Sunday, September 15, 2013

Jesus' prodigal parable is provocative

Blogga-logga-logga-doodle all day. Well, no, not really. What prompted a third post in one day? An exchange begun by my dear friend Fred with a comment on my last post. His first and subsequent comments provoked me (an utterly good thing- the provocation was not to anger). I am deeply appreciative of such exchanges. I realize that it is easy to come across as defensive, but it is not always the case that I am. While it is true that I am not going to abandon my position merely as the result of being challenged (like a boxer who, seeing his opponent come to the center of the ring when the bell rings for the first round, simply drops to the canvas), I welcome the chance to clarify, deepen, hone, sharpen, and, when warranted, abandon a speculative position in the confidence that I have come to a deeper understanding as the result of such an exchange.

I think it bears noting that the point I sought to make in my last post was quite simple: in order for there to have been a party in the first place, the prodigal son had to return to his father's house, that is, repent, have a change of mind/heart, turn around. This in no way violates the integrity of Jesus' parable. If the prodigal son had not come to the realization that he was better off working even as a servant for his father than he was in the far away country fighting pigs for food then we would have no parable. As obvious as this may sound, I am convinced that it is important to it point out. To apply this as I might in a homily, I could ask you, dear reader, the same question I pose to myself- What pig trough do you prefer to eat out of instead of being fed at the Lord's table?

That this point is important to comprehend is shown by Jesus' words at end of the first of the preceding two parables: "I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7). I do not think it is a case of engaging in so-called "scrip-torture" to see the irony in these words of Jesus- that there are not ninety-nine righteous people in the whole wide world who have no need of repentance. If there were, they, too, would rejoice heartily in the repentance of a single sinner because, well, they are righteous. The first two parables also show us that the Lord, while not violating our freedom, does not merely passively wait for us to return, but actively seeks us out.

I think I can describe my approach, without being too inaccurate, as an Ignatian one. It is interesting and useful, at least for me, to look at Jesus' most common parables, like that of the Prodigal Son, from the perspective of, say, the older brother, who is not an evil person, not by half.

Why? Several reasons, foremost among which is my tendency to be like the older brother. I think it is easy to over-identify with the prodigal and to oversimplify the story by just rushing to the conclusion, "We're all prodigals," and leaving matters there. What? Nobody ever acts like the older brother? It is certainly true that we are all prodigals. Despite that, we also tend to act like the older brother at times, sort of in the same ridiculous mode as Jonah. I also take this approach because the pre-canned grasp of the unveiling of God's kingdom in the parables often does not provoke a sense of wonder in me.

The older brother's response, if we are honest with ourselves, is very understandable to us, all too understandable, which is precisely the problem. In the end, I think we have to realize that we can't take the stance of the older brother because, like the prodigal, we are sinners in need of forgiveness, even before standing outside the party huffing and puffing, a ridiculous act, which only adds to our woes.

What we take away is up to us, but is no less important as a result. Jesus does not tell us whether the older brother went into the party and the inspired author does not tell us how many, if any, of the Pharisees that heard Jesus tell this parable changed their mind that day. Not to sound smug, but I really don't care because both of those things are beside the point. What matters to me? Whether and how the parable moves me and what resistance I offer to being thus moved. Even if I am not moved at all, or successfully resist the Lord's pull, He'll take another shot next Sunday. I am still trying to address the concern that far too often, in my view, the take away is that no response is required.

This brings me back to my main point: faith does not require a response, it is our response to God's initiative towards us. As such, it is a free (i.e., not compelled, pre-programmed, or inevitable) response, even if one, as we saw in Lumen fidei, that takes many surprising forms, arising, as it does, from real people living real lives in the real world.

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