Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Novelty for Novelty’s Sake

Everybody loves novelty — even Christians. Not infrequently, to almost everyone’s regret, Bible teachers feel compelled to give it to them. Nothing gets the attention of a jaded or even a mature audience like a new twist on an old theme, or flipping a well-known phrase so that it jars the ears.

Have you heard about the “Prodigal Father”? No prizes for correctly guessing which parable of Christ is getting a pair of truly original online treatments this time.


Now, in one sense, the use of the word “prodigal” to describe the father in the Lord’s parable is not completely inaccurate, though making a big deal of it seems to be a fairly recent theological development. As R.C. Sproul Jr. puts it:
“It is true enough that prodigal can mean “wasteful” or “careless.” It can also, however, refer to someone who is extravagant in giving, overflowing in graciousness, abundant in tenderness and love.”
Further, there is nothing wrong with a reading of the Prodigal Son that puts a heavy emphasis on the extravagance of the Father’s grace and forgiveness. The parable, after all, begins with “There was a man,” not “There was a son.” One may reasonably make the case that the parable is first and foremost about the forgiving character of the father. So if all we’re doing is changing the traditional name of the parable for the sake of emphasizing the unique character of our heavenly Father’s wonderful forgiveness, then have at it, by all means.

But that’s not always what’s going on.

Shame, Shame

For instance, Matthew Williams has a take on the parable that suffers, I think, from an excess of originality. He looks at the father running to meet the son, and asks this:
“If it was shameful for a man to run in that culture, why did the father run when his son returned to him? What motivated him to shame himself?”
It would certainly help to first establish whether running was indeed a shameful activity for a man in first century Judea, since we can cite numerous examples of individuals and even whole crowds doing so in the gospels and Acts without any apparent social stigma. So Williams could easily be addressing himself to a straw man of his own construction. Nevertheless, he continues:
“Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, explains that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would break a large pot in front of him and yell, ‘You are now cut off from your people!’ The community would totally reject him.

So, why did the father run? He probably ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. The father runs — and shames himself — in an effort to get to his son before the community gets to him, so that his son does not experience the shame and humiliation of their taunting and rejection. The village would have followed the running father, would have witnessed what took place at the edge of the village between father and son. After this emotional reuniting of the prodigal son with his father, it was clear that their would be no kezazah ceremony; there would be no rejecting this son — despite what he has done. The son had repented and returned to the father. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son and clearly shown to the entire community that his son was welcome back home.
Now, the kezazah story may or may not be legitimately historical, but introducing it to explain the father’s haste to meet his returning son is not just doubly speculative, it goes way beyond the scope of the parable, demanding that in order to really understand what the Lord Jesus was talking about, readers of Luke’s gospel living after the first or second century A.D. somehow acquire a working knowledge of Jewish traditions not taught in the Old Testament, and with which they would be completely unfamiliar — and which may even be rather doubtful.

It may well be true that, as Williams says, in going to the cross, Jesus bore our “sins’ shame so that we would not have to,” but that seems rather a subtle message to package into a parable told to grumbling Pharisees well prior to the Lord’s death, and more than a little like casting pearls before swine. Moreover, there are much more obvious lessons we could derive from the parable, lessons that applied directly to the Pharisees, such as the shameful reaction of the elder brother and the father’s gracious correction to it.

Further, if extracting this “shame” subtext from the parable of the Prodigal Son requires theological ingenuity and extensive historical research, very few Christians will ever be able to make head or tail of it. That alone makes it unlikely.

Here, the unpacking of an original interpretation of the passage definitely becomes an impediment to a clear understanding of the Lord’s message. But there are far worse ways to reframe the parable.

Dad the Egocentric Narcissist

Here’s one: Desmond Ryan actually makes the father out to be a genuinely bad guy, so extravagant in his generosity to his younger son that he is to be blamed for the unforgiving, jealous attitude of his brother:
“Look at what this guiding star of forgiving love has forgotten — to cover for the most emotionally charged relationship in the Bible, the foundation-story of hate, fraud and violence among men: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers ... This oversight suggests that this paterfamilias is a tad egocentric, even verging on the narcissistic.”
Ryan attempts to dodge the obvious bullet here by claiming the identification of the father in the parable with God himself is just something Christians have cooked up:
“Christians have constructed this man as a model for God.”
Of course, there is a perfectly valid reason so many Christians have done so: the chapter contains three parables, the first two of which explicitly illustrate Heaven’s unrelenting pursuit of the lost and Heaven’s joy when a sinner repents. To identify the father in the third parable with God — either Father or Son — is not in the least a theological stretch; indeed, it is hard to see what other identification is possible.

The Dad Who Never Grew Up

But Ryan can’t leave well enough alone. Not content to label the father in the parable egocentric and borderline narcissistic, he then drops this bombshell:
“[The father’s] behaviour prompts a further reservation. It drives me to suggest that he is immature, that he has failed to accommodate himself to the transition in the family system consequent upon his children’s coming of age. The failure of the father to relinquish the emotional rewards of his role keeps the son trapped as child.”
If Ryan is right, the father in the Lord’s parable is not just “prodigal”, he’s a psychological mess and a failed parent. But he’s not, and the “postmodern contextual reframing” Ryan attempts here (his own words, by the way) is not just a wildly creative interpretation; it is borderline blasphemous.

So, yeah, sometimes novelty is a very bad thing indeed. Ryan ends his unique take on the Prodigal Son by marveling at the “resourcefulness” of scripture, but all he’s really celebrating is his own ability to make a passage teach something it doesn’t.

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