Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)
By Dennis Ormseth
The Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year C
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 New creation!
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
With its themes of repentance and compassion, the reading of the beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son this Sunday will easily lift the day to “favorite Sunday of the Season” status. The familial conflict at its heart can be counted on to draw hearers to the message of forgiveness they expect to hear. Looking for the creation care significance of the day's readings requires us to cast a larger frame of reference, however, which in turn will refocus the message of the parable. A close reading is needed in order to advance our case for care of creation as a concern that belongs to the very heart, not only of the Lenten season, but also more generally of our faith.
As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, the narrative of the parable opens on a scene of division, the scribes and Pharisees over against the “tax agents and sinners” whom they observe eating with Jesus. The division, Johnson notes, comes “in response to the prophet. The tax-agents and sinners represent the outcast and the poor who respond positively. They not only eat with Jesus, they approach to 'hear' the prophet. They are becoming part of the people.” The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, represent “those who are powerful and 'rich' who reject the prophet's call” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 239). It is interesting to note that from the latter's point of view, this division is between themselves and those whom they castigate simply as “sinners” (15:2). So the reading returns to the issue of dualism that we addressed the previous Sunday, on the basis of the parable of the fig tree. Luke reports that this time Jesus tells three more parables, all about “losing/finding/rejoicing.” While the first two are omitted from this Sunday's reading, they provide important context for our interpretation of the third.
As Johnson points out, the first of the three parables is found elsewhere in the synoptic gospels and its metaphor of the shepherd is found widely throughout Hebrew scripture. The second and third, on the other hand, appear to be Lukan creations, which together with the first one show Luke's interest in broadening the reach of his narrative. He balances the male shepherd with a woman, for instance, a lost animal with a lost coin, the wilderness scene with the domestic, before turning to the more complex setting of the parable of the two sons, with its three characters and three scenes. As David Tiede points out, in the first two parables the shepherd and the woman are “the central figures of both stories” and “what they do and say conveys the drama” of the action. “They are images of determination, perhaps even obsession with the lost . . . . These are human behaviors of determination which go beyond the rational, and the friends and neighbors will recognize their profound relief and the joy in their extravagance when they find the lost item.” We've met a similar portrayal of determination in the portrayal of Jesus himself in the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent. But what the parables are meant to reveal is God's great joy over the lost sinner who is found (“more joy in heaven,” “joy in the presence of the angels of God” in Luke 15:7, 10). As Tiede explains,
These parables offer glimpses into the heart of God. They are drawn from human experience, but experience in which determination, extravagance, and joy exceed normal practice. A shepherd who is obsessed with finding that one lost sheep may take inordinate risks, and a woman who loses a coin may take her house apart knowing that it “has to be here.” And so it is with God, and God's Messiah acting in obedience to God's will. The determination, the risky behavior of eating with sinners and tax collectors, and the extravagant joy of heaven put the moralists and religionists on edge and to shame (David L. Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988, p. 274-75).
The actual object of these searches seems unimportant, in Tiede's view, only their “lostness” matters. As a contemporary equivalent to the subject's passionate determination, Tiede rather lamely suggests the search for lost car keys as one that would call for a party! Perhaps, but we would rather suggest that the value of the objects is not just their immediate utility but the subjects' long term investment in them: one in a flock of a hundred sheep has become the most precious one; the lost coin of ten becomes the one the woman must have. So following Luke's purpose of expanding the circle of consideration, and in view of our reader's interest in creation care, other illustrations suggest themselves: the decades long struggle, for example, to keep an endangered species like the bald eagle from going extinct, or the current research in Minnesota into the reasons for the collapse of its moose population. Applied to our situation of environmental crisis, can we believe that “the heart of God” imaged in this way would be indifferent to the loss of a single species from God's own creation, fashioned in evolutionary processes lasting aeons, even though there are in the rationally conceived economy of nature a multitude of others to take its place? Or alternately, the century long attempt by Native Americans to recover the treaty rights that would guarantee them not only a measure of subsistence foraging, but preservation of a way of life: could God countenance the denial to one people a rightful portion of natural wealth meant to sustain in life all of a territory's peoples?
