I remember reading or hearing at some point that when you’re analyzing a dream it can be helpful to keep in mind that each of the characters in the dream may represent some element of yourself. So, for example, in one of those classic chase dreams where you’re on the run from someone — a boss, the mob, aliens, whatever — you might ask yourself not only what you’re running from in your life, but also what you’re chasing after. You get the idea.
I think the same can be said for parables. These stories that Jesus told often present characters we can immediately relate to, as with this morning’s parable of the prodigal son, but can yield some of their richest insights when we allow ourselves to imagine less obvious correspondences.
The story doesn’t actually begin with the man who had two sons. It begins,
“now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Before we even get to the parable, we’ve got three characters in complicated relationships. There are the tax collectors and sinners, there are the Pharisees and the scribes, and there is Jesus.
The tax collectors are hated because they collaborate with the enemy. Imagine what it would feel like to do back-breaking work, hauling fish in from the sea, or bringing in the crop of wheat, only to have foreign soldiers come and take a portion of your goods as a tax that would be used to make your occupier even more wealthy. Now imagine that, in order to know who to collect that tax from, the soldiers turned to one of your neighbors, someone you grew up with, and that person gave them the list of people from whom to collect, and a sense for how much each could give. You might hate the soldier in a vague, general way; but I imagine you would hate that neighbor, that childhood friend, that tax collector, in a very specific way. A collaborator, an informant, a snitch, a traitor.
Who the sinners were is somewhat hard to say. They might have included people who’d broken moral laws, or ritual laws. They might have included thieves and liars. They might also have included people who showed little regard for religion and its rules. People who practiced a little of this and a little of that. People considered unclean in the temple
These are the people who have come near to listen to Jesus: collaborators, informants, snitches, traitors, thieves, liars, and the religiously suspect — atheists, agnostics, syncretists, and those who, perhaps, just found nothing in religious life that meant anything or made a difference to them. And you have to wonder just what Jesus was saying or doing that could draw such a collection of people together, people who you’d never see in a church. And you have to notice that Jesus isn’t in a church, or the Temple, either. He’s out wandering in the world, meeting these people where they are, where he finds them.
So along come the Pharisees and the scribes. The Pharisees were religious leaders and teachers, though not the kind that worked in the Temple. They were Protestants of a sort, you might say, reacting to what they saw as the failed religious leadership of those who ruled in the Temple, the Sadducees. Their teaching emphasized holiness, and gave the people a way of being that was different from the occupying powers and the surrounding nations. Their very name, Pharisee, loosely translates as “set apart.”
The scribes were elites of another sort. In a world before laptop computers and mobile phones, before printing presses and hardbound books; in a pre-literate world, scribes could record contracts, could keep ledgers, could copy documents. Part lawyer, part judge, part local government, scribes kept the law. And among the laws that they kept were strict guidelines for purifying themselves before transcribing the holy name of God. If, in the process of writing, a scribe needed to set down in ink the most holy name of God, the name we often translate as Jehovah or Yahweh, the scribe was required by law to wipe clean the pen and to cleanse their entire body as well before doing so. In fact, the scribe had to repeat that process over again each time the name needed to be written.
The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t simply dislike the tax collectors and the sinners, they were deeply committed on a religious and national level, in theological and political terms, to a way of life that had no room for them.
It is to these people — strangers, enemies — that Jesus tells his story, the one we have come to know so well.
A man had two sons. The younger one broke with all law and convention and asked for his inheritance before his father was even dead. In essence he said, “I can’t be bothered to wait around for you to die. Give me what’s mine now.” He betrays his family. He gets in bed with foreigners. He wastes the treasures of his inheritance and only comes to himself once things have gotten so bad that he starts coveting the pig’s slop. The unclean food given to unclean animals. Sounds like the tax collectors and the sinners, right?
