“Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable:
11b ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This parable used to be a simple one for me. But some new voices I’ve been reading did the equivalent of throwing my tidy stack of well-researched papers to the wind as I prepared this sermon. I realized how often I have parroted problematic interpretations of this parable without thinking twice about it.
One of those new (to me) voices is Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, is a member of an Orthodox synagogue, and speaks frequently in Christian congregations. She writes that, in a typical Christian commentary on this text, “the prodigal is the repentant Christian, the older son is the Pharisee or the Jewish people, and the father is God.” But Dr. Levine challenges this classic pattern of Christian interpretation. She asserts that it “not only yank[s] the parable out of its historical context… [but also] lessen[s] the message of Jesus and bear[s] false witness against Jews and Judaism.” (Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, “What the Prodigal Son story doesn’t mean,” The Christian Century, August 25, 2014.) As theological commentary resource Enfleshed has pointed out, the reality behind this text is that “Jesus was speaking as a Rabbi, in the context of his own Jewish faith. It wasn’t actually uncommon, or necessarily shameful or negative in any way, for fathers to give sons their inheritance in advance of their death. Plenty of Jewish fathers were doting with affection and compassionate towards their children. [And] the father’s willingness to receive the son back with joy is neither surprising nor provocative.” (Enfleshed: Liturgy That Matters, March 31, 2019.) Spinning things in ways that paint the father here as some sort of exception to the rest of Jewish fathers (who are assumed in popular Christian interpretation to be harsh and begrudging towards kids who come home) or always painting the older brother as the, quote unquote “Jews who are obsessed with self-righteousness and just need grace-filled Jesus to turn them around,” foster narratives of Christian superiority that pave the way for antisemitism. I have personally repeated all of those themes in my own preaching. I’m embarrassed to say that so much of this is brand new to me. I’m actually going to recommend a reading of Dr. Levine’s work to all of you. I’ll share that link in the chat now to give you a bit of Sunday afternoon reading. And here’s why…
The ease with which Christian preachers like me have picked up these kinds of Christian supremacist interpretations, which paint Jesus as the prophet who came to “save Judaism from itself”, is one of the ways that anti-Semitism gets a platform in Christian communities like ours. There is a straight line between biblical interpretation that claims Christianity as “Judaism 2.0” and those who shoot up synagogues all throughout this land. Antisemitic rhetoric and acts have historically relied on narratives of Christian supremacy to thrive. I realized this week just how much I have been personally complicit in perpetuating those problematic stereotypes of Jewish tradition that prime the pump for violent attacks on our Jewish siblings. And as Dr. Levine says, “if in order to get a good message you need to make Judaism look bad, then you don’t have a good message.” (Elizabeth Palmer interviews Amy-Jill Levine, “Knowing and preaching the Jewish Jesus,” March 13, 2019.) I’ve got learning to do, and I’m thankful this is a community where all are invited to continue learning towards everyone’s liberation.
So, with all my previous thoughts about this text up in the air, I did find a word for us, for a community trying to find its way to one another as we come from different backgrounds and histories, especially as we enter into another transition time during this ongoing pandemic season. Luke, throughout their gospel, is intent on showing the ways that God brings all people to Godself, “covering every strata of society within Israel…” (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible: Book by Book – A Guided Tour, pg. 288.) We know that Jesus is sharing this story as he sits amongst “tax collectors and sinners,” but also in community with his colleagues in the Jewish faith. And maybe that’s why Jesus tells a story about a messy family, leaving unclear the motivations of each character and their different relationships to coming home. Because he knows bringing this wildly divergent group of people together will be messy!
If we read closely, we can’t be sure whether the younger son is truly sorry and seeking to repent, or if he is plotting one more way to get access to his dad’s money by plotting to come home as a hired hand. We can’t be sure whether the father, as my Enfleshed reading asked, has “terrible boundaries, only endangering the rest of the family by his unquestioned reception of the younger son… or [if] he could be an example of extravagant love and welcome.” (Enfleshed: Liturgy That Matters, March 31, 2019.) And we can’t be sure whether the older son is justified in pointing out the reality that no one bothered to invite him to the party even as he faithfully labored, or if he is stuck in his need to be right, causing him to avoid joining the homecoming celebration of his own brother. I wonder if one of the goals Jesus has in telling this story is to express the grand longing that everyone will find their place in the family of God, and to invite every listener around him, coming from their unique backgrounds, to reflect on the work they are called to do to come together as a family.
Today is the last time for who knows how long that we will be in this completely online space for Sunday worship. As we enter a new season of transition together, again exploring how to be a hybrid community where all are welcome, what is your particular work to do? What is the Spirit saying to you about who you are in this story at this moment? Perhaps you’re an older son today who has felt left out and is exhausted by too much labor, and it is time for you to speak up to your church family about the ways you’ve labored and labored but haven’t been invited in the way you long to be. It’s possible that you are a younger son today, a little too focused on what this community can give you personally when it might be time to consider what you can offer in time and talent to the collective beyond yourself. Maybe you’re a father today, who is being called to reflect on how you interact with the people who are a part of your circle, being challenged to find new ways to invite everyone into the family in ways that make them feel seen, known, and cared for. One beautiful thing about this story is that there aren’t good characters and bad characters. People are complex. Each one of us has been the older son, the younger son, the father at various times in our lives, and who we are in this story may shift from season to season, from day to day – heck, from hour to hour! But what we know is that this parable is told right after two other stories, one about a lost sheep and another about lost coin, making this story too, in the words of the Jewish Annotated New Testament, “about counting… ”, and though it is “relatively easy to pick up a lost sheep or coin; making a lost child feel loved, feel counted, is infinitely more difficult, and infinitely more important.” (Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition – New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, pg. 146.) This story is about counting in ways that invite everyone to be part of the whole. May we go into this next season, church family, committed to counting each other with persistent love, asking ourselves afresh in each moment of transition together, “How can I be a part of making every person feel counted so we can all feel welcome in this glorious, messy, beautiful family of God?” Amen.