So also that which is lost to the father in the third parable is not just any child, but one of two sons, both of them legal heirs to his property, now at the point of establishing his independent personhood. The father's attachment is long term, deep and complex. Yet the son requests not only his share of the inheritance, but immediate disposition of it. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out in his careful reading of the parable, what we know of the legal context of this narrative would suggest that the distribution of property to the son while the father is still living is . . .
surely not the norm. Nor does the situation reflect well on either the father or the younger son. The father has put his family honor in jeopardy; he has behaved in a foolhardy way. And the son, in requesting the right of disposition, has in effect pronounced his father dead, because disposition of the property assumes his death. This is clearly reflected in the Greek text. The son requests his portion of the substance (ousia), and the narrator remarks that the father “divided his life [bios] among them” (Bernard Brandon Scott Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parable of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, p. 111).
At one level, the narrative thus far may not surprise the hearer/reader, Scott observes. A dominant mytheme of the Hebrew patriarchal narrative is one in which “the line of Israel's inheritance is often through a younger brother who leaves the house of their father to find their wealth,” and “there is something slightly scandalous or off-color in their stories; and they are the favorites.” This “mytheme of elder-and-younger-brother stories encourages an audience to expect the younger to be something of a rogue and the favorite.”
At a deeper level, however, the unfolding disaster is cause for anxious concern:
As the story progresses the son's situation deteriorates. The narrative paints a picture of deep degradation and desperation. A famine, a feared scourge of the ancient world, draws the audience's sympathy toward the son, for though he is responsible for his fate, he is not responsible for this downward turn. Now he moves to alleviate his situation. By joining a citizen of that country he attempts to reestablish his well-being and at the same time acknowledges that the break with his family is complete. He moves outside his own family, his own tribe, for help (Scott, p. 114).
His destitution is complete when he desires even the food he feeds the pigs and no one will give him anything. Having been reduced to “wanting to eat the pigs' food”' makes him “like an animal, so that he abandons even his humanity.” “He is without money and food, in a foreign land, without family, tribe, or even humanity” (Scott, p. 115). The father's loss is truly great: the family bond is broken, their property has been alienated, it's honor destroyed, seemingly beyond repair. The father rightly feels that his son is dead (15:24).
Striking here is how closely the narrative attends to the primary relationships of not only family but also of land and the sustenance for which the family depends on it. As noted above, the downward spiral of the narrative into tragedy is driven by famine no less than self-destructive behavior. And as Scott notes, the son's sin is twofold: “On the one hand, by attaching himself to a foreigner and feeding pigs he has abrogated Judaism—his religion. On the other hand, the loss of his inheritance is a sin before his father, for he will be unable to carry out his responsibility to take care of the old man, his familial responsibility. That which belongs to the family now belongs to foreigners.” So also the expected restoration of the younger son begins with the memory of food he doesn't have; as Scott significantly notes, when the son “comes to himself” it is “his stomach” that “induced his return,” and it is the thought of the bread his father's hired hands enjoy that drives the development of his strategy: “The son will become a hired hand, and therefore one entitled to bread.” This determination actually causes an unexpected shift in the emotional tone of the account thus far, Scott observes, because “nourishment is associated with female, maternal metaphors, and the family-system repertoire has cast the family in the especially male terms of property, inheritance, and the legal code. The mother, the unspoken binary of the father, is here implied in the son's starvation,” for which reason Scott renames the parable as “I Remember Mama”.
