Opening Reflections: The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Brothers
One of the signs that the parable of Luke 15:11-32 is Jesus'
ultimate parable is that it's named by so many different suggested
titles, signifying that it has many, many layers of meaning and
interpretation. It seems to fit most major proposals for what the
Christian faith is all about. In my preferred essay on this
parable by James Alison (see below),
one of the three theses he derives from his reading is that this
parabolic excess of possible interpretations puts great
responsibility on the interpreter:
...[I]f the responsibility for the life which comes from the texts falls to the preacher, now, today, then what is central is not what the text says; rather it is the hermeneutical starting point of the one who is performing the reading. And this starting point must not only be intellectual, but to some degree self-implicatory. Those who make the text alive take on board a great responsibility and their truthfulness will be perceived in the way they are found to be involved in the narrative which they are expounding, and in the long-term consequences of that involvement. Now it is just this which would seem to be what we have in the New Testament [e.g., with Jesus and his parables]. (p. 157 in Broken Hearts & New Creations)
For the past five hundred years of Protestant theology, "the
hermeneutical starting point of the one who is performing the
reading" has most often led to a central interpretation which
emphasizes the Father's gracious love over the elder brother's
works righteousness. In the allegorical version of this
interpretation, the elder brother represents Jewish works
righteousness and the younger brother represents Gentile
acceptance of God's grace; the elder brother represents Roman
Catholic works righteousness and the younger brother Protestant
acceptance of grace alone. And the "long-term consequences" of
this reading haven't been pretty.
At this time of Great Emergence, I'd like to suggest that the
primary Protestant reading of the past five hundred years has
played right into the problem that this parable seeks to remedy.
It is about a father's love seeking to reconcile estranged
brothers, and the Protestant reading of the parable over recent
centuries has only exacerbated the estrangements. Splitting the
Church into endless denominations has been bad enough. But it also
further entrenched anti-Semitism on the way to the Holocaust. All
of this fits under a banner of Christian eschatology which
features an eternal estrangement in the afterlife between
believers and unbelievers -- issuing forth in an imperialistic
colonialism justified by the Christian mission of converting
unbelievers, and then too often the massacre of the unconverted.
In short, the cost has been incredibly bloody. Brothers killing
brothers -- with countless sisters raped and killed along the way
as collateral damage. Our reading of the parable has made matters
worse, yielding death and further estrangement rather than
Let's begin to choose one of the other readings whose long-term
consequences aren't so terrible. The parable does leave an open
ending: will the elder brother be reconciled and join the party or
not? Will the Father's efforts at reconciliation prove successful
or not? The dominant Protestant reading of the parable appears to
answer in the negative -- that some will always refuse to put
their faith in grace alone and so will be punished forever in
hell. Eternal estrangement is the end of the story; that's just
the way things are, according to the popular Christian viewpoint
of recent centuries. But at this time of Great Emergence, the
eschatology of estrangement is being challenged, and thus so is
the perceived ending of this parable. The new reading doesn't
presume a closure for the elder son. The father's invitation
remains an open invitation to join the party of reconciliation.
Jesus leaves it as an open invitation for all of us elder sons who
come along in history that we, too, might join in the party of
This raises the "self-implicatory" aspect of Alison's
prescription to faithful reading. Luke 15:1-3 situates the telling
of this parable for the benefit of elder brother Jewish leaders
who grumble about Jesus eating with younger brother sinners and
tax collectors. In our context, we have to guard against past
anti-Semitic ways of placing ourselves there, and so Alison's
prose description is once again helpful:
Please also imagine that you are a Scribe or a Pharisee, removing from your imagination all the weight of the modern connotations of those words. That is to say, you don’t consider yourself a hypocrite: rather you are observant, modest and sober, you have a genuine religious enthusiasm, a sure devotion to the way of the Torah, a good knowledge of all the narratives and incidents which are received as Holy Writ, and you are authentically curious about this Jesus who might perhaps be a prophet. (p. 144)In preaching this passage in 2013, I will ask the congregation to imagine Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath hearing Deut 21:15-23 as the passage for the day (another suggestion from Alison; more below). He's there with some Pharisees and scribes and other serious religious folks. When the service is done and they exit, Jesus is besieged by his usual crowd, the tax collectors and known sinners, who couldn't enter the synagogue because of their perceived uncleanness. The religious folk grumble, and so Jesus tells them three parables, climaxing with the Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons. I name the parable this way because the crowd surrounding Jesus that day are estranged brothers and sisters but don't even know it. God desires to welcome them all into the divine household. That's what Jesus' entire ministry has been about, beginning with his synagogue reading of Isaiah 61. He comes proclaiming Good News for those sons and daughters usually considered to be outsiders to God's family: the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. In proclaiming the coming of God's kingdom, God's household, Jesus is helping everyone to see that they are welcome.
