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We have deciphered several pieces of the Bible over the course of this semester, and each piece has laid foundation in our understanding of God, creation, Jesus’ mission, and finally our faith itself. Pedagogy was a term I was unfamiliar with prior to this class, but its definition has come clear, as I have worked to discover God’s plan for us, as well as how He reveals His own being through the readings in the Bible. Each and every verse has been written and included for a reason and discovering that reason lies God’s plan and a better understanding of what it means to be a faithful part of His holy church. As we specifically take a look at the gospel of Luke, we see parables Jesus utilized to comment upon those who oppose Him as well as honor those who have chosen to follow His path of righteousness. The Parable of the Lost Son lies last among the three parables about loss and redemption, and provides an ideal illustration of God’s mercy for those who are lost and choose to repent. Through a deeper reading of this parable as well as a study of other scholars’ interpretations, we can proceed to answer the questions of why this parable was included where it was, its meaning, and how, today, we can see it continue in significance as a living and relevant word.
Before I begin my search for answers to the questions that will reveal to me the extent of God’s mercy for all creation, I must first dissect this parable in order to fully understand the diction that is being used to convey His message of joy and celebrating the finding or rebirth of that which was lost or dead. After reading this parable, we can come to understand that its teachings are split into two separate commentaries that Jesus must comment upon as a result of the countless accusations by those who are confused by his welcoming of sinners, such as the tax-collectors. The first provides a sort of characterization of who these sinners truly are, granted that the Pharisees and the scribes are too sanctimonious to see them for anything more than weak and faithless. We see the use of the son, who requests his inheritance from his father, “tantamount to wishing his father were dead,” (Hultgren) and squander it away on “on a life of dissipation” (CSB 1467). This portion explains the sinner that the Pharisees see, yet the actions of the son where he comes to realize his unworthiness to be called a son of his father reveals the repentance that Jesus saw within the sinners who came to him in reconciliation and chose to listen to His word.
“These verses recapitulate the narrative theme established by 7:29-30 concerning the division within the people in response to the prophet. The tax agents and sinners represent the outcast and the poor who respond positively. They not only eat with Jesus, they approach to ‘hear’ the prophet. They are becoming part of the people. The Pharisees and scribes represent those who are powerful and ‘rich’ who reject the prophet’s call. We were shown just this in the previous narrative where they turned hospitality into hostile surveillance. In response, Jesus had told them the parable of rejection (14:1-35)” (Johnson 239).
Given this explanation, we, as readers, are able to begin to capture the canonical exegesis of this parable and how Jesus’ word truly followed a sort of pedagogy, for it was structured in such a way that without one the other is not possible, as we see in Johnson’s analysis. This structure of foundations allows us to better understand Jesus’ mission and the message that He is conveying to those who reject Him or His people within this very parable. The substance to this message lies within this perception Jesus has of what it means to hear. To the Pharisees, hearing and listening are one in the same; but to Jesus, when one choses to hear His word, they are choosing repentance for the sins they have admitted to have committed. Thus, those who are poor who want and choose to hear, have the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord, unlike those who reject Him as seen throughout Chapter 14.
The second portion of this parable of the lost son takes a more precise look at the actions of the older brother. We come to understand that Jesus intends the older brother to represent those who reject Him such as the Pharisees and the scribes. The older brother sees the return of his brother and his father excitement and unconditional love as shameful and has feelings of jealousy of his brother’s treatment. I will touch upon Jesus’ perception of each brother and who they represent further along in this analysis but for now we understand that the father represents God and his unconditional love. Granted that thus far this parable is mainly a two-peaked parable, the true central figure is the father. “The first part of the story fits perfectly the pattern of the previous two: the son is lost and found; the father and the household rejoices. What gives the story its particular depth is the way Luke invites us into the emotional drama of parent-child conflict” (Johnson 241). It is here in the parable that we see a shift of attention to the father. While we understand that he runs to his lost son with open arms, it is also how he responds to the elder son, who is annoyed, that connects this parable to earlier pieces of his pedagogy that makes it so special. The tragedy of this elder son “is not only that he failed to recognize his constant position of privilege with his father, that all the time they were together, ‘they shared goods in common,’ but also that he is blind even now to the fact that his father extends to him the same constant care and concern as toward the prodigal son” (Johnson 242). We see here that this last piece of the parable “is a sad commentary on the Pharisaic refusal out of envy and resentment to accept this good news extended to the outcast” (242). Its sadness is correlated to the way the elder brother did not understand; the continuously faithful must not see themselves as slaves of the word while sinners are able to join “the people without cost.” Instead they must see as the father intended; granted that all he has is the older son’s, just as all the Lord has, has always belonged to the faithful.