The importance of the emphasis on land and the sustenance it provides is an aspect of the narrative which is underscored by the first reading for this Sunday, the account of the nation's arrival under Joshua's leadership in the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Joshua 5:6). The people have passed through the divided waters of the Jordan River at Gilgal and have been circumcised; they then kept the Passover, and “on the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain . . . they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year (Joshua 5:9-12). Indeed, the plot of the parable follows that of the Gilgal crossing further: when the spiral of the son's descent is reversed, the son is first rescued from foreign domination, and then, as for the people at Gilgal, from his dishonor. As God says to Joshua: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (5:9). Likewise the father immediately directs his slaves to take action that show that the son is being restored to his place “within his father's honor.” As Scott argues,
The best robe must surely be that of the father himself, the son and the father are thus placed in the same place. The ring, probably a signet ring, gives the son power and status. For servants to place sandals on the son's feet indicates his superiority over them. The first set of orders moves in the direction of the father as patriarchal head restoring his son to his proper place of honor in a hierarchical system. The father's gifts 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 (Scott, p. 118).
Sustenance continues to be an important sub-theme, all the same: “The killing of the fatted calf and the feast correlate with the theme of nourishment. The son has been starving, now he will be feasting. The two sets of symbols are not contrasted but woven together into the full theme of restoration” (Scott, p. 118). Thus the reversal here is not just about repentance of the son in relationship to the forgiving father. It is also about restoration to a state of well-being that embraces the entire family and its farm, and looks forward to their future lived in community.
The significance of this full restoration is clear when one recalls the mytheme with which Jesus' audience and Luke's early readers might have heard the story. Again Scott's insights are important. The narrator, he points out, concludes this part of the parable . . .
with the remark that “they began to make merry.” The celebration and joy encompass also the hearer. The father's restoration of the son to honor restores the son in a hearer's estimation. He is indeed the favorite who has found his way back to his father's home. The hearer rejoices with the father in the return of the prodigal. The mytheme of the younger son story prepares the audience for his roguish behavior, for his being welcomed back, for his favorite status. In the actual telling, an audience can identify with both the father's joy and the son's relief. Father, son, and audience go into the feast together (Scott, pp. 118-19).
What, then, might we surmise concerning Jesus' audience, the angry scribes and Pharisees? We do well to remember here that the parable is directed at their opposition to Jesus' eating with sinners. Might they have been moved by this narrative to amend their rejection of Jesus? The text doesn't tell us anything about their response, of course, but we think not, because we have not actually arrived at the crucial point of the parable.
Into the joyful circle of father, reconciled, younger son and imagined reader steps the angry and alienated older brother. As Scott pictures the scene: “The son is 'in the field,' away from the father and yet still home. The metaphor signals objection and given the use of similar metaphors in the first part, failure. The son draws near but does not enter. Music and dancing stand for celebration.” Learning the reason for the celebration, he refuses to go in, rejecting his father's welcome of his brother. We are once again thrown into a downward spiral of breaking relationships:
The father comes out of the house, just as he did at the approach of the younger son. But this son comes not as a humble prospective hired hand but as an arrogant elder brother whose refusal to eat with his father and brother shames them. Just as the younger son cut himself off from the father in the first act, so now the elder's anger and refusal violate the Fourth Commandment and so cut him off just as surely from the father (Scott, p. 119-20).
The brother doesn't see the situation that way, of course. “The younger son 'ate up your life'” he reminds his father; “that is, the younger is no longer able to carry out his responsibility to provide for the father' and likewise “the father has failed to live up to the demands of honor.'' “This is the great insult” comments Scott, “that, according to the elder, the younger has compounded by consorting with prostitutes, violating the family's bloodline.”
This now is the moment when Jesus' opponents can be expected to identify their place in the narrative. Their view matches closely that of the older son, we can expect, over against the father who has vacated his own honor with the embrace of his prodigal son. As we saw in the texts for last Sunday, Jesus again exposes the incipient dualism of their rejection of Jesus and the company he keeps. The views of father and this elder son are completely opposite: while the father sees a son who was lost and now is found, “for the elder son, the younger is a profiteer, who is depraved,” while in the meantime, with the father's inattention, he himself has become “slave to the father” who has taken advantage of faithful labor, while never giving him so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends. The brother and the scribes and Pharisees, we suggest, share that psychological state so well described by Jonathon Sacks in his book on religious violence, Not in God's Name: this is “what happens when cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believed it ought to be.” Fully developed, this condition becomes '”a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the complexities of the world, the ambivalences of human character, the caprices of history and the ultimate unknowability of God.” Coupled with religious conviction, “it makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim” (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015, p. 48). We see signs of this in the brother's speech: he regards himself as a victim of the father's failure to maintain the family's honor. He is as a slave in his own home; his brother, on the other hand, is scum, who gave himself over to debauchery and devoured the father's property with prostitutes (15:30).