[Jesus said to the religious leaders of the temple,] "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matt 21:28-32)In short, like in this parable, it is easier for the younger, disobedient son to accept the Father's invitation than it is for the elder, obedient son. But even if the obedient children enter after the disobedient children,the parable hasn't given up on the former. It ends with the invitation still open. Should the elder son ever accept the invitation to join the party, the Father's love will have reconciled estranged sons. The parable ends with the hope that this will eventually happen.
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.I believe that preaching the Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons in today's context requires a similar invitation to elder brothers like myself for the costly grace of following in Jesus' way of reconciliation and peace. The 2013 sermon is simply titled "The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons." But another possible title might be "The Parable of Inviting Elder Brothers into Costly Grace."
Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace? ... (p. 43)
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.
It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son — “you were bought with a price” — and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God. ... (p. 45)
Costly grace was given as a gift to Luther. It was grace, because it was water onto thirsty land, comfort for anxiety, liberation from the servitude of a self-chosen path, forgiveness of all sins. The grace was costly, because it did not excuse one from works. Instead, it endlessly sharpened the call to discipleship. But just wherein it was costly, that was wherein it was grace. And where it was grace, that was where it was costly. That was the secret of the Reformation gospel, the secret of the justification of the sinner.
Nonetheless, what emerged victorious from Reformation history was not Luther’s recognition of pure, costly grace, but the alert religious instinct of human beings for the place where grace could be had the cheapest. ... (p. 49)
[For Luther's followers:] The justification of the sinner in the world became the justification of sin and the world. Without discipleship, costly grace would become cheap grace. ... (p. 50)
Only those who in following Christ leave everything they have can stand and say that they are justified solely by grace. They recognize the call to discipleship itself as grace and grace as that call. But those who want to use this grace to excuse themselves from discipleship are deceiving themselves. ... (p. 51)
Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison which has killed the following of Jesus among us. The doctrine of pure grace experienced an unprecedented deification. The pure doctrine of grace became its own God, grace itself. Luther’s teachings are quoted everywhere, but twisted from their truth into self-delusion. They say if only our church is in possession of a doctrine of justification, then it is surely a justified church! They say Luther’s true legacy should be recognizable in making grace as cheap as possible. Being Lutheran should mean that discipleship is left to the legalists, the Reformed, or the enthusiasts, all for the sake of grace. They say that the world is justified and Christians in discipleship are made out to be heretics. A people became Christian, became Lutheran, but at the cost of discipleship, at an all-too-cheap price. Cheap grace had won.
But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organized churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply? ... Cheap grace was very unmerciful to our Protestant church.
Cheap grace surely has also been unmerciful with most of us personally. It did not open the way to Christ for us but rather closed it. It did not call us into discipleship, but hardened us in disobedience. Moreover, was it not unmerciful and cruel when we were accosted by the message of cheap grace just where we had once heard the call to follow Jesus as Christ’s call of grace, where we perhaps had once dared to take the first steps of discipleship in the discipline of obedience to the commandments? Could we hear this message in any other way than that it tried to block our way with the call to a highly worldly sobriety which suffocated our joy in discipleship by pointing out that it was all merely the path we chose ourselves, that it was an exertion of strength, effort, and discipline which was unnecessary, even very dangerous? For, after all, everything was already prepared and fulfilled by grace! The glowing wick was mercilessly extinguished. It was unmerciful to speak to such people since they, confused by such a cheap offer, were forced to leave the path to which Christ called them clutching instead at cheap grace. Cheap grace would permanently prevent them, from recognizing costly grace. ... The word of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works.
In everything that follows, we want to speak up on behalf of those who are tempted to despair, for whom the word of grace has become frightfully empty. For integrity’s sake someone has to speak up for those among us who confess that cheap grace has made them give up following Christ, and that ceasing to follow Christ has made them lose the knowledge of costly grace. Because we cannot deny that we no longer stand in true discipleship to Christ, while being members of a true-believing church with a pure doctrine of grace, but no longer members of a church which follows Christ, we therefore simply have to try to understand grace and discipleship again in correct relationship to each other. We can no longer avoid this. Our church’s predicament is proving more and more clearly to be a question of how we are to live as Christians today.
