Friday, August 13th, 2010
“Everything that happens in a traditional Middle Eastern village is everybody’s business… The parable is about a family living in a community, not a family dwelling in grand isolation on the top of a hill.” Finding the Lost, by Kenneth E. Bailey, pp. 139-140.
You may have to scratch that image you’ve been holding of a well-staffed plantation on a hill, and a happy father skipping down the road to meet his repentant son. You may want to replace it with a closely packed little town from which men are charging with sticks to keep that ne’er-do-well from wreaking further havoc on the livelihood of the only place these folks have ever called home. That father’s eager gait may have more to do with heading the mob off at the pass. And his wonderful speech may be as much a defense attorney’s closing argument as an effusive “welcome home son”.
By choosing to set the parable in its original historical context, many such surprises awaited us. We had to part ways with our western, individualistic bias which caused us to say “what’s the big deal” about the younger son’s initial request and to overlook how unlikely it would be for any decent father to say yes. We had to take to heart how powerfully the expectations and opinions of the likely conservative townsfolk shape the unfolding of the story and its outcome. We had to see again how shocking it is for the father to receive back a son who squandered everything, and how much we as onlookers can relate to the elder son’s deep sense of betrayal and injustice.
While there may be some distance to travel at first to enter the old world of Prodigal God, there may be more modern grit to this parable than we’ve given it credit. Ironically, that distance may be a necessary aid to see the contemporary dilemma we face more clearly. For many, small town life may be a quaint remembrance of the past. Yet we are confronted daily by the reality that, in a global village, the consequences of one person’s choices touch everybody. We live in a time when news travels as instantaneously as it did in that provincial small town. In addition to the charged commentary, we also get a steady flow of moving pictures to make vivid the devastating impact of another’s mistakes on our personal livelihood and well-being. As Bailey writes, “Everything… is everybody’s business.” Maybe it’s not so different today as it was then.
In some ways, we are those townsfolk, looking on with sticks in hand. The younger and elder sons battle it out for right and wrong before our very eyes. Whether we find our loyalties shifting or calcifying as we age, we can’t help but notice how rare it is for a father to insert himself. How rare it is for a father to refuse to choose sides in the name of love. How rare it is for a father to seek a way to celebrate and embrace both sons and to hope for the day when the family can be united under one roof again.
What will we do with our sticks? Will we dare join in the party? Or will we, on principle, refuse to come in? This is some story we’re in.
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