedient to the society’s rules and successful at it — no surprise, really, since many of them are in control of making and policing the rules. In any culture or society, these are the folks in the mainstream, the “majority” who holds the power.
- Younger Brother: the other folks who are less proficient at, or break, the rules. They are generally seen as the marginalized or outsiders, the “minority.” In today’s Gospel, Luke names them as the “sinners and tax collectors.” In his inaugural speech from Isaiah 61, Jesus has named them as the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.
In any typical culture or society, these two “brothers” are estranged. They don’t much intermingle. The first group is usually seen as an oppressor of the second.
Which group do you and I most often fall in? As mostly middle class white people, aren’t we largely among the elder brothers and sisters? And who are our younger brothers and sisters that we are called to be in solidarity with? Because here’s the Good News:
Jesus as an obedient elder brother comes with the mission of reconciling the two groups for and with his Heavenly Father. But he does so in a most unusual and unexpected way: by being in solidarity with the younger disobedient “brothers,” even to the point of taking their punishment. He comes to throw a party with the youngsters to celebrate their reconciliation with God. But he also extends an invitation from his Father to the elders to join the party. No one is to be left out.
But the crucial question raised by the parable, then, is this: will the elder brothers and sisters join the party?
Bibliographical Note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most important book is simply called Discipleship, vol. 4 in the recent series Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Fortress Press, 2001). In the first chapter, he famously spells out the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” — the latter being the grace of discipleship itself.