Lent IV, Year C
2 Cor 5:16-21
The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
(2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
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:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’"
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The parables of Jesus have been a field where bounteous harvesting has occurred in the twentieth century. The first two thirds of the last century focused on the historical-critical interpretation of the parables, the last third has focused on literary and redactional interpretation.
A third method, that of Kenneth Bailey, which he calls historical-cultural, has been sidelined but offers certain controls that cannot be found in either of the two dominant strains of parable interpretation. Contexting the parables in the light of native social systems allows Bailey to discern certain elements of the parables that would seem out of place or extraordinary to Jesus’ hearers. Today’s parable has been given just such an interpretation by Bailey. His insights are congruent with the interpretation of Jesus’ theology that has been proposed on PreachingPeace.org in the light of mimetic theory.
Bailey suggests that at the beginning of the parable, Jesus’ hearers would have been surprised that the elder brother did not defend the honor of the father in the light of the younger son’s ‘desire to see him dead.’ The silence of the elder son indicates that he too shares the desire of his younger brother. Later in the parable (if we have to do with one parable and not a combination of two parables or Lukan redaction) the elder son displays his perception of his relationship to his father full of anger, self-pity and pride.
The elder brother was ‘working’ for his father’s inheritance. This should not surprise us. We have met plenty of people who are good to their parents so they can remain in their parent’s will (legally speaking). The elder brother was out to ‘prove his worth,’ he felt he deserved everything that was coming to him. The father, not surprisingly, calls attention to the fact that the inheritance had been split long ago (“everything I have is yours”).
The elder brothers desire for his ‘deferred’ inheritance which can be seen in his ‘it rightfully belongs to me’ attitude has a parallel in the younger son’s scheme to get back in the father’s good graces (“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, ‘make me like one of your hired men’”). Neither son has a clue as to the graciousness of their father. They do not know his character.
The behavior of the Father causes two reactions: in the younger son it produces humility, in the elder son it produces anger. When the father ‘ran to his [younger] son” Bailey observes that this action would have been humiliating. Old men do not run. Second, old men who have been scorned by their children do not run; they act more like the elder brother. This old man, this father, does the completely unexpected. It is so unexpected that the younger son no longer has any scheme to get back in his father’s good graces; it is so surprising that the elder son who previously has been in a mimetic model/obstacle relationship with his younger brother now turns against his own father.
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.
Some have seen the Jewish people represented in the elder brother and the Gentiles in the younger son. If we are going to read the parable this way in the twenty first century maybe we ought to consider seeing the church in the elder son and ‘the world’ in the younger son. This would make a more appropriate reading. As long as the church identifies with the younger son (with ad nauseum sermons on repentance) then it will not be able to hear Jesus as he speaks about the character of his abba.
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.
The works that we have found most helpful include Kenneth Bailey Poet and Peasant, Joachim Jeremias The Parables of Jesus, C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom and Robert Capon The Parables of Grace. There are literally hundreds of studies on the parables that are useful in many ways but these elucidate the mimetic conflicts in the parable the best.
Can the church any longer afford to preach a God of compromising grace? How does it do so? By beginning with the premise that God is just, holy and retributive. A dualistic God has been created within Christian doctrine and it is time the Church began the journey away from this god (who is no different from the other gods of the victimage mechanism) to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we discern that Jesus’ abba is like the abba in the parable we must renounce retribution in all of its forms and ground our faith in the sheer forgiveness of our heavenly abba.
The challenge to clergy everywhere is to examine all aspects of their theology to find out where God is not like the abba of the parable and…to repent. If we are going to take seriously the person and work of Jesus, it is high time we recognized that way too much of the current preaching and teaching that is occurring is highly negatively mimetic in character (which also explains why there is so little positive mimesis).
We are called see that ‘violence is no attribute of God’ (the Epistle to Diognetus) and that “no one, for any reason, can kill in the name of God” (Pope John Paul II). Christians have made plenty of enemies, but these enemies are not enemies of Jesus, but of Christianity with its violent and retributive God (who in the end is more merciless than even Judge Judy!). If the Church were to announce and live the forgiveness of the gospel to all those we have made enemies how much different would the world be today? Will we, like Jesus’ hearers, be astonished to find such a remarkable, humble, loving, forgiving abba? Will we, encountering such a Father, be transformed into his children? Will we be parabled?
I’m taken by Michael’s suggestion that our task as preachers is to help our congregations break out of the habit of seeing ourselves as the “penitent” son, (whose penitence seems more like self-interest to me) and find ourselves elsewhere in the parable. It reminds me of one of the most difficult books I ever read, Henry Nouwen’s “The Prodigal Son.” In it, he shares with us his struggles with the famous painting of the moment of re-union by Rembrandt.
What made the book so troubling was Nouwen’s insistence that it isn’t enough to find ourselves in the elder brother. Ultimately, he told me that I am called to find myself in the father.
I think this is Michael’s point, in some ways. The non-retributive father is indeed not only our Abba, but our model. We are called to imitate him. There really is positive mimesis. It’s awfully frightening to suggest that we are called to enflesh that amazing kind of love ourselves, but if we aren’t, what’s the point of the church?