Luke 15 contains 3 parables. One is about a lost coin where Jesus compares God to a woman who loses a coin and gets down on her hands and knees, searching all night until she finds it. Another is about a shepherd who leaves the flock to find the one that got away. The chapter concludes with the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus’ most familiar parable shows God’s delight when someone turns their life around. The implication is clear. God seeks out those who are lost and celebrates when we get back on track.
Yet there are dimensions of the story that leave us uneasy.
Parables are a distinctive form of ancient storytelling designed to leave us scratching our heads and thinking deeper. Diana Butler Bass says the word ‘parable’ is a construct of two words. Para means to walk alongside. And the second word means to throw down or to wrestle with. Parables take us out of the ordinary, out of our comfort zone and we wrestle with the story’s implications. So, let’s have a throwdown today.
According to the happy traditional reading of the parable Jesus tells the story of the reconciliation of a wayward son to a gracious father. The parable is about the “journey that both sons must make towards becoming fathers themselves”.
A son leaves the security of his home, goes out and has a good time and comes back, father embraces him, throws a party and all is well.
But the journey made by the younger son is perhaps “an unsuccessful attempt to escape from and change the powerful draw of his father’s empire”.
Imagine the son planning to distribute the family’s great wealth more fairly in order to correct the injustices of his father’s business model, or just doing some useful work for a change – an “idealist wanting to step out from his privileged background, explore a wider world and do something more authentic”. He leaves his father’s empire, his father’s wealthy compound – a comfortable place – and he finds himself in a place of chronic need.
Unfortunately matters get out of hand. True to his ideals the son takes on the “honest labour” of feeding pigs, but in a time of famine he does not want to be a burden to others, so he decides to compromise. He will not live off his father’s riches again but will work as a servant. ‘I will go back as an honest labourer – I want to work for a living. I will go back and work’. This will give him the opportunity to “show his father the error of his father’s ways, tell him about the hungry people that lie dying not so far away, and turn his father’s heart to compassion for them”.
In the meantime the father has been worrying that his son will turn up one day with dangerous ideas of redistributing what was left of the family’s wealth “in some ridiculous scheme”. But as it turns out, the son is too tired and sore to resist his father’s sly blandishments and gives in, settling back into his old spoilt ways. There is a party. All the food is before him; then he makes an interesting statement “I was alive; I am dead again.”
The story is sterile; the sons and their father are stuck. The parable illustrates the triumph of the “masculine conservation of empire”.
But ultimately, perhaps it is a parable about Jesus himself, or maybe not quite. Why did Jesus tell this parable? This was not how it was meant to be. Jesus may have been alluding in his parable to his own beginnings, born into a stable. In his telling of the tale, Jesus surely recognised himself in the young son. As the familiar nativity story tells it, Jesus had walked away from heaven, from his own paradise, and landed, naked, poor and hungry in a manger, totally dependent on the generosity of others. He came to earth from a place of comfort and experienced hunger, saw suffering, and knew pain. He came from a ‘kingdom of heaven’ into an occupied territory, where he was excluded, disenfranchised, and, in all likelihood, economically exploited. Yet, born as a Jew, he also entered a religion that had a long history of divine violence, of exile and wars and power abuse and petty arguments about doctrine, as well as bigotry, racism and sexism. This religion, which worshipped his father as God, was “blocked and oppressive”, so Jesus had a difficult decision to make. He could “accept his father’s mantle with the old order intact”, or he could take the narrow path and “commit heresy against the old order”. In the end, he does what the prodigal son failed to do: he follows through on his rebellious act and lives “as if everything the temple stood for was dead”.
Jesus gradually grew up to experience Judaism — the religion that worshipped his father as God — as blocked and oppressive. It kept the poor in their place, and the powerful in theirs. What would he do?
We see Jesus approaching the temple in Jerusalem, disgusted, as we have seen, at the exploitative economics at work at the money-changers tables. This is Jesus returning to the place he had visited as a child and ‘beating the bounds’ – smashing down enclosures and barriers that kept the poor from their common place of worship. Worshippers had to buy ‘clean’ temple money at unfair rates, in order to purchase specially purified (and thus expensive) animals which could then be sacrificed. It was a money-making scam, an enclosure of temple practice for profit.
This, we must remember, was the place the young Jesus had considered to be his home. And now he was returning to break down its high walls to allow free access to the riches within, riches that had been blocked and enclosed by those who guarded the temple. It is here that we see him acting differently to the prodigal son, and thus avoiding the tragedy of another young man failing to overcome the draw of power and comfort offered by the distortion of his father’s empire.
It is possible to see hints here of the same struggle that the prodigal son engaged with – and similarly failed to conquer. The young son, like the young church, can be seen to have attempted a radical departure from the socio-economic and religious structures that enclosed them and failed.
Their ‘parent’ – the orthodox Judaism of the day – was a religion which Jesus himself had pronounced ‘blocked’. Pharisees and Sadducees were criticised for loading common people with intricate and complex laws, while not following these laws themselves.
Jesus was crucified for the simple reason that his teachings threatened the power of the Jewish religious leaders. He declared that people could be forgiven without having to spend money on expensive sacrifices.
And for those first Christians, this revelation of the death of religion brought an extraordinary new way of being that was no longer bound to the temples and idols of angry divinities. Freed from religion, they became agents of a radical new way of being that lived beyond the old distinctions of class, ethnicity and gender. Early Christians believed that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…’
The most obvious outworking of these beliefs was an acceptance of all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or social status, and a release of property back into the commons. This was fully in keeping with the message that Jesus had preached. The tragedy of the prodigal son is thus the tragedy of the church: a radical departure to bring renewal quickly lost heart and returned to the temptations of power and comfort.
- Diana Butler Ross, Finding God in the world: A spiritual revolution. Harper Collins Press
- Diana Butler Ross, Christianity after religion. Harper Collins Press
- RELIGION: Biblical Studies / New Testament / Jesus, the Gospels & Acts. Harper Collins Publishers