Luke, Chapters 15 and 16 (NRSV)
In these chapters of Luke's gospel we have two of the best known parables that Jesus told - and both are unique to Luke. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (who is sometimes named "Dives") and the parable of the Prodigal Son are fascinating because in the first case we hear what appears to be a traditional understanding of Judgement and in the other a completely alien one.
The idea that there will be "hell to pay" for those who neglect the weak and poor in society is a common one in all the world's major religions. The idea that the life to come will have a different set of values, where the wealthy and powerful become beggars and the beggars are comforted fits in with much of what we read elsewhere in the Bible. But the image of God in the parable of the Prodigal Son is wildly different than what we imagine. It's no surprise at all that the people who hear are astonished - even today.
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar, spent much of his time as a young man in the peasant culture of the Middle East. That culture is deeply conservative and, in many ways, little changed from the time of Jesus' life. Dr. Bailey realized that the peasants, particularly those who had not heard the gospel stories, were a resource that would allow us in the modern Western world to hear the parables of Jesus in the same way the people of his day heard them. Dr. Bailey's study in particular of the parable of Prodigal Son is illustrative of the power of this idea.
When he told the parable to villagers, he asked for their reactions. While we tend to think of the prodigal or maybe the elder son as the key character, the villagers focused on the father. They couldn't believe that an elder in the community would allow himself to be repeatedly humiliated by the actions of his children. The son who asked for half the estate was, in their culture, wishing their father to die. The son who shamed his father by refusing to take his customary place at the feast to be held delivered a mortal insult. Both sons deserved to die. In some communities, both sons would have been formally shamed and exiled - and the story of their shocking behavior remembered for many generations. The family itself, once well to do, would have lost all their claims to status.
Even the odd detail of the father in the parable running to meet his returning son was shocking in peasant eyes. An elder never runs, never shows his feet. The children in the community would have mocked him for the rest of his life for such a sort of thing.
The father in parable makes an unforgettable fool of himself. He ruins the family's status. He refuses to defend his honor. He suffers mortal insult and does not retaliate. He gives away everything he has and keeps no power, no status, no living for himself.
And he represents God, the Creator and Judge of the Universe.
What Jesus is telling us, when we hear this parable with the ears of the people whom he originally told it to, is that God is willing to become completely powerless, to put aside all honor, to give up all authority to repair any breech in our relationships. God will do anything, suffer anything, to stay connected with us.
It's not at all the standard vision of God, wrapped in majesty and awe far out of our sight. It sounds rather like Jesus' description of himself, a mother hen who wishes to sacrifice her own body to a fox to save her chicks.
This not a vision of a God whom we need to protect from abuse or slander or insult. It's a God who will suffer all of that gladly on our behalf.
It's not the sort of God the World imagines. Jesus is telling us something that we want to believe, but have a hard time keeping in mind. Why is that?