Lent 4 Year C
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it? I know we say that every week these days, but still, this past one has been quite a week. The ubiquitous news cycle, and then the inevita-ble spin, spin, spin. What I find myself thinking about on this 4th Sunday in Lent is the role of storytelling in our lives, and the powerful responsibility inherent in interpretation. At their best, stories help us to ask questions and find answers about the deepest truths. At their worse, those same stories are vehicles used to skew and purposefully obscure those deep truths.
There are few better times than Lent to talk about the value stories — to talk about the ways we interact with them and how they can affect us. Lent is a season of turning and turning again — something we do with stories, day after day, and season after season. Each year, as we come closer to Palm Sunday, and then embark on the journey of Ho-ly Week together, we once again encounter familiar stories — the various versions of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Each year, as we hear them, we are different peo-ple than we were before. Life has changed us. We are not the same people who heard them 20 years ago, nor 10 years ago, nor even the same people who heard them last year. A wise older friend of mine used to talk about how every time she re-read Anna Karenina, which she did many times in her life, she entered the story through a differ-ent character’s point of view. Will we dare to do the same in Holy Week? Who are we this year, as we enter the Passion story? Can we allow this new version of us to hear these stories with curiosity and wonder? Can we open our hearts and discover them anew?
Here’s an example. Today we heard the story of the Prodigal Son. This parable is unique to Luke — unlike many gospel texts, we only get the one version of this one. I can’t speak for any of you, but I have almost always heard it interpreted as an allegory that reveals God’s unconditional love for us: the father is the stand in for God, the younger son is a reckless sinner who is lost and then found, and the older son is the kind of begrudging sinner who holds back, someone who believes relationships — in-cluding the one between God and humans — are transactional, and therefore can’t cope with their father’s mercy towards his wayward brother. That interpretation is deep-ly ingrained in our consciences. And it has a lot of validity, as long as it “stays in its lane” as it were. It IS important to remember that each of us is capable of being both kinds of sinner — reckless and withholding — sometimes at different times, and some-times simultaneously.
But sadly, I have heard this interpretation slide quite overtly over into another lane. In that iteration, often even unintentionally, it becomes an antisemitic one that says: “Christians are better because we are merciful, after all Jesus taught us in the gospels to forgive — we are not like those transactional Pharisees (subtext Jews) who worship an Old Testament God who demands us to pay to play.”
Do we see how easily that happens?
This past week I read a very different interpretation of the Prodigal Son story that blew my mind. Literally. It made me rethink it completely. I’d like to share some highlights with you.
Scholars Amy Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III recently published a commentary on Luke’s gospel — in which they spend 25 pages on this parable and the two short ones that come right before it. The three stories are all related. Levine, the Hebrew Bible scholar, wants to make especially sure that we understand that we are not hearing it the way Jesus’ Judean listeners would have heard it. We are, from the get go, already hearing a political overlay that Luke himself uses to frame it. It’s Luke who introduces the grumbling Pharisees and scribes at the start of the story, deliberately setting them up as the allegorical parallel to the older son — and thereby opening the door for 2000 subsequent years of antisemitic interpretations. Which is ironic, because Luke puts them into the frame in his attempt to work out his own case of sibling rivalry. During the later 1st century, after the Roman destruction of the 2nd temple in 66 CE, the Judean people who survived were seeking to define and shape what Jewish religious ob-servance was —what it would be now that the geographic heart of their observance had been obliterated. There were several strands of Jewish worshippers. One of would go on to become Rabbinic Judaism. Another was the Jesus followers, the “people of the way.”
So Luke added an overlay of commentary about the sibling rivalry he was experiencing as he wrote down this parable many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We all know, there are few things more intense than sibling rivalries. As a consequence, we lost the interpretation that the people in Jesus’ own time would have heard. Luke’s framing shifts everything askew.
The Prodigal Son story is last in a set of 3 — 3 parables of people who are counting things. First there’s the man who loses 1 sheep, and leaves the 99 others to search for it. Then the woman who loses a coin (one of many). It sounds odd, but both are stories of people counting.
And right after that we hear our story— one where a father forgets to count his older son. Remember, the older brother was out in the field and only hears the music when he returns home. By this time, the party has already started; the fatted calf has already been killed. So the time lapse hasn’t been 10 minutes, it’s probably been several hours. All that time, the father never thinks to send anyone to find his older son.
