One of the purposes of the lenten fast is to free the mind in order to focus on God and the things of God. It was with this in mind that I arose this morning earlier than I usually would on a Saturday so that I could join a group of men in our church office above the Rosemary Cafe for a study of God’s word, to be led by Tom Perez, one of our elders.
Tom was given an interesting challenge; speak on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Is there a parable better known to any Christian, and perhaps to many non-Christians, than the Prodigal Son? Yeah, possibly the Good Samaritan, but it would be a close competition between the two. The Prodigal Son has been preached on, painted, studied and debated almost ad nauseum, and so Tom found it a challenge to find something new to speak of in that very old and very widely known story. Tom did find something new, but if you want to know what that was you’ll have to hope that he puts it into a blog of his own. I found something new of my own however, and since this IS my blog I will write about my revelation instead of Tom’s.
The audience of the story was very diverse. Jesus was hanging out with the “tax collectors and sinners,” which were the riff raff of the Jewish people in that day. Apparently a group of Pharisees happened upon this assemblage and were looking down their snooty noses at this motley crew and saying “see how [Jesus] even eats with tax collectors and sinners”. This simply wasn’t done by a proper Jew, especially one who would put himself forward as a teacher, or rabbi. So Jesus told this diverse group a set of stories to illustrate why Jesus was with whom He was with, and why it should matter to them and to us to listen to Him too.
The prodigal is story number three, and in it a very shiftless younger son asks his father for money that he’s really not entitled to and to everyone’s surprise he gets the money. This profligate then goes away and parties hardy until the money’s gone, he’s starving, and can only survive by tending somebody’s pigs (the absolute worse condition for a Jewish boy to find himself in). This son finally comes to his senses and says to himself “My father’s servants have it better than me. I’ll return to my home and beg my father to make me a servant in his house”, and he practices his speech on the way back home hoping to persuade his father with a good argument to take him in as a slave.
The father sees him coming and rushes out to meet him. The son starts babbling, trying to cut the deal, but the father won’t listen. “Throw some steaks on the grill! Break out the glad rags! Hang some bling on the boy! Open a couple of bottles of Browne Family Vinyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 vintage! Dad takes his boy in and begins to celebrate.
The older brother hears Led Zeppelin coming out of the house and comes in to find the party in full roar. When he hears that his stoned slacker of a brother has returned and is being feted while he was out shoveling manure or something, the older brother sits down on a rock and starts pouting like a little baby. His Dad goes to him and tries to explain why this party is celebrating something important, but the big wuss won’t listen. “I’ve slaved for you all of my life. I’ve worked my butt off for you and all you ever give me are frozen pre-made Costco burgers to grill and a six pack or two of PBR to drink with my buddies, yet there you are partying it up with that waste of skin of a son of yours. I’ve gotten screwed on this deal.
The obvious error that both sons have made is that they think about their arrangement with their Dad as a contractual thing. The younger brother thinks that he’ll need to cut a deal with an outraged father to squeeze back into the family business as a servant, and at least have the Costco burgers and PBR to eat and drink. The older son believes that he has fulfilled his end of the bargain, and has earned a position of preeminence within the family. He should be getting the party thrown for him based on his performance, and the younger son could be dead along the side of the road for all he cared.
OK, we know all of those details. There’s nothing new there to chew on, is there? Jesus is patting the good little prodigal tax collectors on the head and putting a Number 36 Louisville Slugger (Willy Mays model) upside the heads of the clueless (as usual) Pharisees.
But wait! There’s more! I wanted God to show me something that I had not seen before and I believe that He did. I have for years felt like the Pharisees were taking a beat-down by this parable but this morning it occurred to me that Jesus could have been doing something other than that. It was perfectly natural for any Jew listening to Jesus, or any Jew and a lot of Christians today, for that matter, to believe that the relationship between God and man was contractual because, after all, it was! “If you will do these things I will bless you, but if you do these other things I will curse you”. Sounds like a contract to me! Moses comes down off of the mountain and reads the contract. “Yeah, we’ll do all of that stuff” said the people. “You guys got your butts whupped and taken off to Babylon because you didn’t play by the rules and fulfill the contract”. It’s not that hard at all for me to see the Pharisees and everybody else buying into that sort of a narrative.
I think it’s possible that Jesus was explaining to everybody present, Pharisee and sinner alike, that the old contract system was over. This was a new teaching, and with authority (OK, I ripped off that line). The Pharisees could reject that teaching if they chose to do so, but they were not bad simply because they held to the old view of the contract. The tax collectors probably held to it too. Jesus was breaking down a new teaching for everybody’s good; sinner, saint, Pharisee and me. Some Pharisees finally got it (Paul, Joseph of Arimathea, maybe Nicodemas) but many did not. Some of the sinners got it too, but very likely many of them did not get it any better than the Pharisees did. We are all a bunch of knuckleheads sometimes, aren’t we? Ultimately, I don’t think that Jesus was fingering anybody present as the bad guys in this story, and maybe I like the story even more because of that.