Thursday, February 4, 2010

A 'Subversive' Parable - The Prodigal Son, Pt 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

Through familiarity, we can lose sight of the "subversive" nature of Christ's parables. By this, I am referring to the fact that Christ will challenge, implicitly criticize, and generally turn upside down, the social conventions, cultural assumptions, and religious pieties of His fellow Jews in first century Palestine. When this happens, we can then "domesticate" the parables, conform them to our own conventional pieties, and thus remove their sting which is precisely to awaken us to a new way of looking at God and our relationship with God and neighbor. Then, with the best of intentions, we can manipulate the parables in order to validate our existing relationships with God and neighbor; miss the challenge to never grow complacent in these relationships; and fail to repent of our sinful inclinations that wreck havoc on the very relationships we claim will effect our salvation. In hearing any given parable we can comfortably remain certain that we are only reinforcing an already-existing understanding of the parable's meaning: "Ah, yes, I know precisely what this parable means. After all, I've heard it so many times." Thus, we place ourselves in a "safety zone" that is far removed from the enormous challenge to actually do something that will shake us out of our soul-numbing complacency.

I believe that this is true of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 16:15-32). Having "heard" it last Sunday, perhaps we have already filed it away in our memory banks, safely hidden there until we mentally double-click and dislodge it next year three Sundays before Great Lent begins yet again! No wonder then, that repeatedly, and with a sense of urgency and real concern, Jesus would declare: "He who has ears to ear, let him hear!"

This great parable is about repentance, the loving and compassionate nature of God, and the fearful consequences of an unforgiving and resentful heart. With an impressive economy of expression, Jesus fully delineates three unforgettable characters - the prodigal son, the father, and the older brother - who stand out in their individuality and who embody the three "themes" of the parable outlined above. On the one hand, I believe that the parable is very culturally and religiously specific, as the three characters would be easily identifiable to those who initially heard Jesus deliver it. The same would be true of the setting and the circumstances of the events that unfold the drama of the parable: the younger son asking for his inheritance, the subsequent wasting of that inheritance, and his near-starvation level employment feeding swine in the fields. The details of the banquet, with the fattened calf, the robe and ring, together with dancing and music all have a recognizable verisimilitude about them. Through the parables of Christ we have a very realistic view of first-century Palestinian Jewish life.

What I believe to be "subversive" in this parable is that the expectations of conventional piety are not met with the unfolding of the drama and the presentation of the characters. Rather, those expectations are turned on their head. Yet, oddly enough, given the common title of this parable which concentrates on the "prodigal son," perhaps this is less true of him than of the father and the older brother. True and deep repentance was very much a part of first-century Judaism. Scraping the proverbial "bottom of the barrel," the younger son turned his inward gaze toward home and his father. And "when he came to himself" (16:17), he realized that he must throw himself on the mercy of his father, though clearly entertaining the possibility that he would not receive it, and even accepting that as fair. Yet, to his great credit, he was not paralyzed by the fear of justifiable rejection, but acted upon his inner conversion and need for repentance: "And he arose and came to his father." (16:20) And to his further credit, not a word of self-defensiveness is heard from him. Repentant, he does not act with even an instinctive desire to protect himself from the anticipated reproaches of his father. With a "broken and contrite heart," he has nothing left to protect.

With the figure of the father - clearly an image of God - Jesus undermines our expectations of justice and the human need for proving oneself "right," especially after a great offense that can wound our sense of dignity and fairness. Clearly, we share this same very human need today, and as much as we - as countless Christians throughout the centuries - are irresistibly drawn to this magnificent figure and his boundless capacity to forgive any and all offenses; need first to soberly assess our own possible/probable reaction if found in that situation. And that can be summed up in the irresistible urge to finally have the opportunity to say to a profligate child who has hurt us so terribly : "I could have told you so!" And that is just a starter. Our psychological need for "revenge" is capable of bringing to the surface an endlessly dreary set of "variations on a theme," many of which we may have already used ourselves in much milder cases of real and perceived betrayals by our children. Were the initial hearers of the parable expecting from Jesus some such expression of a justice satisfied by delivering these types of reproaches? Were they expecting demands from the father, or "conditions" by and under which the son could take up residence again in his father's house, but now carefully monitored so as avoid a further squandering of the family's wealth? Must reparation follow every act of repentance? I doubt that they would have been terribly surprised if they heard any of these "natural reactions," even in the knowledge of the parable's "happy ending." We depend upon the image of God given to us by Christ in this parable for our own salvation, but that is meant to probe our own hearts for their capacity to forgive.

To return to an earlier expression, perhaps Jesus is most subversive in how he portrays the older brother. Here is a man who appears to be the very image of filial devotion, mature responsibility, and the stability of purpose that would bring consolation and confidence to his father when the proper time for handing over an inheritance emerged. The older brother never showed signs of youthful rebellion and the adventurous spirit that brought the younger brother to ruin: "I never disobeyed your command." (16:29) The reproaches and even resentment of the older brother could not but have struck his contemporaries as fully justified. He has not been properly recognized. Surely the older brother is being treated unfairly! All of that unacknowledged service: "you never gave me a kid, that I might merry with my friends." (16:29) His resentment is choking him, for he cannot refer to his brother other than "this son of yours," when reproaching his father. Jesus was really pushing a point, in order to make a point. Perhaps this was to expose the interior life of the older brother. Christ is concerned about the condition of the human heart, and not only right behavior. Or rather, they need to be harmonized. An inability to forgive undermines that harmony of the interior and exterior. It appears that the older brother's devotion was devoid of joy and thanksgiving. For the father told him in the end: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (16:31) I would argue that as long as we must admit that we would react as the older brother of the parable, then we have yet to fully assimilate this great parable and what Jesus is teaching us about our relationship with God and our neighbor.

To be continued ...

Fr. Steven

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