"... Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons...." --Luke 15:11 (Read the full passage here.)
Most of us are not prodigals. Perhaps we should be. Perhaps there’s something to be said for living with passion even when self-destructiveness is a by-product of our enthusiasm. But, in any case, we’re not. Most of us surely resemble the uptight older brother in Jesus’ story more than we do the wastrel who blows his inheritance partying and ends up working in a pig sty.
At least as it’s framed in Luke’s gospel, the story of the prodigal seems designed primarily to make a point to people who thought of themselves rather the way the older son did—people deeply skeptical about the inclusiveness of Jesus’ vision of God.
First-century Jews struggled to understand their place in the world. While they believed that their ancestors had entered an everlasting covenant with God, it was hard to square their conviction that they were objects of special divine favor with the fact that they had been incorporated into the Roman Empire. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries seem to have imagined that they could recapture God’s good will by rigidifying the boundaries that separated them from other people, clearly marking the difference between the good and the bad—and firmly excluding the bad. And “the bad” here included not only non-Jews but also those Jews who didn’t measure up, in various ways—because, say, they were unconcerned about purity rules, or were overly friendly with foreigners.
Jesus, too, was interested in Israel’s identity as a covenant community. But he seems to have thought that the way to enliven the community was not to make it more exclusive but rather to make it more inclusive. He painted a picture of a God whose arms were open to the world, and he called his contemporaries to exhibit a similar openness.
Not surprisingly, his conception of a God whose embrace was as wide as all creation made some people uncomfortable. Being able to clearly to identify insiders and outsiders tells us who we are—we’re the insiders, of course—and we don’t like the thought of losing our place at the table.
This kind of tendency is especially common among those who are oppressed, as first-century Jews surely were. Appeals to shared identity can often serve to inspire people to stand firm in the face of authoritarian rule, to resist subjection to tyrants. And it can be easy to hang on to a way of being in the world that makes coping easier, that helps to keep the hope of liberation alive. Unfortunately, the seeming value of clinging to a sense of who we are in contrast to them can obscure the fact that, even if we’re trying to resist oppression, owning ourselves as insiders while rejecting others as outsiders can turn us into oppressors. Unfortunately, it’s perfectly possible to be on the receiving end and the giving end of oppression at the same time.
I was about to sum all this up by saying that Jesus’ contemporaries resisted his inclusive message. But of course that wouldn’t be quite right. Jesus’ contemporaries, like people everywhere, were diverse and complicated. Different people had their own perspectives and concerns and commitments. Some people resisted what Jesus had to say: those who exercised power and understood themselves as the guardians of the status quo or as the protectors of Israel’s specialness.
Other people, including, one suspects, many ordinary people, had little investment in the idea that distinguishing Jews from gentiles and good Jews from bad Jews was the path to a better life. Certainly, many people seem to have welcomed what Jesus had to say. But influential people who felt threatened, in various ways, by what Jesus had to say did, indeed, challenge him at every turn.
On Luke’s view, that’s why Jesus told this story. While the prodigal son gets the most overt attention, and while the love of the waiting father is surely the most important take-away from the story, Jesus is obviously very concerned with the reactions of his critics. The prodigal son is the paradigmatic bad Jew: he tells his father, in effect, that he doesn’t care if he’s dead, and, after he has wastefully exhausted his inheritance, he is rendered profoundly unclean by his association with pigs. But his father, perhaps suppressing his own instincts at more than one point, welcomes him home with warm and loving arms—arms that, as in today’s psalm, offer protection from trouble, surrounding a beloved child with songs of deliverance.
If a human father can behave this way—and who wouldn’t regard such a father as exemplary?—then surely God can do so. We can hardly expect less of God than we expect of ourselves. And if God can behave this way, shouldn’t those who seek to be God’s ambassadors do the same?
While St. Paul envisions the church as a divine embassy, Israel had long understood itself to have a vocation to serve as “a light to the nations.” But a fearful, constricted understanding of that vocation led too many people, responding to what they saw as Israel’s abandonment by God, to seek to realize it simply by being pure, holy, in ways that would earn God’s renewed affection. Jesus, by contrast, proclaimed the message of a universally welcoming God and urged his contemporaries to fulfill their vocation precisely by emulating that God.
It’s naïve to suppose that Jesus was ultimately executed because he thought, and proclaimed, that God was nice. Proponents of niceness are patted on the back approvingly, or else simply ignored. It is very difficult to sort out what happened in Palestine almost 2,000 years ago, but what is clear is that what Jesus said and did proved intensely threatening to people with power. For the Romans who actually carried out the execution, predictably alert to the possibility of insurrection, the simple fact that Jesus was charismatic and that a great many people followed him enthusiastically may have been enough. The socially and religiously and politically prominent Jews who opposed him may have felt, at some deep level, that who they were and everything they were trying to do was threatened by the message of an open, inclusive covenant. As today’s passage from Joshua reminds us, their ancestors had eaten “the produce of Canaan,” taken at sword’s point from people whose cities were burned, whose land was stolen in the name of God. But what if God proved not to be the God of xenophobic violence, of religiously legitimated thuggery? What if God was the God of peaceful, voluntary cooperation? Perhaps the whole project in which they were invested was deeply problematic. Perhaps the kind of community they hoped to create or recreate wasn’t the kind of community God was actually seeking to establish. Perhaps their power was suspect, their positions unwarranted, their purity pointless. Perhaps if people understood Jesus’ message, their influence would evaporate and their goals for Israel prove unachievable.
So much speculation; so little certainty. What we do know is that people care about being right and about excluding or subordinating those they take to be wrong. We know that good people, people like the older brother in Jesus’ parable, people like us, sometimes do the worst things in the name of righteousness, using power to obliterate what doesn’t fit, those who don’t fit. We know, too, that to confess that God is love is to name God as One who embraces us even when we reject and dominate in the name of righteousness—but also that to make this sort of confession is to open ourselves to being ambassadors for a God of grace who wants us to craft a community today, in this place, in which all are welcomed and embraced.
Gary Chartier is Professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University. He offered this homily as a reflection on the liturgical text for Sunday, March 10.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5144