In order to fully understand the canonical exegesis of this parable we must thoroughly examine the character of the elder son. The reasoning for this character’s importance lies directly within who Jesus uses him to represent and specifically why this parable even needed to be spoken in the first place; thus revealing its canonical exegesis. Both Eugene Laverdière and Tom Wright pay particular attention to the elder son’s reaction as well as to how the father responds to his son’s troubled confusion. While Laverdière’s work displays solid historical-critical scholarship, Wright’s study somewhat modernizes the parable. By combining these two works, we can really see how Jesus intended for his listeners to perceive the older son in the parable.
Wright utilizes a short analogy in the beginning of his work that reminded him of this parable of the lost son. He spoke of a poem he once read about a park keeper who’s job it was to pick up litter in the park. He remembered that the park keeper saw only the garbage he had to pick up and was blind to the beauty that was all around, saying that this litter destroyed the park but yet he did not lift his head from the sight of garbage. Wright compares this keeper directly to the elder son within the parable saying,
“They [the Pharisees / critics] were so focused on the wickedness of the tax- collectors and sinners, and of Jesus himself for daring to eat with them despite claiming to be a prophet of God’s kingdom, that they couldn’t see the sunlight sparkling through the fresh spring leaves of God’s love. Here were people being changed, being healed, having their lives transformed . . . and the grumblers could only see litter, the human garbage that they normally despised and avoided”(190).
Wright could not have explained any more accurately when it comes to revealing the meaning behind this parable to the modern man. Just as the Pharisees and the park keeper, the elder brother saw only the sins of his returning brother and could not look beyond these sins to see his only brother standing before him who was lost and has now been found.
Laverdière chose to focus upon the fact that when it comes to sinners repenting for their actions, those who have remained faithful are not diminished in any way whatsoever, just as the father explained to his older son when he revealed that all he has ever had and will ever have belongs to the older son. Granted this fact, the older brother, just as the Pharisees should, should see the return of his sinful brother and instead “celebrate [his] salvation and return to life” (Laverdière 204). Laverdière concludes by making the revelation that “The banquet which accompanies the younger brother’s return to life thus illumines Jesus eating with sinners, and the latter provides a model for life in the Christian communities” (204). Here we see a final conclusion upon the subject of the necessity of this parable and directly how and why it was used. This “model” that Laverdière discloses was and still is intended to exist today in our churches and daily Christian lives.
Before I make my conclusion, I thought I would reveal an explanation to just why I chose this specific parable and why it is so special to me. Ever since I was little, I recalled this parable as one of the only works that stood out to me especially considering its message was read to me repeatedly by my mother in my adolescent bed time stories. I never truly noticed its relevance to my life until I grew older and really thought about my actions over the course of mainly my high school years. I went from being a true mama’s boy in middle school to getting involved with the wrong crowd at the start of my high school years. As a result, I spent my rebellious years, more often than not, grounded for rash and irresponsible decisions that it almost seemed like I wanted my mother to catch me for. It was not until I matured a bit in my senior year that I recognized the wrongs in my ways and the difficult life I was making myself bear with. All of the sudden I turned my life around, brought myself back to both my mother and my faith, and truly for the first time apologized deeply for the actions I made my mother deal with for so many years. To my surprise, my mother welcomed me with open arms and ever since has never faltered to be at my side no matter what crazy request or aid I seemed to need. While I realize that this story is not particularly relevant to the guidelines for this paper, I honestly believe that its message shows this parable’s living relevance.
Over the course of this study, we have come to discover that this parable’s importance runs deeper than previously imagined. Jesus utilized this parable of the lost repenting and being found, following the critiques of those who oppose Him for opening his door to those who want to hear, in order to help us recognize the way he truly wants us, as followers of God, to react when our fellow sinners are found: to faithfully celebrate their salvation. This is simply just another piece of the structure of Jesus’ divine pedagogy that helps us discover who He is and to deepen our own faith.
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