Blessed are they who already stand at the end of the path on which we wish to embark and perceive with amazement what really seems inconceivable: that grace is costly, precisely because it is pure grace, because it is God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Blessed are they who by simply following Jesus Christ are overcome by this grace, so that with humble spirit they may praise the grace of Christ which alone is effective. Blessed are they who, in the knowledge of such grace, can live in the world without losing themselves in it. In following Christ their heavenly home has become so certain that they are truly free for life in this world. Blessed are they for whom following Jesus Christ means nothing other than living from grace and for whom grace means following Christ. Blessed are they who in this sense have become Christians, for whom the word of grace has been merciful. (pp. 53-56)
Reflections and Questions
1. God has brought them out of Egypt and is about to make them foreigners in the new Promised Land. Their food for wandering is no longer available as they begin to live out their exodus identity in the new land.
2 Cor 5:16-21
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon
from March 21, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
2. James Alison, Undergoing God, pp.
105ff, in a wonderful essay entitled (in the book) "Reconciliation
in the Blink of a Hippo"; but previously titled "Blindsided
by God" (online version) and given as a talk at the
Trinity Institute Conference, “Anatomy of Reconciliation,”
New York City, 30 January – 1 Feb 2006. He writes, for example,
In short, in Paul’s language, they have started to become a new creation.
Now this stunning shock has consequences. It completely relativizes all anthropological structures and ways of being together which depend on identity derived over against each other, on comparison, on rivalry, and ultimately on death. That is to say, it completely relativizes all our squabbles, fights, triumphs, glories, and empires, revealing them as so much vanity, so much froth. This is because it reveals not only that all those things are founded on lies and murder, which they are, but also that there is a huge new empire being slowly, quietly and gently brought into being, unnoticed by all who are engaged in the squabbles of comparative meaning and death-bound glory. This empire is real, definitive, and is being established whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not.
The sign of it being established is what Paul refers to as Christ’s victory procession (2 Cor 2:14-16). He uses the image of a Roman military “triumph”, where the victor would lead a procession of captives into the city after a great victory. However Paul fuses this with the image of the offering up of a sacrifice of sweet aroma to God, so that Christ, the one and only true sacrifice, having occupied the place of shame and thus de-toxified it, is able to lead us, his captives, as so many other sweet-smelling sacrifices. We living sacrifices are able peacefully to occupy the same space of shame and death spaciously because we are already beginning to participate in a creation not run by the same parameters at all. For those who are part of the world of death, this looks like so many losers on their way out of existence, but for those who are being taken into the new creation, this is the fragrance of life opening out into new flourishing. (pp. 110-11)
Reflections and Questions
1. We are called to be ambassadors. What is an ambassador? Someone called out of their own nation to represent it in a foreign land. We are called out from the human point of view, based on vengeance and expulsion, to know Christ in a totally new relationship based on forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ himself was expelled for us, was made an outcast, so that we might begin to reveal what a right relationship with God really means.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
1. An important exegetical issue, suggesting a theme of reviving and celebrating life, is the translation of ousia in 15:12, 13 (and nowhere else in the entire New Testament) and bios in 15:12, 30. In the NRSV the four instances of these two words are all translated as "property." But ousia was already a technical term in Greek philosophy for Being; it also has the connotation of substance or existence. And bios is the standard word for life. So a more literal rendering of Luke 15:12-13 would be:
The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of [your] existence that will belong to me.' So he divided his life between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his existence in dissolute living (zao).And 15:30 would be older son saying to the father, 'But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your life with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' The stark image of a father dividing his life between his sons is amazing. Even more amazing is that he continues to have life to offer his dead sons throughout the story. They are celebrating in verses 24 and 32 the son who was dead and has come alive again (anazao in 15:24 and zao in 15:32). The father is apparently a never-ending source of life.
There is also the father's response to the elder son: "all things mine are yours." This seems to erase property lines. We human beings think in terms of property, but is this parable inviting us to go beyond such thinking to more fundamental issues of "being" (ousia) and "life" (bios)? Is property-thinking a sign of our unfaith in a God who abundantly gives us being and life?2. splagchnizomai, compassion, v. 20, has strange roots in the Greek, connected mainly to the guts cut out during ritual blood sacrifice. Its usage in the NT, however, seems to be from the Septuagint. The LXX scholars took this sacrificial word to translate the Hebrew word for compassion that relates to a stirring of one's innards. For more see the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Proper 10C.
