By the end of the Year of Luke, most of the Gospel of Luke has been covered by the Revised Common Lectionary, with some exceptions. For reasons that must seem obvious to the Elves, Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son is considered on the 4th Sunday in Lent, not at the triumphal and anticipatory Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. If the final Sunday in the Christian liturgical year is dedicated to the final triumph of God’s rule, and the establishment or restoration of God’s covenant of non-violent distributive justice-compassion, surely the celebration of the Prodigal son’s return would be most appropriate. But, of course, the restoration of the Covenant with God’s rule is not what Christianity has historically been about, even though Jesus died trying to illustrate the point.
Christians have traditionally considered this story in the context of Lent because Lent is the time for purification, and turning away from sinful action so that we can be worthy of the sacrifice Jesus made for us. It is part of Luke’s series of parables on the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God (15:4-32), on rescue from sin, and feeling sorry for past indiscretions. God celebrates the return of the lost sheep, the recovery of the lost coin, and the reconciliation of the lost son.
Everyone knows this story: The younger son takes an early distribution of his portion of the heritage, and leaves home, leaving the elder son to his presumed and expected lion’s share. The younger son goes off to a far country, and squanders it all on wine, women (presumably), and song. At some point in the middle of this debauchery, when he’s spent it all, has maxed out his credit cards, and is reduced to actually working for a living, he comes to his senses and decides to throw himself on the mercy of his family. He offers to take a job tending the pigs, if only his father will give him a place to stay. Much to everyone’s surprise – and to the elder son’s chagrin – the father is overjoyed at the return of his son. He throws a major party and welcomes him back with open arms. When the elder son objects to this, he is told to deal with it. The son who had died has returned. The one who was lost has been found.
Several questions are going begging here: Is Luke’s point that someone who repents and returns is more valuable than someone who never left in the first place? Can the story stand on its own without Luke’s interpretive placement? If it can stand on its own, and the historical Jesus told it, what could it have meant?
Jesus has a reputation among Biblical scholars as a master debater and story-teller. Some have proposed Jesus operated as a classical Cynic, traveling from town-to-town, lampooning conventional behavior, and winning political and moral debates at banquets. Keeping that characterization in mind, and also keeping in mind that Luke may have been engaging in some subversion of his own, consider the Prodigal Son story outside of the conventional boundaries we all know so well. Suppose it’s not about repentance from sinful ways and reconciliation with conventional family values. Suppose it’s about the identity of the guest that finds hospitality in the realm of God.
I have been tempted to propose that Luke (and other gospel writers) may have had access to Paul’s letters. This idea is not new, and it is not considered valid by the scholars who have made their careers studying all of this. However, the ideas Paul was working with were in all likelihood part of the Christian thought that evolved from the time of Jesus’ death and the fall of Jerusalem. One of the concepts Paul developed was the Parousia of Christ – the second coming. (See especially the series in these commentaries on Parousia.) Paul’s earliest letter to the community in Thessalonika describes what that will look like.
The recently-published Scholar’s Version of The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning, (Arthur J. Dewey, et al., Polebridge Press 2010) treats Paul’s description of the Parousia of the Christ as a prophetic revelation, set off as a quote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
Concerning those who have died, we don’t want you to be uninformed: you shouldn’t mourn as do those without hope. Because if we believe “Jesus died and arose,” so also God will bring with Jesus all those belonging to him who have died. We can assure you of this by these prophetic words from the lord:
“We who are still alive when Jesus comes will not be given preference over those who have already died. The lord himself will descend from heaven with a loud summons, with an archangel’s shout and with the trumpet of God, then those who have already died and belong to the Anointed will ascend firs; then those of us who are still living will be caught up with them in the clouds to greet the lord in the air. And so we will be with the lord from then on.”
So you should encourage each other with these prophetic words. Scholars Version p. 33.
In this portion of the letter, Paul is suggesting that the coming of the Christ will be a Parousia, like the Parousia – the arrival, the visitation – of the Emperor himself. But the second coming of the Christ will be the Parousia to end all Parousias. In other words, “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15:52).
Suppose that Jesus told the story to suggest that in God’s realm, the Parousia is not of the Emperor. The Parousia – the visitation – the honored guest who shows up unexpectedly at the door expecting hospitality – is a vagrant. Now the parable begins to echo the description of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, taken of course from Mark’s original. As Borg and Crossan describe it, “Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 . . . One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers . . . On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.” The Last Week (Harper SanFrancisco, 2006) p. 2.
Luke could have placed the Prodigal Son after the other sayings and parables Luke’s Jesus tells leading up to his entry into Jerusalem and his final week of life. Luke did not do that. We can never know why. We can only speculate that perhaps to place the parable of the Prodigal Son right before the story of the entrance into Jerusalem would have given away too much of the real, subversive, counter-cultural, and anti-imperial meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, of which Luke may have been very much aware.
Twenty-first Century exiles from conventional Christianity may not be particularly interested in reclaiming Jesus’ teachings in the light of post-modern scholarship. Being a Christian is not a prerequisite for participating in the transformation of human life on the Planet, nor for signing onto a universal covenant for non-violent distributive justice-compassion. Nevertheless, the power that brings about the transformation still lives in the Christian imagery. The last is first; the vagrant is the welcomed guest; the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away with nothing.