Monday, June 29, 2015

A Missional Hermeneutic Applied to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15): Part Two

Here is the rest of the essay on the Prodigal son in Luke 15. Read Part One

The Rhetorical Affect of Luke 15

Luke has carefully crafted this chapter. As noted in our first post, Jesus is in conflict with religious authorities. The religious authorities were deeply offended by Jesus’ fellowship with persons thought to be outside the community and unworthy of concern.

Jesus responds with three stories about lost items: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and ostensibly a lost son.

The first two stories served to draw in Jesus’ audience (the Pharisees and scribes) by using images and ideas that would have resonated with them. The rhetorical affect of the stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin would have been: OK Jesus – I am with you. I would have done the same thing. What shepherd would not go after a lost member of the flock? What woman would not seek diligently to recover 1/10th of the family’s savings? Moreover, it would not be unusual to celebrate the recovery of these items.

Jesus however does push the envelope in these two initial stories by comparing the human reaction to the recoveries to God’s response to the restoration of a sinner into God’s family:

Luke 15:7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Thus, these two shorter stories prepare the reader for the climax of the passage – the story of two sons (vv. 11-32).

A Father’s Extraordinary Love
If the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin drew in Jesus’ audience, the story of the two sons would have challenged them deeply. It is this final story that emphasizes God’s heart for the lost.
This story shows that a heart for the lost calls for extraordinary measures and pushes the envelope regarding social norms of acceptable behavior. This is particularly true for the Father.

Most of us are struck by the boorish behavior of both sons. Both the younger and older dishonor their father in many ways. The younger asks for his inheritance early (“Father, I wish you were dead.”) and squanders away ½ of the resources that his father spend a lifetime building. He then has the audacity to return home empty handed. The older brother also dishonors his father in his angry response to the celebration that his father holds in honor of his younger brother’s return to the family. These acts of dishonor were very serious in the honor-shame culture of the 1st century Mediterranean world. Each of these was humiliating to the father. But this is part of the power of this text. The father refuses to be limited in his actions by the honor-shame system of his day. In fact, the father’s own actions subvert the system by bringing additional dishonor on himself. The father grants the younger son his wish and gives him the inheritance. He readily welcomes back this same son. The happy scene of the father running to embrace his wayward child may be a Norman Rockwell moment for the Western world, but this was actually a scene of dishonor for the father. It was not honorable for a man of the father’s social position to run to greet anyone especially someone who had brought such dishonor to the family.

Why does the father embrace acts of dishonor? It is to make the point that the father was willing to do what it takes to bring reconciliation to his son. This points us to the heart of God. The father acted out of compassion—so does God. Compassion is the motivation that drives the mission of God.

A lost son or daughter can return to God because God desires this to happen and creates an ethos in which reconciliation is possible.

Yet, the father in the story also is willing to lose face for the sake of the older son who is angry over his father’s generosity and forgiveness of the younger son. The father leaves his party to pursue the older son who has stormed out in protest (and whose actions have brought shame on his father). The father pleads with his elder son to join the celebration. This is a final word to the religious people of Jesus’ day and of ours. It is a word of grace and charity. It is the same call as given to the younger son—“Come home!” It is a call to align with the heart of God.

How far are we willing to go to extend the Gospel to lost persons?
Are we willing to lose face if it means many sons and daughters being reconciled to God?
How would our lives be different if we aligned ourselves with the heart of God?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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