That, that detail right there, dismantles the allegorical concept of the father as God for me. It’s not as if the father has 100 sons, right? From what we are told, he’s only got 2. And still he loses track of one? Does that sound like the God we know? Do we worship a God who would loses count of any of us? Isn’t our God the one we have just heard described in Luke 12:7— a God who counts even the very hairs on our heads?
What about the younger son? We’ve always heard English translations saying he squanders the money he has been given by his father. But the Greek word is closer to “scatter” not squander. He moves to another place, and cuts himself off from his family, his support system. It says he was living a dissolute life, but what exactly does that mean? It’s notable that the narrator’s voice in the story does not directly say that he was sinful. The younger son does say that about himself — but only in the context of his apology to get himself back into his father’s good graces. Clearly he made errors and the money is gone. Was he actually depraved? Or was he just foolish enough to think he could succeed without his community backing him up? We don’t really know the answer to those questions.
We do know that he rehearses a very carefully worded speech for his father, and he chooses to employ the word sin in that context. Levine points out that his fear of rejec-tion is his own fear — it’s not a predictable outcome based on actual experience of this father, and certainly not commensurate with his father’s previous openhearted gener-osity. Here again, too many commentators have used the son’s fear to generalize that Judean culture of the time was punitive and demanding. And perhaps thereby to imply that is innately how “Jews are.” But the gospels tell us overwhelmingly of loving Jude-an parents – parents who go above and beyond for their children. Just think of the mother of James and John, the one who asks Jesus to put her sons at his right and left in the kingdom.
And the elder brother — I, for one, found myself really sympathizing with why he was upset. How many of us from larger families have experienced a parent look us in the face and literally go through the entire list of names of our other siblings (and some-times even pets!) before landing on our own name? I know I sure have. And since I was the only girl in a family with three boys, you would have thought my parents could figure it out… It’s all laughed off, of course, to smooth things over, but really, it kind of stinks when it happens to us, right? Well, imagine if you had been out in the fields for hours working and came home to realize no one had thought to come tell you about your younger sibling’s unexpected return home?
The older brother is angry, and rightfully so. As a result, he unloads on his hapless fa-ther — who has finally woken up to the fact that he lost count of this older son.
As a result, the son nurses his grievance by exaggerating the misdeeds of the younger brother. Whom he has yet to see or speak to, by the way, so exactly how could he know what his younger brother had been doing? Haven’t we all exaggerated things in our anger too?
Levine tells us that the father’s response is not to “plead” with him, as our English text says, but to “comfort him.” The verb uses the same root as a noun we know and love: Paraclete — it’s a word that suggests compassionate sympathy from the father for the older son. The father gets it that he messed up. The father is acknowledging that he failed to see his older child, that he took for granted the one who was there all along. Again: I don’t think of God as taking any of us for granted, do you?
So, all three men have behaved badly in some way. To me, this interpretation of the story makes it sound much less like a “deus ex machina” story where God “fixes” every-thing, and much more like a story about what it means to actually live in messy, com-plicated, and all too human community. This very human father models for both of his sons how humility, generosity, and self reflection make pathways to restore commun-ion when it is on the verge of disruption.
Levine contends that this interpretation is more faithful to the one Jesus intended his original Judean listeners to hear. Unfortunately, we have inherited Luke’s framing of the story with the grumbling Pharisees — a framing that shifts it away from that original setting and into a later 1st C dispute between faithful Jewish believers and the newly forming people of the Way.
But wait: is God even in the picture? Yes, I think so. For me, God is moving in, through, and between all three family members — a God who encourages and informs us, call-ing us towards community instead of division. The same God who implores us to take the risk to trust — and tells us that even when we fall short — all shall be well. This im-age of God also relates very strongly to descriptions of God found in the Hebrew Bible — a God who is merciful, faithful to the people, and trustworthy.
As I said at the start of this homily, this interpretation really opened my eyes. Perhaps it does yours too. So I am asking us each to take that spirit of inquiry, curiosity, and won-der with us as we continue our journey of Lent and on into Holy Week. To ponder, for one, how insidiously and persistently specific interpretations can shape our thoughts. Our Holy Week scriptures are, unfortunately, rife with passages that have a long histo-ry of being twisted into antisemitic tropes.
Equally importantly, I am asking us to discover how refreshing it can be to open our-selves to hearing the stories anew — to see how they speak to us this year, in this place, and in this time. Which situations resonate most deeply for you in 2019? Which people do you relate to most this year?
May we all be renewed and refreshed and resurrected — once again, in this most complicated and holiest of Christian seasons.