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.
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.
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.
Three remarkable paragraphs are all consecutive: inheritance
disputes between brothers, stoning of rebellious sons, and those
hung on a tree as cursed from God, cited by Paul in Galatians
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.'" It provides quite a background for this parable and
would perhaps be better than Joshua 5:9-12.
6. Of the many story-lines from the Hebrew Scriptures that James
Alison and others point to as background for Luke 15 (and in
addition to Deut 21:15-23), I would choose Joseph and his brothers
as most relevant. Here are parallels, both straightforward and
inverted, and themes that resonate between the Parable of a Father
Reconciling Estranged Brothers, Deut 21, and the Joseph saga:
But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Gen 50:19-21)
1. James Alison, "'He opened up
to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself' (Lk 24,
27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of
Catholic Bible Reading?" (online essay); and also Chapter 9
Hearts & New Creations, pp. 140-159. Alison uses
Luke 24:27 as a banner for a form of reading the New Testament
more like Midrash on the Hebrew Scriptures, using The Parable of
the Prodigal Son as his central example. It is highly resonant
with contemporary approaches that take seriously the Jewishness of
Jesus. He reads behind this parable all the richness suggested
above in exegetical notes #5-6. Possibilities
for the younger son are: Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the
son in Deut 21 who gets the third portion, or the one who is
rebellious and stoned. And since it's so close in proximity,
perhaps the younger son is the one hung on a tree accursed of God.
The elder brother could be Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Judah (and
brothers), Aaron and his Levitical descendents, or the son in Deut
21 who gets the two-thirds part. Alison summarizes this richness:
I hope that you are beginning to suspect that the parable, rather than being a finished story is rather more like a collection of hooks from which hang many references, allusions, and lines of thought which a good storyteller might follow. Only if we grasp something of the richness of those allusions, and of the different ways in which they can be blended, do we have some sense of why they have been so well put together within the schema of the parable which Jesus is casting before his listeners. (p. 148)One further, interesting layer that Alison points to is a reference to the third portion, mentioned in Deut 21, in Zechariah 13:6-8:
And if anyone asks them, "What are these wounds on your chest?" the answer will be "The wounds I received in the house of my friends. Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate," says the LORD of hosts. Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, says the LORD, two-thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one-third shall be left alive.And so the following paragraph strikes the theme that resonates with me, namely, that this is a parable about reconciliation:
Interpreting Deuteronomy in the light of Zechariah wouldn’t be at all impossible for a teacher and an audience accustomed to Midrash, the family of Jewish interpretative techniques. And let us remember that it is just at this point of Deuteronomy that there appears the famous phrase ‘the one who is hanged on a tree is under the curse of God’ (Deut 21:23) from which St Paul will derive such important conclusions (Gal 3:13). Let us add to this the referential framework of the Joseph story, where it is the younger brother who is cast out and left to die, but who gets to be the one who forgives his brothers and receives them into the land of plenty, recognizing that that was what God had been planning for all of them all along (Gen 45:7-8; 50:19-21). It looks indeed as though this referential framework is at work here as a storyline which allows the rather cruel passage from Deuteronomy to be re-read against the human sacrifice which it apparently commands. It makes of it instead a prophecy of a reconciliation which is to be brought about by a sacrificed son, considered to be a rebel, and led to his death apparently under the curse of God. In modern terms, we would say that it is the text of the Joseph story which provides the hermeneutic which allows the texts of Deuteronomy to be read in an apparently inverted way. And we need have no doubt as to the presence in the parable of the capacity to make such an inversion: this is demonstrated by the change of roles which we have already observed between the one who comes out to receive the other while the other is yet far off, falling on his neck and covering him with kisses [as noted in Exegetical Note #6]. (p. 149)This captures the essence of the parable for me, but there is another nugget in Alison's reading that has great impact with the themes of this website. He continues to read the parable in light of the Hebrew liturgy for reconciliation, the Atonement ritual, when he comes to the point of the story of the elder son's wrath in reaction to the party:
At this the elder brother becomes enraged – ōrgisthē – and refuses to go inside. And indeed, his wrath is not without interest, since at the great feast of the Presence which is fulfilled with the Atonement, it was well understood that wrath – orgē – was in the air, and was in fact attributed to God. It was understood that in the composite person of the Priest and the Lamb, YHWH was offering himself as an expiation to protect his faithful ones. However, it was reckoned that the Wrath would fall upon those who were not covered over by the blood of the Lamb. The image was of the Wrath emanating from the Holy Place to avenge God’s enemies: from this, people needed protection. Here in the parable, however, and in absolute coherence with all his teaching, Jesus inverts the expectation, showing that the only wrath which is present is purely human, purely anthropological. In the feast of the Presence, with Victim, Priest and King enthroned, there is no room for vengeance. The only wrath which is present, and it is very powerful indeed, is the sort of envy which leads one brother to kill another. (p. 153)Isn't this parable about a father seeking to prevent fratricide?
