My presentation of Kenneth E. Bailey’s work on Luke 15:11-32 is woefully lacking. Still, I hope these recent posts have been helpful in seeing how rich the story is when viewed through Middle Eastern eyes. Having closely examined this parable, we now ask what to do with the parable. The temptation is to "gut" the story by identifying "the point" that Jesus was trying to make. That would be a tragic error.
The modernist era has taught us to distill reality down to its foundational elements. In this mode of thinking, the assumption is that Jesus was telling this parable to illustrate a point. He had “a” point he wanted to make and he built a story up from that point. When we can identify that point and articulate it, we think we have understood the story. If we are indeed approaching the story in this way, then we are doing violence to Jesus' teaching.
The Parable of the Compassionate Father, just like other parables, is not an illustration to make a point. It is the presentation of an alternate reality. Bailey writes,
“A biblical story is not simply a “delivery system” for an idea. Rather the story first creates a world and then invites the listener to live in that world, to take it on as part of who he or she is. Biblical stories invite the reader to accept them as his or her story.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 51)
We are all living under illusions about who we are and who God is. Stories like The Parable of the Compassionate Father disillusion us so we can see ourselves for who we are and we can see God for who God is. They invite us into an alternate reality. They invite us to be characters within that new reality. I would argue that not only is that the purpose of this parable but it is the purpose of scripture. God is at work disillusioning us with His story so we may enter into communion with God and with others he has called into community.
All this is not to say that there isn’t a place for identifying key elements of parables and finding themes. These enrich our understanding of God’s character and can help make the stories more accessible. The danger comes in assuming that because we have abstracted what we believe to be key elements, we now “get it.”
Personally, this parable has touched me in so many ways I can’t recount them all. It just keeps getting richer through the years. There have been times in my life where I have felt completely alone and abandoned. I craved closeness to God but could see no way to come home. Then there was this image of God running through the village to greet me! I find that part of the story hard to swallow at times.
There have been other times in my life when I have been outraged at the honor paid to those who I knew were “less spiritual” than I am. There have been opponents who I secretly, if not openly, longed to see humiliated and brought down. When they weren’t, I wondered why I was being obedient to God. Would God just let them get away with everything? Then I would see the image of God standing before me in a courtyard, and as I venomously cried out against him, he kept asking me to come inside the house for the celebration.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book called the Return of the Prodigal. The book is about his mediations as he viewed the painting by Rembrandt about this story. He tells how he came to identify with the prodigal son. He shared with a friend about his reflections and the friend questioned whether Nouwen was not actually more like the older brother. As Nouwen reflected more on this story he began to realize that he was indeed all too much like the older son in the story. He began to question which he more identified with, the prodigal or the older son. He eventually concluded he identified with both.
At the end of Nouwen’s book he articulates a discovery that I too came to realize. He had been asking which son he was most like. In doing so, he was missing an essential piece to the story. The story is not about the sons. The story is about the father! Furthermore, there is an implicit invitation in the parable. That invitation is to take on the character of the father! We easily identify with the sons, but the call is to be the father.
Not many years after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote (emphasis added):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death --
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV)
As we come to Christmas let us realize that the baby born in Bethlehem was merely the first step of a father leaving his mansion to go into the courtyard, and out into the streets, to invite his children to come home. God is inviting us even now to take on the charater of the father in the parable and invite our brothers and sisters, younger and older, to enter the celebration.