Monday, March 24, 2014

Take now thy son, thine only son (Luke 15 and a look at parables)

Luke 15 has only two questions, both of which are very easy, so I'm going to do something a little different here, but first the questions: Has there ever been a just person? Answered in this post. Is dancing a sin? Answered in this post.

Now, I'd like to take this post to point out in more detail something that I've hinted at before: Jesus' parables are really weird. Let's examine in detail the parable of the prodigal son:
11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
First of all, note that what this son is asking for is far from conventional. He's saying that he wants his inheritance without having to wait for his father to die, so in essence, it's like he's saying, "Dad, you're dead to me, so give me a third of all your money!" (The firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance, so the younger only gets a third in this case.)
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
So this guy runs off to a foreign country and spends all his money on partying. There's a lot of speculation by pastors as to what sort of things this meant, but the fact that he did it in a foreign country might be a clue that he wanted to do things that wouldn't be legal in Israel. (Note later there's mention of "harlots".)
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
So things go bad, and he ends up a slave feeding pigs, and thinking about swiping the pigs' food, a pretty lowly position for a Jewish man
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
So this is actually a pretty good plan considering his predicament. He figures he's disgraced himself too much to go back and be accepted by his father again, but maybe if he humbles himself and asks to be a slave at his father's house, he'll get better treatment than he's getting in his current situation.
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
This is sort of weird. This is a rather undignified way for a man to act in general, and considering how he'd already greatly insulted his father, it should be as much of a surprise to us as it is to him.
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
He decides to go through with his prepared speech anyway.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
So despite the ungrateful way that the son treated the father, the father gives him the royal treatment! But there's a problem with this...
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
What a lot of people miss in this parable is that the older brother has every right to be pissed off. If the younger brother insisted on his inheritance, and the father divided everything up and gave it to him, that implies that everything left in the house--including the "fatted calf"--belongs to the older brother. In essence, the father is stealing from the good son's inheritance to celebrate the bad son!
29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
The older son points out the ridiculousness of the situation...
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
 ...but the father says a bunch of stuff about how great it is that the younger son is home, although it's not really clear why.

Now most people take this parable to be a story about how God just wants to forgive us and love us, and that's all quite good, but there's an awful lot that's left to be explained. Is Jesus saying that we should all run off with prostitutes and then realize what a mistake that was and come back to church? Why is the prodigal son welcomed back before there was ever any hint of repentance on his part? I mean, for all the father knew, he could have been coming back to ask for more money. What the heck does the older brother represent in this parable? He does all the right stuff and stays by his father's side, but gets nothing for being good. Did the father really have the right to kill the fatted calf, given the overall situation?

Now don't get me wrong, I"m not saying that Jesus' parable is a bad parable. What I'm saying is that the meaning is rather obscured by a number of factors; it's not 100% clear what Jesus wants us to learn from this. For that matter, the first two short parables that appear in this chapter before the prodigal son are iffy. Is a shepherd really going to leave 99 sheep unattended to find one that wandered off? Is a woman really going to throw a party because she found a coin she dropped?

Parables are weird.

1 comment:

David Learn said...

I'd contend that one of the main points of this parable is to illustrate how the Pharisees have been reacting to Jesus, and the way he has been welcoming disreputable people into his company.

The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin both end with a celebration of what had been lost, now being found. This parable goes beyond there, and tells the story of one who never appeared to have got lost, and yet couldn't muster any decency to welcome home his brother. The implication of the story is also that his bitter spirit has utterly warped his view of his father's love for him as well.