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 35. Alison references this group of parables with an insightful summary:
The image of God which [Jesus] proposes to us in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7) is exactly the inverse of the god we've seen. According to this parable the mercy of God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. I ask you to consider quite how extraordinary this change of perception with respect to who God is turns out to be: mercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no 'outsiders', which means to say that any mechanism for the creation of 'outsiders' is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that's that.
3. Rob Bell, Love
Wins, Ch. 7, "The Good News Is Better Than That," is
basically one lengthy exposition of this parable, filled with
fresh insight. He begins with the story of a worshiper at Mars
Hill Church who cuts herself as a survival response to being
abused. Steeped in stories of violence, she has difficulty
believing the story of a God who loves her. Bell reads this
parable as multiple stories within a story, in the sense that the
two sons also have an easier time believing their own versions of
their stories than they do the story of unconditional love their
father wants them to know. Like Bell's worship attendee, they have
a hard time believing in love. In the context of this book about
heaven and hell, hell is living in our own stories and heaven is
living in God's story of love. Bell writes,
What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.The common Christian version of a God who sends people to hell undoes this Good News.
It is a brutally honest,
exuberantly liberating story,
and it is good news.
It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved.
That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts
and has spread to every corner of the world,
in spite of our sins,
and hard hearts,
in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done, God has made peace with us.
As Jesus said, “It is finished.”
We are now invited to live a whole new life without guilt or shame or blame or anxiety. We are going to be fine. Of all of the conceptions of the divine, of all of the language Jesus could put on the lips of the God character in this story he tells, that’s what he has the father say.
“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (pp. 171-72)
This story, the one Jesus tells about the man with two sons, has everything to do with our story. Millions of people in our world were told that God so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save the world, and that if they accept and believe in Jesus, then they’ll be able to have a relationship with God.This isn't to deny hell. It's simply to interpret it within the story of Jesus in the NT -- and not our version of it as a place of eternal punishment for not believing the right things. Hell, in fact, is to not trust the story of Jesus and to believe in a God who sends people to a place of eternal torture. Both sons in the parable live in hell to the extent that they choose to live in their versions of their stories in which love is earned. The younger son comes to see himself as bad, undeserving of any love from his father. But the older son's problem is that he thinks he does deserve it. Bell writes,
But there’s more. Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.
If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.
If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.
Loving one moment, vicious the next.
Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.
Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? (pp. 173-74)
Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that. The father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away.He ends the chapter returning to the woman who cuts herself. There's a bit of her in each of us. Will we listen to the better story, the one in which we are unconditionally loved?
It just is.
It’s a party,
an occasion without beginning and without end. (p. 187)
In his message of the kingdom of God, then, Jesus proposes a radical new framing story, and he wants people to trust him enough to give his way to peace a chance. How does he do so? In public, he teaches people (often using parables, which stimulate them to think rather than mandating what to think) and heals them (which is often described as freeing or liberating them from disease and demons) — rather than propagandizing them (telling them what to think while simultaneously keeping them from thinking for themselves) and controlling them (oppressing them under sick and demonic systems of oppression). In private, he eats meals with people — all the wrong sorts of people — to demonstrate that the kingdom of God transforms by grace and acceptance rather than by fear and threats of exclusion. In the midst of Rome’s empire, wherever Jesus goes, he creates a family meal where all are welcome.McLaren also has an insightful reading of this parable in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? -- a book written after his own encounter with Mimetic Theory, so it comes very close, I think, to the kind of reading I'm striving for here. This book uses the language of identity formation, which is another way of talking about how our fundamental stories shape us. He writes:
Some will be quick to note that Jesus also used strong language of exclusion — being thrust into “outer darkness,” for example, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But in an irony that is so powerful it can hardly be overstated, Jesus applies that language to the typically exclusive (religious scholars, Pharisees, etc.), and asserts that the typically excluded (prostitutes, sinners, even Gentiles) will be included before them (Matthew 23:13; Luke 13:28-30; Luke 4:24-27). Clearly, Jesus is deconstructing the dominant system of exclusion — not fortifying it.
