Fathers, sons, sheep, and goats
Matthew and Luke in conversation.
Then Jesus [he] said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country (χώραν μακράν), and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off (μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος), his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father [he] said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’ (Luke 15:11-32)
When the new Canadian minister arrived, some of the women in her Australian congregation invited her to the football. Settled in the stands, the new minister asked which team they were barracking for, except she used a term Canadians use at the ice hockey. Her new parishioners quickly told her never to use that word— in Australia you barrack—but they would not tell her why. She had to ask one of the men of the congregation after church the next day! He explained that whilst Australian trees are anchored into the soil by the same method as Canadian trees, the word is never used as a verb, at least, not in polite company!
This is an excellent example of the cultural blind spots which mean we can say something quite different to what we intend, or completely miss the significance of something which is obvious to everyone else. And, for a long time, there has been a cultural blind spot in our reading of this text. We read this story as though it is about the younger son or, sometimes, seeing ourselves as the older brother. The younger son is a stereotype, being what younger sons often are, but the father is something else. Jesus' listeners would have been bemused, if not scandalised, by the behaviour of the father. That's the blind spot for us.
Jesus' culture was an honour-shame culture. We are a consumer culture. We get much of our status and our ability to function—I mean our inclusion and acceptance in society— we get that from our material wealth. For Jesus' people, status and inclusion was about honour and shame. Of course, spoilt younger sons' behaviour might threaten the honour of a family. Nothing much has changed there! But if a younger son had asked for half the family's assets, he would have been put in his place with a good telling off from his father, if not a beating. The impertinence of essentially wishing his father were dead! Not to mention wishing to impoverish the rest of the family by taking off with half their assets! And the shame! How could they be seen in public, let alone trade and barter, with a son like him! He'd have been slapped down without hesitation.
Jesus' listeners knew that if the son had persisted in his request, he'd have been given a serious beating. In fact, reflecting on the story, someone might say, "You know, that crazy, weak old man must have stopped the older brother or the uncles from killing that boy, or he'd never have made it out of town alive. Would they have understood that Jesus was inviting them to see that the nature of God is reflected in the nature of that father!?
The son's behaviour is appalling. He gathers "all that he has"; that is, he takes his whole being... and goes to "a distant country." That distant country is not really about geography; a place far from Jerusalem is a cultural reference about the separating of oneself from God. His dissolute living, which the older son bluntly calls using prostitutes, is a direct reference to idolatry. Many of the references to prostitution in the Old Testament refer to the temple prostitutes of the fertility cults; that is, to idolatry, rather than to men or women in the brothels we might imagine today.
Yet in all that idolatry, God does not abandon him, for there is a famine. Famine is one of the signs from God that you have lived wrongly. It cries out, "Repent! Go back!"
16"If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess," said Moses in Deuteronomy. "Choose life...!" (see Deut 30:15-20)
But does the younger son repent? Does he "turn again" to the ways of God? No, instead he "hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country," words the KJV rendered as, "he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country." He does not turn away and separate himself from his idolatry, but 'doubles down' on the sin, going farther away, and shame of all shame, he works with pigs, the great symbol of uncleanliness and idolatry.
But then he repents, we remember... except that he doesn't. I'd always thought he repented, but think of what he says. Does he say he is wrong, that he has sinned, that he has injured his family? No. It's all about him. "My father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him..." He's going back to spin the old man a line. There is no repentance, its simply a pretence of piety. His "coming to himself" is very shallow.
We know this because the text says, "While he was still far off, his father saw him..." "While he was still far off" means while he is still far off in his idolatry. The word translated as far is the same word previously translated by NRSV as distant; Luke wants us to get the point! And we use the same language that Luke uses of the father today. We say of a crook tradie, "He saw me coming..." We mean he saw into our character, who we were, and he knew how to rip us off." So it was with the father: He saw the son coming from a long way off. He knew... he knew what the younger son was up to.
And... despite that... the father "was filled with compassion. He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." Complete acceptance. We should add that men of the age and status of the father never ran. It was beneath their dignity; the father is still scandalising Jesus' listeners, and continues to shock them. Then, when because when the son starts his prepared litany of lies, the father simply ignores him and sets the feast in motion. What kind of father is this!? Where is justice, shame, honour, family pride, doing the right thing? Does not God demand of us that we do the right thing, or suffer judgment!? Not in this story told by Jesus.
Quite naturally, the older son is outraged—like the listeners. He has done all the right things. He has been faithful in all things. But the father has never blessed him, only this scurrilous younger brother. And by his lack of compassion, and by his total failure to see his father's ongoing lavish grace to him—"you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours"—the older son proves to be reeling off a litany of lies not so far different from his brother's! With hard hearts and sanctimony, we who have always stayed home can prove to have nonetheless been "far off" all the while.
This story changes everything for me. God loves all people just the same: Always full of compassion. Never judging. Never rejecting. Always accepting. Even when we are far off and full of ourselves. Which is just as well, for as it says where Paul quotes Psalms 14 and 53, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one... All have turned away." (Romans 3:10-12)
This story is one to which we might appeal to support our instinct that in the end God will save all people, even us, despite ourselves. God will not reject us or damn us. The older brother refuses to enter the feast, that symbol of heaven and the Creation made complete, but God will out-wait him.