The son decides it’s time to come home, where there’s always enough for everyone, so he plans his return and prepares his confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing the sinners and tax collectors would have said. Sounds more like a fantasy of what the Pharisees and scribes have been waiting for the tax collectors and the sinners to say.
Then, before he can even get the words of his confession out, the father comes running out to greet him, he throws his arms around him and kisses him. Love precedes confession. Grace precedes penitence. Sounds like God, to us. Not to the Pharisees and scribes.
The Pharisees and scribes didn’t live in a world of talk-show confessions and televised reconciliations between estranged parents, children, spouses. Theirs wasn’t a world of self-help spirituality and live-your-best-life wisdom. Theirs was a world of honor and shame. A world where the conduct of a father, of a head of household, reflected on the rest of the family. In that kind of a world people weren’t self-made, they were inter-related. In that kind of a world, a child who ran off to squander the family fortune was disowned in a way from which there was no coming back. A father who paced the fields looking for a prodigal son wasn’t an image of love, he was an image of weakness. His running to greet the younger son wasn’t a display of enthusiasm, it was a foolish spectacle. A father like this was an embarrassment to his family. A God like this would be a scandal and a source of mockery.
The Father bestows a robe and a ring, sacrifices the fatted calf and prepares a banquet to celebrate the return of the prodigal. But someone is still missing, someone is set apart from the feast. So, the older brother enters gets his scene. “Listen,” he demands,
“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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Sounds like the Pharisees and the scribes, right?
What I find so moving about this last scene in the parable is the anger and agony of the elder brother. He rails at the injustice of having spent his life doing what is expected, what is right, and what has it gotten him: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
I can imagine it must have felt like that to the Pharisees and scribes — keeping the law, teaching the law, enforcing the law — all as an act of identification with, loyalty for, devotion to the God of Israel. Yet, still they were occupied by foreign powers. Still their harvests were taxed and their incomes sent away to line other people’s pockets. All that hard work, and life was still no party.
When I picture it in my head, Jesus telling this story to these people, it’s hard to imagine that any of them knew what to make of it. How would the tax collectors and sinners make sense of the idea that they could ever be welcomed at the dinner tables of people like the Pharisees and scribes? How would the Pharisees and scribes make sense of the story’s logic that those people were in fact their own brothers and sisters. Not only not enemies, but family.
In my own life I have been both younger sibling and older. I have wasted my cultural inheritance, using the power and privilege that come with being educated, white, middle-class, American, clergy — you name it — on projects and priorities that break solidarity with the rest of God’s creation. I have cashed in on the wealth of my various identities to enjoy cheap food, cheap oil, safe streets, good education, clean water, and access to medicine, knowing that others pay the price for my inheritance. Over and over I wake up to my continual wanderings away and I wonder if there is a way back, a way home.
And I have stood out in the field, nursing all the grudges that come with being an actual, literal older brother, and also a rule-keeper, a grade-earner, a goal-setter, a high-achiever, a self-starter, an entrepreneur, a redeveloper — you name it. I have looked in from the outside on gatherings of late-comers, coasters, failures and cowards and scorned their weaknesses. I have preached a gospel of grace and lived a life defined by works. I have stayed stuck in the fields, refusing a party not thrown on my terms.
But if, as with our dreams, we are encouraged to consider that we might be any and all of the characters, then there is another option in this parable that we might consider, an invitation to people who call themselves the body of Christ. There is a final character we might yet consider, and that is the father. Pacing the edges of the field. Keeping watch for those who are lost and wandering. Making fools of ourselves for the sake of love. Rushing out to meet those who are looking for a way home with all the signs of welcome — a robe, like the ones worn in baptism, and a feast like the one served weekly at this table.
Parables are not simply metaphors, there are no simple correspondences. We are not simply the elder son or the younger son or the father. Parables are open ended. The endings are unresolved. We don’t know if the younger son stays home this time. We don’t know if the elder son comes in from the fields. We don’t know how the story ends. We are invited to write the ending with our lives.