No wonder Jesus mixes metaphors so freely: kingdom can be useful in confronting the kingdom of Herod and the empire of Caesar, but it also needs to be deconstructed and augmented by other more intimate and less violent metaphors. So Jesus habitually refers to God as Father rather than King. As the famous prodigal son parable profoundly communicates, the rebel and the upright are equally God’s children, as (we could extrapolate) are the Jew and Gentile, the free and slave, the religious scholar and the prostitute, and female and male. The Father’s deep desire is to bring all the children home into his feast (Luke 15:11-32).
Seventeenth-century French bishop arid mystic Francois Fenelon seemed to grasp this when he said, “All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers. Each one owes infinitely more to the human race than to the particular country in which he was born.” Wars play out a framing story of us versus them that seeks to take precedence over the deeper and higher framing story of God’s global family table, where us and them are equally invited, equally wanted, in the biggest “us” of all. (pp. 125-26)
We have Jesus to blame for the doctrine of the fatherhood of God, and for its corollary that we are all sisters and brothers in God’s creation. There’s no better place to reflect on this doctrine than in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The parable, it turns out, is all about identity — after all, what’s more primal to identity than one’s family?
As we often tell it, the story climaxes when a runaway boy returns home feeling disgraced, hoping to reenter the household as a slave, and the father graciously receives him as a son. But the real climax, I propose, comes later, when the father slips out of the welcome-home party to speak with the alienated older brother outside. As the interchange unfolds, it’s clear that the older son feels every bit as conflicted and confused about his identity as his brother: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Even though he has remained dutifully at home, he sees himself as a slave, not a son, taking orders, putting in his time.
Both brothers, then, not just one, suffer from an identity crisis. Neither sees himself as he truly is: God’s beloved child and connected to his brother in one family. The father’s prodigal love to the younger son becomes the means by which the older son could discover how loved he himself is ... if he would “have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
But in his alienated and hostile identity, he can’t even speak of “my brother.” Instead he refers to the returned runaway as “this son of yours.” Then the father cleverly, wisely, tenderly turns the phrase, referring to him as “this brother of yours.” The primary message of this story, then, is not addressed to rebellious younger sons sowing their wild oats, as we normally suppose. The primary message is addressed to hostile older brothers who feel right and superior and offended, who won’t join the party by joining God in welcoming and celebrating “the other as brother.” The moral of the story runs something like this:
You can’t maintain hostility against “the other” without also withdrawing from the father who loves both you and the other as beloved children. If you maintain hostility against the other, you stop acting like a son in the same family. You leave your true identity as a son and start playing the part of a slave. When you cut off the other, you’re breaking God’s heart. God wants you to join God in loving the other as part of one family.Probably the story should be entitled “the lost son,” not the prodigal son, because it comes packaged with two other stories — of a lost sheep and a lost coin. But the lost son, it turns out, isn’t the younger son. When the story ends, that son “was lost but now is found.” The lost son is the older son. He’s the one who doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or what he’s doing. He’s the only outsider — placed there by his own refusal to love. And in this, of course, he is a mirror for the intended audience of this triplet of stories:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable. . . . (Luke 15:1-3)Would the meaning become clearer if we altered the text slightly like this?
Now all the Muslims and Buddhists, New Agers and agnostics were coming near to listen to him. And the radio preachers and heresy hunters were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes non-Christians and eats with them.” So he told them this parable. . . .Could it be that our core doctrines are even more wonderful and challenging than we previously imagined, asking us not simply to assent to them in the presence of our fellow assenters, but to practice them in relationships with those who don’t hold them? Could our core doctrines in this way become “healing teachings” intended to diagnose and heal our distorted and hostile identities . . . restoring a strong and benevolent identity, and unleashing in us a joyful desire to converse and eat with the other? Could our core teachings be shared, not as ultimata (believe or die!), but as gifts (here’s how we see things, and here’s what that does for us. . . )? Could each of us examine our heart for traces of the older brother resident there? (pp. 161-63)
5. Andrew Marr, "The
Two Brothers and Their Father" (online article). Abbot
Andrew also has a blog and makes these further excellent
reflections on this parable, "The
Prodigal Father and His Sons." Marr shows how Jesus sets up
the parable as a triangle. The two sons turn the triangle into one
of mimetic rivalry in which geographical distance is not even
enough to disentangle them. Only the Father's persistent love can
do that. Marr concludes,
We are likely to judge the younger brother for his callous irresponsibility and the elder brother for his amazing insensitivity. But if we do that, we find ourselves ensnared in the mimetic struggle between the two brothers, comparing them and taking sides until our own capacity for love is obscured and our capacity for celebration fizzles. The prodigal father does neither. He does not upbraid the younger son for leaving; neither does he upbraid his elder son for being such an insufferable prig. He only invites both of them to the party.Marr also notices the cultural dimension with the younger son in a foreign country. In a time of famine, scapegoats are needed. A foreigner like the younger son fills the bill.