It seems that the authors of Luke and Matthew never met each other. They both had copies of what we call The Gospel of Mark, and they seem to have shared a document the scholars call "Q," but they show no influence upon each other. What might have happened if someone had brought them together, and they had read each other's understanding of the Good News of Jesus the Christ? What if Luke had read Matthew's text below?
But first, understand where in Matthew that this text comes from.: It is the last story before the crucifixion narrative. Each of the gospels essentially say to us: Read this story and then you will understand what story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is about. Given that, literary convention said the last text before the crucifixion story was likely of critical importance. This is what Matthew says in that place:
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25:31-46)
My generation often has a vision of the end of things which is based around nuclear holocaust, perhaps with a small remnant of survivors who live in some terrible dystopia. In Jesus' time, the idea of a mass judgement, with all the nations being brought together, was equally familiar. But what happens in this story when the judgement actually occurs would have upended people's expectations. True, people are placed at the right and the left of the king. (We can read that image today if we go to the Latin of the early church. Right is dexter in Latin We know Dexter; he is a jolly fine upstanding fellow you might find in an Agatha Christie novel. Left is... sinister. Left is not the place you want to be.)
And people knew where they would be when the time came. The well off, law abiding and doing-all-the-right-sacrifices-and-other-religious-stuff kind of people would be at the king's right hand. The sinners, and you knew who you were, because you were told in a thousand different ways—the sinners would be on the left and "go away into eternal punishment." There are no surprises here... yet.
The people on the right "are blessed by my Father, (and) inherit the kingdom prepared for (them) from the foundation of the world," and then the shock: It's not because of anything religious that they did! It’s because when "I was hungry ... you gave me food, (when) I was thirsty ... you gave me something to drink, (when) I was a stranger ... you welcomed me, 36 (and when) I was naked ... you gave me clothing. (When) I was sick ... you took care of me, (and when) I was in prison ... you visited me.” We can imagine someone saying, "We did?" and the person next to them saying, "Shut up before he realises he's made a mistake." There are no tithes; no church attendance; no condemning gay people or campaigning about abortion... Just helping the poor people whose poverty signified, by much current religious understanding, then and now, that they were unrighteous, and already suffering God's judgement, and therefore not deserving of care.
And what Matthew's Jesus drops into the calm pond of the good religious people's complacency is this:
“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
What Matthew is saying is that the good religious folk were so busy with their tithes and other religious observances that they failed to see him when he came to them. And, as you would expect, they say, "When was this!? We did not!" Ah... but "just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." Do you notice how the list of the outsiders is repeated four times? This is the way authors of Matthew and Luke's times made a point. The identity of Jesus among the outsiders and the abandoned of society is the crucial thing Matthew wants us to see: all those people who are not functioning and not included and accepted in society are the people in and through whom Jesus comes to us. Not as some sort of theological concept, but as we act to include them. All that care for the sick and hungry is not easy charity—ten dollars in a begging bowl—but is the hard and continuing action of making it possible for people to re-join and function fully within society. Looking at recent history in Australia, accepting the Christ is not to further victimise Trans people, for example, but to include and honour them. They are among those who bring us the Christ.
Luke would like this, I think. Its sentiment is not far from the story of the Samaritan traveller who rescues the Jewish man set upon by thieves. So perhaps he would seek to be gentle when he says to Matthew, "Eternal fire and punishment!? Have you fully thought this through? What sort of God would do this? Doesn't this make God into a monster?"
And Matthew might ask if Luke has thought things through: Actions have consequence. How can we be evil, rejecting and harming those whom God loves, without consequence? Even Luke's older brother does not go into the feast that signifies the completion of the Creation, but stays outside.
Matthew and Luke are never going to resolve this argument because it is one of those places where the otherness of God, and the radicality of God's grace, are simply beyond our human comprehension. We must take what we can from Matthew, whilst seeing the limitations of his insight, and likewise from Luke.
Which brings us back to the older brother, who both fascinates and terrifies me. For he is us... and he is me. He is a person seeking to be faithful. And yet, somehow, in all his faithfulness, he is unable to see that in the life of his brother who has come home there shines all the glory of God's love for us. He refuses to go in. He rejects his brother and rejects the Christ in him.
Actions have consequence; they create the person that we are. I know this in myself. I know because things I have practised, habits I have carved into my soul, have created a person whose responses are sometimes beyond them to control. I react without thought. I am unable to repent of some things, even while knowing them to be bad and unhelpful. In so many ways, I cannot go into the feast. God has come to me, bringing the words of truth and healing, and for decades, I have not been able to receive them.
I am old enough now to think that there is only one way in. What has changed me, what has had consequence, has been the moments when I have in some way welcomed the outcast and loved them as I wish to be loved. The moments when Matthew says we, perhaps unknowingly, actually welcome the Christ. Those moments have changed me utterly, and beyond what I deserve. They have taught me that I have, all the long, been the younger son. And from them, change and healing has come.
(Andrew Prior, August 2022)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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