What will happen next in the aftermath of this exchange is left for the hearer to ponder: now again we might ask, will the elder brother relent and join the father in compassion? Or will he self-righteously resist? One might also ask, will the scribes and Pharisees who identify with that brother see the point and join the circle gathered around Jesus? Or will they move more deeply into their alienation and the violence it likely portends? Following Sacks' description of the process, we can project the course of events: the religiously grounded dualism is . . .
a virus that attacks the moral sense. Dehumanization destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent us from doing harm. Victimhood neglects moral responsibility. It leads people to say: It wasn't our fault, it was theirs. Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary human beings into murderers in the name of high ideals” (Sacks, p. 54).
The narrative of the parable in the setting of Jesus' confrontation with his opponents leaves this as an open possibility; and we know that the narrative of Jesus entry into Jerusalem will turn this possibility into reality. Before we move on to that grim continuation in the remaining Sundays of Lent, however, we need to pay close attention to how the parable itself actually ends.
To this point, Scott argues, the story still remains within the framework of the mytheme of elder-and-younger-brother stories of the patriarchal tradition mentioned above, which functions to explain why, of all the nations, God has chosen Israel; it “can tell in narrative and myth the fate of Israel” (Scott, p.124). So what happens next in the parable is astonishingly disruptive: the father says to the older son, “Child, you always are with me, and everything that is mine is yours.” The father sees this son not as a slave, but instead as a companion and co-owner of the farm (Scott, p. 121). This response, notes Scott “goes beyond a simple legal affirmation that the elder son is the one true heir. He addresses him as 'child,' not son. Teknon in the vocative denotes affection. The greeting punctures the proper titles that have characterized this parable and moves the discourse to an entirely different level” Scott comments:
The parable's scandal derives from its subversion of the mytheme's power to resolve between the chosen and the rejected. 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. Actually, the elder is the heir “All that is mine is ours.” Nor is he banished: “I am always with you.” . . . this parable subverts a mytheme by which the kingdom decides between the chosen and rejected. Here the father rejects no one; both are chosen.
So we come to Scott's emphatic, concluding point:
The father is interested neither in morality nor in inheritance. He is concerned with the unity of his sons . . . . In the parable, the kingdom is not something that decides between but something that unifies. The father does not reject. The metaphor for the kingdom is the father's coming out, both for the younger son and for the elder. Apart from him is division and failure. In the parable, Jesus rejects any apocalyptic notion of some group's being rejected at the expense of another. The parable radically rejects Israel's self-understanding of itself as the favored younger son (Scott, p. 125).
But if Israel's self-understanding is disrupted, so also is much of later Christian interpretation. As Scott notes, already in the writings of the Apostle Paul, we see that the young church used the mytheme of the two sons “to understand their own chosen status against those who had been previously chosen.” (See Sacks summary of the role of the Apostle Paul in development of the church's use of the mytheme, pp. 92-98). Subsequently, in their interpretations of the parable, theologians of the church “naturally . . . identified themselves with the younger son, and faithless Israel with the elder.” Their reading, Scott insists, does violence to the parable. The parable's message is that . . .
the kingdom is universal, not particularist. The universalism, however, is not based on the rejection of some. All people are called, regardless of the script the mytheme requires of them. Universalism is not a banner to parade under, but its image is the welcoming of a child. Just as the Samaritan saves the Jew in the ditch, so the elder son inherits all. The audience must come to terms with one who in myth was rejected and in parable inherits all (Scott, p. 125).
