A Provocation: 4th Sunday in Lent: March 27, 2022: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

1	They were to him so close,
		all the tax gatherers
			and the non-observant,
				to hear him.
2	They grumbled,
		both the Pharisees
		and the scribes.
		They said:
			This one
				welcomes the non-observant
		and eats with them.
3	He said to them this parable.
		He said:
4	What person among you
				has one hundred sheep
				loses out of them 
			and does not abandon the ninety-nine
				in the wordless wilderness
			and walk to the lost one	
				until he should find it?
5			When he finds it
				he places it on his shoulders
				he rejoices.
6				He comes into the house;
		he calls together the friends
					and the neighbors.
		He says to them:
			Rejoice with me
					because I found my sheep
						the lost one.
7		I am talking to you:
			Thus joy there will be in the heaven,
			Joy in the case of one non-observant 
who has a change of mind,
				more than in the case of ninety nine strictly observant
					who have no need of change of mind.
8		Or what woman,
		she has drachmas
				ten of them.
		If ever she should lose a drachma
				(just one)
		doesn’t she light a lamp
			sweep the house
			seek carefully
				until when she should find it?
9			(When) she finds it
			she calls together the friends
					and neighbors
			she says:
				Rejoice with me
			because I found the drachma that was lost.
10		Thus,
	I am talking to you,
		it happens:
			joy before the messengers of Elohim
			on one non-observant person 
                        who has a change of mind.
11		He said:
			A person
				some guy had two sons.
12			He said,
		the younger one of them did,
		to the father:
				Give to me the proper portion of your being.
			He divided to them his means of making a living.
13			After not many days
			he gathered everything,
		the young son did,
			he departed into a distant region.
			There he sowed around his being
				he lived without saving.
14			When he spent all,
			it happened:
			a famine
					a strong one
				against that region.
	He began to be in want.
15			He traveled.
	He was glued to one of the citizens of that region.
		He sent his into his fields
				to feed pigs.
16				He longed to be stuffed
		out of the carob pods
				that the pigs ate.
				No one was giving anything to him.
17			Into himself he came
			he said:
		How many hired workers
					of my father
		have too much bread?
				But I,
			by a famine here, 
I am being destroyed.
18				I will stand up.
		I will walk
					to my father.
		I will say to him:
			I sinned
				against heaven
						and before you.
19					No longer am I worthy
		to be called your son.
	Make me as one of your hired workers.
20			He stood up;
		he went to his father.
			While still he was far off,
he saw him,
				his father did.
			He was moved;
			he ran;
			he fell on his neck;
			he kissed him.
21			He said
				the son did
	to him:
		I sinned against heaven
					and before you
		No longer am I worthy
				to be called your son.
22			He said,
				the father did,
		to his slaves:
				Bring out a robe
					the first
				clothe him.
				Give a signet ring
					into his hand.
				And shoes on his feet.
23				Bring the calf,
		the grainfed one.
	Kill it.
		We will eat;
		we will be happy.
24			There was
				his son,
		the older one,
	he was in the field.
		He came.
			He was so close to the house.
			He heard music and dancing.
26			He called one of the children/servants
	He questioned him
			what might these things be.
27			He said to him:
			Your brother has come.
			He killed,
				your father did,
			the calf,
				the grainfed one,
			because he received him as healthy.
28		He was angry;
		he did not want to go in.
	His father came out
			he was calling him.
29		He answered,
		he said to his father:
			so many years I am a slave to you.
		Not one commandment of yours did I neglect.
			To me,
		not once did you give a kid
		so that
					with my friends
				I should be happy.
30			When your son,
				this one,
		the one who ate up your means of making a living
						with prostitutes,
		when he came,
			you kill
				for him
			the grainfed calf.
31		He said to him:
		you are always with me.
			Everything mine is yours.
32			To be happy
			and to rejoice
			is binding:
				Your brother,
					this one,
				a corpse he was.
					He lives.
				Lost he was.
                                        He is found.

This is my Provocation from several years ago, but it seemed useful to repost it for this week. I have included my translation of the entire fifteenth chapter, just in case that is helpful. Explore! Enjoy!

This scene is difficult because it is too easy.

Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumble. The fact that the tax collectors were collaborating with a brutal enemy (Rome) only leads interpreters to claim this as an instance of radical grace. And at the end, the scene becomes a simple contest between law and gospel, a contest gospel always wins.

And perhaps the customary readings of this scene are exactly what is needed.

One could do worse.

But the scene is stranger than its customary interpretation, and I am convinced that strangeness provokes productive reading.

For instance:

  • The storyteller does not begin by saying that the son repented, but only that he “came to himself .” That could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.
  • The translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state. They tell us that the son says that his father’s hired servants have “bread enough and to spare,” this in the face of his own starvation. That is a workable translation of the Greek, but a much more natural reading would catch a very different note. The son says that the hired servants not only have enough bread, they have too much. That difference matters. He contrasts himself with mere hired servants, and judges that it is not right that they should have more than he, as a beloved son, has.
  • If he had made a contrast with his brother, the flavor would be different. In that case the contrast would be between his location and his brother’s, between his choices and his brother’s, and one might expect him to return home and try to live more like a son and less like a leech. The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job) suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?
  • Though the son’s rehearsed speech could seem to imply that he has learned his lesson, and that he is, in fact, ready to surrender his status and sense of entitlement, I am strongly inclined to read it as revealing the opposite. Years ago, Donald Juel suggested a reading of this scene that recognized what older siblings have sometimes learned about younger siblings: they have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. I find that reading persuasive. I think the son knows that the father, who gladly agreed to go along with the legal fiction that he was dead so that the son could inherit the death benefit, would melt at the suggestion that he treat him now as a servant. The father’s soft point (as the young son knows) is that he is far too willing to treat him as a beloved son, even when the outcomes are decidedly negative.
  • Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status. When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart, and this revelation is disturbing.
  • If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future? The storyteller leaves this crucial question without an answer.

What if these oddities are the key to the story?

  • If the oddities are the interpretive key, then this well-loved scene is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.
  • It even raises the question of whether grace is such a good idea after all. Deep in the heart of my theological marrow I have a commitment to the notion that grace is a radical, creative force that remakes even the deepest corruption. I have found that notion comforting, and preachable, many times. But this strange little scene requires me to stop and wonder, requires me to notice that the father, who says that his dead son is now alive, has been wrong before.
  • We do not know how the story turns out, and the storyteller must have intended it that way. Is the son re-made, or just re-shoed, restored, and rested for his next caper? How do things turn out next week? We do not know. And we have to ask.
  • If the oddities are the key, then I find myself thinking, not about the amazingly successful resolution to this scene, but about the risk with which it ends. Perhaps only grace could redeem the young son. Perhaps so. But it is also clear that we do not know that he is redeemed. As I said, the father, ever overly optimistic, has been wrong before.
  • Perhaps this strange scene shines its brightest light, not on the beauty of a gracious (but abstract) theology, but on the unrepentantly real risks of life together. Welcoming the stranger into the home sometimes ends with a knife between the ribs. It just does.
  • If you pretend that such things never happen, people who prefer fear and anger as motivators will win the argument every time, and faithfulness will be left looking like a sentimental artifact of a charming childhood.
  • Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love. And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love might indeed re-create the world.

But perhaps one ought tremble when reading this scene.

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8 thoughts on “A Provocation: 4th Sunday in Lent: March 27, 2022: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

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