Three weeks ago I spoke briefly about the three parables in Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) set in the context of dinner conversation, and how Luke shapes these parables to fit with his vision of everyone belonging, everyone having a place around the table vision of God, including the 99 unlost sheep, the 9 unlost coins, and the elder brother.
What doesn’t belong at the table is judgement towards others; and hence Jesus’ is critical of the attitude of his opponents. His critics, the Scribes and Pharisees need to turn (repent) from judgement. The lost ones in these parables, the toll-collectors and sinners, need to turn (repent) from believing they are unworthy and unwanted at God’s table/reign.
And I also mentioned that each of the three parables predated Luke – i.e. he borrowed them from the oral tradition in the Jesus movement and inserted into his thesis that in society the righteous and unrighteous both belonged. It was a big vision. It still is.
Some of you know that most days around 7 a.m. I still on a stationary bicycle and read a book. It’s called multi-tasking. Recently I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, and I’ve been reminded again about the potency of the vision she, and particularly her husband, articulated. It was a vision beyond divisions. The divides of conservative and liberal, rich and poor, white and black, were subsumed within a much greater unity of all being part of the one society. But to hold to that inclusive vision of all belonging, while constantly dealing with the pain and struggles of those divisions and many others, is very hard and often demoralizing work requiring vigilance, patience, courage, resilience, and light moments of relief. It’s also of course hard to read about all the hope and promise the Obamas epitomized knowing that the country has now ushered in a leadership that cultivates and manipulates division.
Most of the great leaders of the world, and the great religions (as Karen Armstrong recently reminded us in her NZ Listener article), encourage us to transcend selfishness and bigotry, transcend the cheap popularity that is fuelled by fear of and hatred towards foreigners, transcend the divisions, and embrace the true greatness of compassion, kindness and empathy, of human oneness, of everyone belonging.
Scholars understanding of the father and his two sons’ parable have changed a lot since I was in seminary. Having preached on this before,[i] I will just give you a brief summary:
This is primarily a story about a father trying to keep his sons, who are very different from each other, in relationship as brothers (a vision beyond divisions). The common interpretation that the father is like God, with the focus on God’s forgiveness, particularly of the younger son, can be a distraction.
Both sons insult and shame their father. The younger, by asking for his inheritance, is effectively saying, “I wish you were dead”. The older son, by refusing to dine with his father, is shaming his father, as well as violating the 4th commandment.
The father’s response to both boys is also shameful. By granting the younger’s request, and thus putting in jeopardy the financial well-being of the whole family unit, the father is seen both by family and neighbours as bringing shame on all his dependents. By responding to his older son’s insolence by going out to him and affirming him as a companion and (with the father) co-owner of the farm; not lashing out with the expected patriarchal public reprimand, the father is again seen as weak and a loser.
The father embodies the wisdom that relationality, not legality, is paramount. The father is prepared to be seen as a loser. He is prepared to wear the shame in order to win the affection, the inclusion, of each of his sons. With the younger, the father embraces and kisses him before he can experience any rejection or revulsion by the farm inhabitants. With the older, again the father moves to where the son is and uses the affectionate term ‘teknon’ (which serves the same function as kissing and embracing the younger son).
The father is stepping away from dealing with this family crisis by legal means. It is the finding and loving of his children that concerns him, not his honour as represented by the inheritance. The wisdom characterised in this story by the father seeks not to defend its own honour and importance but to reach out to embrace and step towards healing the fractured relationships.
The father rejects neither of his sons. Upon his death the estate will go to the eldest who will assume the responsibilities of the patriarch. Yet the father is interested in the end not in morality or inheritance but the ongoing relationship between the two boys. The purpose of doing the shameful thing and allowing the younger his inheritance; doing the shameful thing and unconditionally forgiving this son; doing the shameful thing and coming out to the elder son who has dishonoured him… the purpose of doing all this is for relationship, and ultimately for relationship not between each son and him, but between the two sons. The wisdom of the father also knows that coercion and judgement are much weaker (often destructive) tools in the parental kit than the affection and affirmation.
In Luke’s context he wants the righteous Pharisee and the reprobate sinner to acknowledge each other as siblings, suspend judgement, exercise forgiveness, and extend a welcome to each other at the table of society and religion where both belong. The wisdom of the kingdom of God is to value relationships between people more than society’s and religion’s beliefs and conventions. Beliefs around family, inheritance, conformity, and penalties are deemed secondary to the restoration of the relationships in the family. The parable takes the emphasis off beliefs and puts it on behaviour. Rather than obey the rules and expectations, the wisdom characterised by the father bypasses these boundaries to bring the disgraced one and the disgruntled one back into relationship. Relationships are more important than rules.
The story of the father and his two sons holds out to us the possibility of a family restored to each other, a community restored to each other, and the human community restored into relationship with each other – a vision where all belong, including those individuals and nations deemed righteous and reprobate. A vision beyond division.
But let’s pause for a moment, and set this vision back into the context of the land from which it came.
Here are two fathers (one Palestinian, one Israeli), two grieving fathers, two brave fathers, who have struggled with the deaths of their children and the conventional wisdom of the tribes/sides, to which they belong – the conventional wisdom of division: to fear, to hate, to seek violent retribution and revenge. And they’ve held out against the vortex of being sucked down that drain of division.
There are still sides though – but the sides are those who want peace, a peace where all have a place at the table, and those who don’t want peace, who want to expel or contain or kill the tribe they consider a threat to their place at the table.
It’s not that different from Jesus’ day; and it’s not that different from other lands and ‘tribes’ in our day.
We can choose to follow the path of division - those who pedal fear of the other, hatred of the other, and violence against the other. Or we can choose the divergent path, the one less travelled because it is harder, the path of love of the other, calling the other your neighbour, your brother, your sister, the path that Jesus took.
Jesus is recorded eight times as saying ‘Be not afraid’. The peddlers of the divisive path say ‘Be afraid’, and they feed the fear of the other.
Jesus said leadership is about service. The peddlers of the ‘look-after-me-and-mine’ path say leadership is about control and wealth and enabling more and more of it. This path is about winning and losing, about being one or the other. And the other is bad.
The Bible says all are made in the image of God. But these peddlers of division say some people are more valuable than others.
In the wisdom of Jesus what happens to ‘the least of these’ is the test of our politics. For too many of our leaders and shapers of public opinion ‘the least of these’ is the least important.
In the end it is simple and difficult: Will we love, care for, and include our neighbour at the common table of our land and world – not just the neighbour over the fence who sort of looks like us, but the ones who don’t and can’t, and the ones who have hurt us or we think might? Will we forgive our prodigal brother and try to restore our relationship with him, whether he is similar to the younger or the older in our story, no matter whether he has squandered or killed or judged or excluded, whether he’s a toll-collector, a Gentile, or Pharisee? Will we be brave enough to reach out across our divisions and seek to end them?
One of the intriguing things about this parable of the father and the two brothers is that it doesn’t tell us the ending. Will the relationship between the brothers be restored? Let’s hope. Let’s be the hope we seek.
[i] A copy of a sermon preached in November 2013 is available (on request from Pamela or me) which covers most of the interpretative issues, although these days I would add that the parable – like most (all?) of the authentic Jesus parables – does not have a God character. The father character embodies the wisdom found in Jesus’ kingdom of God. The forgiveness he offers both sons is an example to us to bear the cost of reconciliation. We, like Jesus’ audience, are being encouraged to follow his example.