Revd Rex A E Hunt
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A printed edition of some of my sermons can be obtained in
Against the Stream: Progressive Christianity Between Pulpit and Pew
(2012) Mosaic Press.
Lent 4C, 2013
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
A Liturgy is also available
TWO BROTHERS, AND A STORY WITH NO ENDING
Just before coming to Brisbane I sat down and calculated
it has been nearly 52 years since I left home.
And as they say in the classics: a heck of a lot of water
has gone under the bridge since then!
While I haven’t lived in the family home with mum and dad since then,
my mother had a way of keeping in touch with her absent son.
She told me to send my washing home,
in a box, by bus, each week!
And as an obedient first-born son, I complied with her wishes!
Much ink has been spilt over the story of the Prodigals.
The story is one of the best known of all the biblical stories in our religious tradition.
It is certainly the longest in the Jesus tradition.
And it’s right up there with the stories of
the Good Samaritan, and
the imaginative nativity stories of Jesus…
All, I might add, told by the anonymous storyteller we call Luke.
It has been called a ‘leaving home’ story.
It has also been called an allegorical story
about an over-generous God-like father.
The story itself narrates a particular incident in the lives
of an indulgent father and his two sons,
one younger whom some claim he pampers,
the other older whom he appears to have slighted (Hedrick 2004).
We are told nothing about other brothers or sisters, or a mother, if they ever existed.
No mum doing weekly washing, or telling the father: ‘You will let him return…’
The setting is aspects of social life in a first-century Palestinian village.
So let me offer a few background comments about this story
I have picked up along the way.
For two thousand years, give or take a few,
the stories we call parables and identify with Yeshua/Jesus,
have in the main been received and interpreted as ‘allegories’.
That is, the storyteller Luke and others have looked at this story,
asked the question: ‘what does it all mean’?
and then proceeded to give its parts a series of allegorical meanings.
So the early Christian movements took this Lukan story
and said here is the meaning:
• the father is understood to stand for God,
• the younger son for the Gentiles,
• the elder son for the Judeans or the Pharisees.
And so on…
But the history of biblical scholarship
is littered with the bones of contradictory and failed answers to [the question: what does it mean] (Hedrick 2004:42).
About 100 years ago that model of interpretation was challenged.
Now the trend in biblical scholarship is to ask a couple of different questions:
(i) What kind of story is this?
(ii) How do we listen? rather than, What does it mean?
So some very brief comments on these two questions…
(i) What kind of a story is this?
It’s a special kind of story, called a parable.
And a parable is a story but with a twist in the tail.
A story with a fang.
A story which turns our perceived world upside down.
So where’s the ‘fang’? Where’s the ‘twist’?
First, this is a story about a dysfunctional family: a father who had two sons.
The father’s inept handling of both sons
does not make him an ideal character worthy of emulation.
By his actions he has relinquished his power, authority and status
over his family (Reid 2000:59).
Likewise, tuning the father into a God-figure, as some suggest, is mistaken!
Second, when the younger son asks the father for his share of the inheritance,
while we might hear this as the son using his initiative,
the ancients would have viewed this as an attack on the father,
a violation of the commandment to honour your father and mother.
In their view the son was acting appallingly:
both by walking out on the family and the village, and
by telling his father to drop dead!
Third, there is a missing final act in this parable.
The father has created a dilemma.
Inside at the party is a younger son thinking he has gotten away with it, that he has been restored. Outside is an elder brother with all the property, with all the power, and he is angry (Scott 2001:79).
The story concludes, but it doesn’t end.
The conflict between the brothers is left unresolved.
What happens next?
The audience must write the final act!
Jesus Seminar scholar Brandon Scott is helpful, I think, with this suggestion:
“Soon the father will die. Then what? If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision. One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male hono[u]r and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other. They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive” (Scott 2001:82-83).
(ii) How can we ‘listen to’ or engage with this story today?
Well... it doesn’t tell us much if anything biographical about Jesus.
But it does help us make sense of who Jesus was,
and how Jesus was remembered.
And Jesus ‘was’, to continue the thoughts of Scott, a rebel who revolts in parable.
For the parables create a counter-world, a hoped-for world,
a re-imagined world - all in the face of the other world, the real world.
About a month ago you probably heard another story from Luke.
Now I know a lot of water has gone under your bridge since then.
But perhaps you might remember the story was about
Jesus’ return to his home town of Nazareth.
In that story Luke suggests no one, not even the so-called ‘God’s people’
should ever think of themselves as privileged.
God’s love is inclusive and embracing, not exclusive.
And then this groundbreaking claim:
adopting an exclusivist attitude actually causes one to miss God’s blessings.
Closed hands, closed hearts, and closed minds
can no longer receive blessings.
Now in this week’s Prodigals parable, Luke makes a similar claim:
that re-imagined world, hoped-for world,
pictures co-operation, not contest,
as the basis for the Empire or realm of God.
So listening to or engaging with this story can raise various issues for us.
Especially when it challenges the accepted social norms we have come to accept.
Or when we confuse wealth and status with personal fulfillment or initiative.
Or when others reinforce, rather than allaying, our fears,
as some politicians and church leaders are wont to do,
especially in an Election year.
The ‘twist’ in this parable is that it allows for another criterion,
a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 1995),
upon which to base our living.
Potential co-operation, rather than head-on contest.
And that, it seems to me, leaves us with this important, yet implied question:
can we risk having faith with Jesus in the re-imagined
or potential world of the parables, rather than faith in Jesus?
Faithfulness, I would suggest, demands living with such a risk.
Heaney, S. The Redress of Poetry. London: Faber & Faber, 1995.
Hedrick, C. W. Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics. Louisville: Westminster/John Know Press, 2004.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year C. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
Scott, B. B. Re-Imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2001.