Here the parable stops with this challenge of forgiveness and unconditional love. (See Miserable Gospel) Do we rise to the challenge of the prodigal father and renounce our irresponsibility and self-righteousness?
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 25, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from March 18, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).7. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "This Brother of Yours."
What has occurred? We would suggest that the father is a failed scapegoat. In the beginning of the parable, both sons, one verbal, one silent, wish their father dead. But the father who takes this insult and grants this request is as humble and forgiving in the beginning of the parable as he is in the middle when he runs to the younger son and at the end when he addresses the elder brother. The brothers are not reconciled in their rejection of the father. A father who loves unconditionally and forgives each son in the same way can never be sacralized. BUT a father who is unconditionally gracious and forgiving can form the basis for a new family, by calling all to forgiveness.There is also an important insight about atonement:
Finally, some have noted that it appears that reconciliation occurs here without atonement and this has been a bother for some. Actually, it is the point, there is no need to ‘repay’ God; God neither demands it nor requires it. Atonement is about reconciliation not transaction.This is concurrent with the insight that has been crucial for me from Raymund Schager's Jesus and the Drama of Salvation: "In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places" (p. 38; see also p. 55). This is clearly the case in these parables of the lost and found in Luke 15. Sheep and coins don't repent, though Jesus' conclusion to each of these parables proclaims joy in heaven over repentance. In the Prodigal Son, the son rehearses a speech of repentance but the father doesn't let him fully act it out. He runs out to greet the son as a son, not as a hired hand, and doesn't let him complete the speech before interrupting him with commands that proclaim him son. The father also underscores the sonship of the elder son -- "all things mine are yours" -- even though the elder son is clearly not in a repenting mood.
The amazing thing about grace is that it bears the fruit of repentance, not the other way around. Repentance doesn't merit grace. Grace creates the possibility of starting over and living a life of repentance. The question (which I'm borrowing from N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, p. 47) is, "What did the Prodigal Son do the next morning?" Did he begin to live a life of repentance in response to his father's free gift of life and sonship? And did the elder son finally realize that that which he thought his was also a free gift from the father?
9. Gil Bailie, "The Vine and the Branches Discourse," Contagion, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, pp. 120-145. Bailie reflects on modern nihilism as a waning of our psychological substance. We are prodigal children who have refused to recognize the grace of our existence and have thus squandered our substance. We become like withered branches, cut-off from our source of substance, and we are thus fuel for the conflagration of violence in our time.
10. Gil Bailie, "The
Luke" (audio lecture series), tape #8.
11. Luise Schottroff, The
Parables of Jesus, ch. 20, pp. 138-56. It is
worthwhile to check a feminist reading of this parable that is
steeped in patriarchy, with women invisible. She discounts some
aspects, because of patriarchy, that I might not, but she comes to
conclusions similar to mine, that this parable is ultimately about
how "the people of God can only live together" (p. 148). I
especially find her reading helpful in setting this parable more
fully in Luke's presentation of Jesus as one who goes beyond the
standard reading of the Torah in teaching repentance as a healing
of people in community: "beginning with the most miserable, the
poor, the sick, those who are treated as sinners. God's pardon of
sins renews the whole nation" (p. 147). This all goes back to the
inauguration of Jesus' ministry in Luke 4 (as I do in my 2013 sermon), with the
announcement of God's Jubilee.
