Monday, May 6, 2013

Parable of Lostness, part two

The Parable of Lostness – Luke 15 (part two)
Jesus tells “this” parable in response to disgruntled religious leaders who disapprove of Jesus’ habits of hospitality (Luke 15:1-2).  This is the third of four parables in the travelogue that deals with the subject.  In this particular parable, Jesus’ table fellowship with the lost is compared to a shepherd pursuing lost sheep,  to a woman seeking a lost coin and a Father waiting and looking for a lost son.  This third object of Lostness is the climax of the parable.  With each movement the object lost is both more precious and the risks are higher.  The shepherd loses one in a hundred sheep.  The woman loses one in ten coins.  The Father loses one in two sons.  With each movement of the parable we must remember that Jesus is indirectly defending his table fellowship.  In effect, he is saying “this is my justification for eating with tax collector’s and sinners.”

The first two movements are designed to get “buy in.”  A good shepherd and as wise woman are common motifs in scriptures and common features in Jewish society.  When Jesus tells the story of two brothers – a younger that rebels and an older that stays obedient at home – he is likewise drawing a deep biblical tradition.  The Bible – especially Genesis – is chock full of sibling rivalries between younger and older brothers.  And this is the story Jesus’ tells.  

In brief, the younger brother takes the inheritance, not entirely legally, and departs for the “far country.”  Haven basically disowned his family; he does not have the wherewithal to remain true to himself.  Jesus paints the most outrageous situation for a Jewish boy and then places this fictional creation in it.  He has descended to slopping hogs.  When the audience can’t imagine it getting worse, he ends with this description of his descent: “And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (15:16).  

At this point, Jesus tells us that the boy “comes to himself” and decides to return home to be a servant in his father’s house.   At this point, Jesus describes, with great detail, the reconciliation that ensues.  The father seeing the son at great distance and overcome with compassion “ran and embraced him and kissed him.”  These three verbs in sequence occur only one other time in scripture.  They appear in another story of reconciliation involving a younger and older brother and their father.   We know that Jesus is a master story teller.  What we are learning is that the story he tells is invariably Israel’s story.  Jesus’ retelling Israel her story is designed to show her how Jesus himself is fulfilling this story in his own mission.  This parable of the two sons and waiting father happens to be Israel’s founding story.  It is the story where Jacob’s name is changed to Israel (“he who struggles with God”).  The main difference in this founding story is that it is the older brother who runs to the prodigal who has taken his inheritance and “embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (Gen. 33:4).   See chart: 

Luke 15:20 – Role of Father/Jesus/Older Son    Genesis 33:4 – Role of Esau/Older Son
Ran to meet him
and embraced him
and embraced him
and kissed him
and fell on his neck and kissed him

and they wept

In Jesus’ retelling of Israel’s founding story the altered details are very important.  The older brother is the agent of reconciliation in the original story not the Father.  The younger brother is not industrious like Jacob is in the original story and he is an altogether less endearing character.  Why does Jesus alter these details in the retelling?  He is retelling to the audience identified in 15:1-2 – a bunch of “older brothers” – who disapprove of Jesus’ embracing the younger brothers who have wasted the themselves in the “far country” (15:13).  In addition, Jesus is identifying himself with the Father in the parable.  First, because he is the one actually having table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” but also because it is his purpose to be about his “father’s business” (Luke 2:49).  When challenged by the religious leaders for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus answers indirectly through this founding story subtext:
this is what older sons’ should do.  They forgive and reconcile with estranged brothers.  And thank God Esau treated Jacob this way or none of us would be here today.  We are a nation of “younger brothers” who went out to the “far country” under a cloud but when we returned home we were forgiven by the older brother we sinned against. Israel is nation of “older brothers” who have forgotten their origins as “younger brothers.”  If you had not forgotten your origins you would be welcoming these sinners just as I am – for they are your estranged brothers.

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