It is instructive to note that Jonathan Sacks, our rabbinical guide to the phenomenon of dualism, though offering no interpretation of the parable, actually comes to the same universalist conclusion on the basis of a close reading of texts associated with the mytheme in the Hebrew Bible. We can't recount his full argument here, but the following summary from his chapter on “The Rejection of Rejection” will indicate its relevance to interpreting the parable:
A tendency to think in terms of sibling rivalry is deeply rooted, genetically encoded, in the human mind. It can exist among good and religious persons. That is why it cannot be refuted, merely subverted, in the form of narratives that only reveal their full meaning to those who have undergone a long process of moral growth. It is not surprising that the interpretations I [Sacks] have given are missed by most readers of the text. But they exist; they have not been artificially read into the text. If so, we have just encountered the Bible's own theological refutation of the mindset that says that human beings who stand outside our community of faith are somehow less than fully human. This is God's reply to those who commit violence in his name. God does not prove his love for some by hating others. Neither, if we follow him, may we” (Sacks, p. 173; for Sacks' helpful discussion of universalism, see his chapter on 'The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love,” pp.189-206).
Sacks proposes his reading as a way through to reconciliation between the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our reading of the Parable of Two Sons offers the story as a resource in the struggle to combat social dualism in whatever form it might arise: as racism, sexism, in religious or class discrimination. But we think it also supports our concern for care of creation more generally.
Along the way, we have taken care to note when an element of the material world enters the story: the lost sheep, a lost coin; the father's property entrusted to a the younger son, but sold and its value traded away in his misadventure in an alien land subject to famine; a “remembering of mama,” the maternal source of nourishment; a homeland cared for by the elder son, for which he perhaps did not get due praise, but was nevertheless kept within the embrace of the father's companionship. We can easily find correlates of each of these aspects of the narrative in the environmental crisis: as we have already suggested, lost species, squandered wealth that was meant to sustain life; the bad practices that make us so vulnerable to climate change. And then the way nature itself has of calling us to turn around: the younger son's hunger for food and family causes him to come to himself, then to head home.
The Gospel narrative suggests that such conversion can take place in the company of Jesus. Here is where Pope Francis' discussion of conversion in his Laudato' Si seems especially relevant. Francis, writing as something of an alternative elder brother to the Christian community, remarks:
Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom (Pope Francis, On Care for our Common Home, Par. 205).
The elder son's anger might cause him in resentment to abandon his role as caregiver: we have need of the skills of those who tend the earth closely, whether the organic farmer or his science-learned colleagues, for whom the earth's fertility is rightly considered sacred gift. But most of all we have need of a God who welcomes us back to our common home, to resume the responsibility for its care that we should never have bargained away. “So what [we] all need”, Francis concludes, “is an 'ecological conversion,' whereby the effects of [our] encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in [our] relationship with the world around [us]. Living our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Par. 217). Such conversions entail a rich assemblage of attitudes, he notes, in terms that might well represent learnings from the parable about the father who had two sons:
First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God's loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works. . . It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creatively and enthusiasm in resolving the world's problems and in offering ourselves to God 'as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable' (Rom 12:1) (Par. 220) Cf. our comment on the texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2016.)
Jesus invited tax collectors and sinners into his circle of life, but also the scribes and Pharisees, seeking the unity of the kingdom offered in the parable. That will not occur this side of Jesus' death and resurrection. We can nonetheless note with hope the remarkable consonance between our readings for this Sunday, as we hear from the Apostle Paul a promise of reconciliation in “a new creation:”
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
This promise comes from the very heart of the God who in love embraces all creation.
Suggested hymns of the day: ELW 651 Oh, Praise the Gracious Power
ELW 606 Our Father, We have Wandered
Prayer petition: Gracious creator, all creation finds its unity in you. We confess our habit of separating ourselves out from neighbor and nature, and our stubborn refusal to accept your reconciling love. Spare us from hateful resentments and the harm they bring to our common home. We thank you for coming to meet us in Jesus Christ, and welcoming us to this glad celebration. Lord in your mercy . . .