Reflection: March 31 – Lent 4

Published on Mar 31st, 2019 by Webminister | 0

         When I was a teenager in Nanaimo, we lived in the church manse with a lovely view looking east over Departure Bay; on a clear day, we could see the high-rises of downtown Vancouver. Our neighbours were a retired couple who loved to garden and were very friendly.

The elderly gentleman of the couple next door loved to talk.  And if you couldn’t get away within 5 minutes of the start of a conversation, you were tied up for at least 30 minutes or more.  He loved to garden, so he was in the garden right next door a lot.  His wife would sometimes come out and, with a wink, whisk him away.  He would often repeat the same stories over and over, and he liked to tell his stories. If you had time, it was ok; if you didn’t and didn’t want to be impolite, you waited until there was a natural break and while he was taking a breath for a new story, you’d be able to say your goodbyes.

The point is that we’d hear the same stories over and over and sometimes that was ok.  The problem with familiar stories is that they are familiar.  We think we know the details and every turn of the plot.  And with biblical stories, that can be quite detrimental to hearing the meaning of the story.  We can turn off the preacher and say to ourselves, “I know this story well; I wonder what I’ll have for supper and what am I doing tomorrow.”

That’s the challenge of the story we call the Prodigal Son.  Is this a story about forgiveness as we usually interpret it, or is this something else altogether?  Let’s look at the “something else altogether.”

Another name for this story suggested by Richard Rohrbaugh and Bruce Malina in their book, “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,” is the story of The Foolish Father.

Why foolish and not forgiving?  In an honour-shame society, it is a story about folly because the father acquiesces to the desire of his younger son and divides his property among his two sons.  The younger son sells up and proceeds to lose everything he owned in loose living and ends up derelict, barely alive in a foreign land.  In the Babylonian Talmud, an ancient Jewish text, it says, “Three cry out and are not answered: the one who has money and lends it without witnesses; the one who acquires a master; the one who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime.”[1]  The father of this household is foolish then, because he has transferred property to his sons while still alive; and because of this, he lost face in his community. People would have scoffed at him for giving up his property before his death.  And when the young son returns after blowing his money, the foolish father would have lost even more honour by running out to meet his son with his robes hitched up to show his legs.

According to Rohrbaugh and Malina, the father ran to meet his son not to welcome him home, but to prevent the village from killing him for shaming not only his father and his brother but the whole village. The father kissing the son shows that he still has some standing and is willing to protect his son and welcome him back into the household.  That’s the purpose of the feast, too, to tell the village and the older son that this young profligate is welcomed back into the household as a full member.  The size of the feast indicated the number of villagers who came and the return of some honour to the father.  And when the older son balks at the feast, the foolish father begs his son to attend the feast.  Only foolish fathers beg their sons to do something.  In the end, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh, the older brother’s actions would have signalled to the village that this family was still not to be trusted.

Instead of interpreting this story as usual, and has become enshrined in “Amazing Grace”—as in “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” a worthy subject, forgiveness—the story could be more about the dangers of greed and malice than about forgiveness and welcoming home.  After all, Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees and tells this story; maybe he was challenging the exclusivity and greed of the Pharisees.  Families and individuals lose honour when foolish and greedy behaviour is engaged. Beware the power of greed!  Jesus was saying.

Remember the ghost of Christmas present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?  Scrooge discovers two straggly children under the robes of the giant ghost and asks who they are.  The ghost says, “They are humanity’s…  Beware them both… but most of all beware this boy…”[2]  The boy is ignorance and the girl want.

Charles Dickens attacked the cruelty of society in the way the poor were treated.  He attacked child labour, unhealthy working conditions, and a lack of education.  He cried out in many of his stories about the willful ignorance of many in power who didn’t want to know about the conditions of the poor or the uneducated.  Dickens wrote about change and transformation.

The Lenten study we’ve been doing Wednesday nights is about the path of transformation using the 4 gospels as guides. In talking about path 3 of 4, Alexander John Shaia, the presenter, tells us that we are God’s living gardens and each of us go through the 4 seasons—times of birth, lushness, death and new life—over and over and over because we are all made of “the incorruptible substance of God.”[3]  God is part of the garden that is each of us, leading us to the promise of abundant life! Transformation!

Maybe that’s what this story of the Prodigal Son—or the Foolish Father—is ultimately about… an indictment of our ignorance of the challenges that many face, especially the poor, the outcast, those pushed to the fringes of our society.  And more to the point, in telling this story, which may ultimately be about reconciliation, but is more about the fact that even though we do foolish things or feel dis-spirited and struggling, God’s Spirit breathes in us and invites us into healing; we can acknowledge our brokenness and return home and discover God’s gifts again.  Maybe it is a story to convey the good news that even in times of challenge and struggle, God’s love continues to dwell in us, leading us to abundant life, opening us to hear words of love again and again.

Amen.

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[1]Rabbinical saying from the Babylonian Talmud; see Rohrbaugh and Malina, “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,” page 290.

[2]Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Stave 3.

[3]Alexander John Shaia, “Resting in God’s Glorious Garden.”8

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