12. Other recommended treatments of this parable include: Robert
Farrar Capon, Kingdom,
Grace, Judgment, ch. 13, pp. 285-301; Kenneth
Cross & the Prodigal and Poet
& Peasant / Through Peasant Eyes (Combined
Edition); and the beautiful and magisterial treatment by Henri
Nouwen, based on the Rembrandt painting, in The
Return of the Prodigal (more below
1. Once again, the 2013 sermon is titled "The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons."
2. How far has the younger son gone away from home? So far that he is dead. Now, that's an outsider! And, as such, he represents for his older brother a call to find out what living by grace is truly all about. At the beginning of the story, the two sons both live by the grace of Father's substance, but they apparently don't know it. They are both trapped in thinking that the substance of their living is somehow deserved. But they take different paths in living it out. The younger son takes his share and goes to the foreign land where he squanders it all. The older son stays home and conserves his share, no doubt thinking that he has done even more to deserve it. In becoming an outcast, the younger brother realizes that his very existence depends on the grace of his father. By the story's end, the older brother has yet to realize it.
3. An overarching theme that occurs to me is that of celebration of life. Luke 14-15 are all about parties of various sorts, and God's seeming open invitation to join the main party of creation. The only ones who seem to be left out are the self-righteous sorts who think they have something better to do. Typical of this sort is the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who refuses to join the party. For a sermon on this theme, link to "The Moral of the Story: Life Is a Party . . . to Be Shared."
4. During Lent 2001 (and 2007) I led a five-week mid-week reflection on this parable. What a treasure! We centered on Henri Nouwen's reflections on this parable from his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, and also a lenten devotional booklet by Nouwen called From Fear to Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (published by Creative Communications for the Parish). The greatest nugget of insight for me revolved around one of the devotions that centered around a eucharistic image that Girardian Gil Bailie frequently highlights as well. It is that of Jesus taking the blessing of his life from the Father, entering into the brokenness of our world, and giving himself away in love.
But it occurs to me that we might add one further step to the eucharistic actions of blessing, breaking, and giving away. At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus commands one further step from his disciples: gather up the broken pieces. In the resurrection, Jesus' broken body is gathered together and raised to new life. The scattered disciples are re-gathered under a new and Holy Communion. In the parable of the prodigal son, the spent pieces of the son's now dead 'life' are gathered up into the embrace of father's life-giving arms. The father, despite having divided his life between the two sons at the beginning, continues to be a never-ending source of life.
So what does this parable show us about ourselves? We do not ordinarily live eucharistic lives. We live in fear of brokenness and death and so we live at least two different stratiegies of trying to avoid it. One is the prodigal son's strategy: take the blessing of life from the father and spend it on oneself. It is the "eat, drink, and be merry" approach to trying to avoid death. Unfortunately, it actually leads to death, instead of avoiding it, because it cuts itself off from the true source of life.
The older son has another strategy: take the blessing of life from the father for granted (the irony of his charge against the father that he has taken him for granted) and hoard it for oneself. This is a strategy with a much higher quotient of self-delusion and so is much harder to come to see as deadly. One can always point the finger (the Satanic, sacrificial finger of accusation) at those prodigal brothers and sisters who waste their lives and so obviously find themselves broken and dead. They avoid their own brokenness and death by pointing the finger at others. These are the children who are more likely to stay disconnected from their source of life, more likely to stand outside the party, filled with resentment.
Jesus comes as the perfect Son to live the eucharistic life we are all called to live: to know the blessing of life from the Father (baptism), to enter the brokenness of this world, and to give ourselves to others in love, trusting in God as a never-ending source of life. We are re-connected to that never-ending source of life, "eternal life," as we become disciples of the Son.
5. In 2004 I was an interim in a city parish of Kenosha. Every Thursday morning we had a Community Bible Study on one of Sunday's text. I regularly walked out of there with a wholly different way of reading the text, from the experience of the poor in our neighborhood, mostly People of Color. I went in with the common tactic of relating to one of the sons: a son who screws things up and finds himself lost and an envious older brother who always does the right thing. This was blown apart by their common experience of doing the right thing and still getting screwed by the rules of our human sense of justice. Perhaps they represent the servants or slaves in the story, namely, those who go along with the program but still are treated as outsiders. Mimetic theory understands that all human culture depends on a group of outsiders. Can the father's gracious love in this parable even finally erase the lines between children and servants? The younger son returns home because he will be treated better as a servant in his father's house than as a hired hand in a distant land. Can the servants in this father's house ever come to feel as adopted children?
The bottom line is that it is a good thing that God's justice seems to be completely outside our human justice. We base things on property and merit -- but only for the majority. There are always some for whom the justice based on property and merit is out of reach. It's Good News that God's justice is based on an ample supply of Being and Grace.
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