March 14, 2010
Commentary by Russell Pregeant
See also: [Year C Archive]
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The readings for this Sunday are a virtual goldmine of texts expressing the related themes of the grace of God, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The passage from 2 Corinthians celebrates the new creation in which those in Christ participate and proclaims the divine-human reconciliation effected through Christ. Psalm 32 celebrates the joy of one whose sins are forgiven (vv. 1-2, 7, 11), contrasting the spiritual uplift that genuine confession brings (v.5) with the burdensome weight of sin (v. 3). The reading from Joshua does not mention forgiveness or reconciliation, but it is a strong expression of God’s gracious actions on behalf of Israel and illustrates an emphasis on the “material” dimension of grace that is pervasive in the Hebrew Bible. The context of this passage is important. The Israelites have just crossed the Jordan after their forty-year wanderings in the desert and entered the promised land. In 5:2-7, the narrator gives an account of the circumcision of the people, explaining that the earlier generation had perished in the desert and those who entered the land had not yet undergone this essential rite. This event is a reminder of the covenant relationship between God and Israel, a theme that in and of itself bespeaks God’s grace. But 5:1 adds an important dimension to the background of the lectionary selection. Here we read that the kings of the Amorites have heard about God’s miraculous drying up of the waters of the Jordan (parallel to the miracle at the sea) and become disheartened. And when we link this to the declaration in 5:9 that God has “rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt,” we have a conjunction of themes that, as Peter D. Miscall notes, is “repeated numerous times” in the Hebrew Scriptures: God removes the shame of Israel’s slavery and simultaneously makes a witness to the surrounding nations. (“Joshua” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II, 607).
The most resounding testimony to God’s grace, however, comes in the gospel reading, which is a radical and engaging statement of God’s forgiveness. If we read the parable first of all as a story told by the historical Jesus, we can see it as an almost programmatic verbal counterpart to his practice of accepting sinners and outcasts into his fellowship. Against the background of his proclamation of the coming of God’s Rule, it is a vivid depiction of the way in which that Rule overturns “normal” human expectations and reverses the values often associated with religious observance.
The younger brother’s actions are outrageous. By demanding his share of the inheritance while his father is alive, he implies that he wishes his father were dead; his profligate behavior is a perfect recipe for bringing shame upon the family; and by reducing himself to the level of tending ritually unclean animals he disrespects his religious heritage. But the outrageousness of the son’s actions is matched by that of the father’s behavior. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out, by complying with the son’s request, the father himself risks the family honor: “His honor depends on his being embedded in the family, being himself the family’s support and representative. The family and his honor are at stake with a division of the property.” (Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, 110.) In the end, moreover, he violates conventions of propriety for an older man by running. And he receives the son without the slightest indication of any sort of conditions and even gives him a place of honor. “The father’s gifts,” Scott comments, “are not simply necessities, do not simply clothe the naked. The father is making his son an object of honor. The son’s place, which has been abrogated by his loss of the property, is now restored.” (118)
In its context in Luke, the parable invites an allegorizing interpretation of the father as God. However, the allusions to God in vv. 18 and 21 stand in the way of such a reading. The dramatic effect of the story depends largely upon accepting the father as a human being who acts in an outrageously gracious manner. But of course in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Rule, the story is indeed a metaphorical representation of God’s grace—a grace so radical as to shatter conventional religious understandings of the requirements for re-acceptance into fellowship with God. The acceptance of repentant sinners was a central theme in ancient Judaism, a point that Christians often miss. But what was distinctive about Jesus’ teaching and practice was an apparent circumventing of the usual requirements associated with repentance; and the parable is a glowing illustration of that fact. The point is not just that God accepts repentant sinners, but that God reaches out to sinners and accepts them freely, without prior requirements, and without regard to social convention.
If the story ended with v. 24—the point at which the father orders a celebration for the son who has returned—it would still be a resounding statement of God’s radical grace/forgiveness. But there is more. To persons who, for whatever reason, had not lived their lives in strict obedience to the demands of Torah, the first part of the parable would certainly convey a message of grace. Some among the religiously observant, however, “would naturally feel that, to the extent that the father’s acceptance [of the younger son] mirrors God’s attitude toward the disobedient, the story makes a mockery of both divine justice and the demands of the Torah.” (Russell Pregeant, Encounter with the New Testament: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 65-66) But “[t]he genius of the parable…is that it undermines this latter response by building it into the plot and subjecting it to criticism. Rather than rejoice in the return of his brother, the older son withdraws in resentment; he will not even name the younger as his brother, but refers to him as ‘this son of yours’.” (Pregeant, 66) And herein lies the element of reversal: not only does the disobedient son get honored, but the obedient son incurs the judgment of the father. The reversal is not complete, however, and the father’s words to the older son contain another twist. As Dan Via notes, “The father not only goes out to the prodigal son; he also goes out to the elder brother.” (The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension, 171.) H criticizes the older son for his attitude, but the story ends neither with the father rejecting this son nor with the son’s removal of himself from the family. It ends rather with the father’s gracious words: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.” (15:31b-32) The final note is thus one of a potential reconciliation between the two brothers and between the elder brother and the father.
Scott makes the important observation that the story builds upon a mytheme well-attested in the Hebrew Bible: the younger son who is roguish but favored. Jesus’ parable, however, subverts that mytheme in a fundamental way:
The purpose of this mytheme, whether used to identify favoritism within the family or between Israel and the nations, is to decide who is the favorite, the chosen. But in the parable the elder son’s fate is not like Esau’s; he is not hated, nor does the younger receive Jacob’s portion….Here the father rejects no one; both are chosen. (125)
Psalm 32 celebrates the forgiveness God always makes available to those who repent of their sin. In its context in Luke, the parable of the Prodigal Son also stresses God’s forgiveness of the repentant. But in and of itself, the parable overwhelms the suggestions of repentance with its emphasis upon unearned grace and forgiveness. The prodigal “comes to himself” in v. 17 and expresses the intention to acknowledge his affronts to both his father and God; but in his joy the father leaves him no chance to actually do so. In the epistle lesson, Paul stresses Christ’s role as the agent of reconciliation in a process involving God’s overlooking of trespasses. In the parable, however, it is simply God’s willingness to forgive that is stressed, although we may assume the nearness of God’s Rule as an agent of grace in this case. In both instances, however, we may speak of newness of life made possible by the grace of God: a “new creation” on the one hand and the metaphor of reconciliation within a family on the other.
The theme of “both are chosen” could provide a lead-in for process insights. Whitehead’s philosophy is inimical to either/or schemes for understanding the world. The world process takes place through “contrasts,” in which seemingly incompatible elements are brought together in a higher unity. Too much of our religious and political rhetoric depends upon unhealthy dichotomizing that not only oversimplifies complex issues but subverts the ideals of harmony and reconciliation by fostering an ideology of win-lose rather than win-win. There are times, of course, when issues such as justice demand an element of either-or. The point of contrasts and win-win scenarios is not mere compromise but rather the discovery of ways in which seemingly incompatible concerns or ideals might be brought together in novel ways. A sermon on the Prodigal Son that embraces not only the theme of forgiveness but reconciliation with those who seem to reject grace might be able to make use of such a notion.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).
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