Saturday, December 17, 2011

Parable of the Prodigal 3

... continued from sometime.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a case in point (Luke 15).  In its current form in Luke, we hardly notice anything Jewish about it.  If we know that Jews did not eat pork, then the fact that the prodigal ends up in a place where there are pigs might stand out to us (15:15).  But the story in Luke very nicely reaches out to us across time without its original overtones having to do with Israel.

So we read the story in relation to how eager God is to forgive those who have left him.  Any sinner, no matter how far he or she has strayed, can come back to God, and God will welcome them with open arms. It is absolutely true.  It is a story about a God who is more interested in seeing us healed and restored than in making sure justice is done.

Many of us barely notice the elder brother.  He might represent justice to us.  It is not fair that the sinful son should get such an easy path back.  He should have to pay.  Of course the elder brother is really more concerned about himself.  Where is his party?  He deserves one.

This way of reading the parable is perfectly legitimate.  It is perfectly Christian and fits with our values and thinking.  At the same time, this parable likely had a much more specific and concrete meaning originally, in whatever exact form Jesus told it.

We hear hints of it in Luke 15.  The Pharisees are upset that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners (15:2).  This is the context from which the parable springs.  The sinners are the "lost sheep" (15:3-7), the "lost coin" (15:8-10), and the "lost son" (15:11-32).  The implication is thus that the Pharisees are the elder brother, the sheep that stayed, and the coins the woman had not lost.

It is hard for us to take what Jesus says here as it is.  We want to put "sinners" in quotation marks.  Are we all not sinners?  Were not the Pharisees sinners too?  We want to do that, but Jesus did not, and Luke did not.

In a similar context in Luke 5:31-32, Jesus flatly tells the Pharisees that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Jesus does not contest that the tax collector was a sinner, and he places the Pharisees on the healthy/righteous side of the equation.

This is hard for us to handle.  Surely Jesus was being sarcastic.  We know the end of the story, so aptly captured in a mini-version of this parable.  In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus speaks of a man who had two sons.  One said he would go work in the field but did not.  Another said he would not, but did in the end.  The one who did the will of the father was the one who ended up going in the end.

This is a parable of the reaction to Jesus' ministry.  The Pharisees and others like them were like the son who said he would work, but did not in the end.  We have such a bias built up against the Pharisees that it is hard for us to see that most of them were actually trying to do God's will.

We should not criticize the Pharisees for trying to keep the Law.  Many of them were no more legalists than some of us are.  You might say you do not observe Halloween out of conviction. They did not do certain things on the Sabbath out of conviction.

Of course some of them had their priorities out of order too, just like some of us do.  Some of them were more interested in the rules than in people.  And some of us are more interested in the rules than people to.  However, as far as Matthew 21 is concerned, their problem was that they did not accept Jesus or the kingdom God was bringing through him.

But at the point of Luke 15, Jesus is still putting the Pharisees on the healthy, righteous side of the equation.  Meanwhile, the tax collectors and prostitutes really are sinners.  Jesus never accepted the sins of these individuals as okay.  What he accepted was the possibility of their repentance and their importance to God.

Jesus was decades before Paul would write, "all have sinned."  When Jesus calls them sinners, he reflects the fact that they were not even trying to keep the Scriptures.  The father asked them to work in the fields, and they said no.  What is important is that in the end they accepted Jesus and stopped sinning.

So the Parable of the Prodigal Son both speaks to us today powerfully and it had an original meaning in relation to the earthly ministry of Jesus.  The earlier meaning had to do to the focus of Jesus' ministry and its end result.  Jesus saw the "lost sheep" of Israel as the main target of his ministry.  He meant to reclaim the sinners of Israel for the kingdom.  They accepted.  But ironically, those who initially were not lost, ended up lost.

We read it as a statement of God's willingness to forgive and reclaim us no matter how far we have strayed.  It is also a warning for us not to begrudge others to whom God shows mercy.  "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).

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