1. The problem with a really good, beloved parable, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “is that it can become limp from too much handling. Like the velveteen rabbit, it can lose its eyes, its whiskers, and a lot of its stuffing, until it conforms to the arms of whoever picks it up.” A troubling conclusion. But one which the Uniting Church recognized when it comes to “handling” scripture. The Basis of Union expects its ministers and teachers to read the bible authentically: The Basis of Union, 11. Scholarly Interpreters
“The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left [the] Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, … In particular she enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries … .” These sciences enable us to gain deeper understanding of the meaning of the text in its ancient Mediterranean situation, to understand our situations, so that we can interpret and live out the text in our contexts and issues.
2. In our parable about the father and his two sons, there is no mention of a prodigal son! How did this happen? The earliest biblical scrolls had no verses or headings. Hundreds of years later interpreters, on the basis of their particular interpretation, created their own headings?
The Greek word that invited the use of the word, prodigal, would have been “scattering” (diaskorpizo), suggesting the extravagant waste of the money, and the word “asotos” suggesting, “without any thought of future consequences”. And here is a silent metaphor expressing the deeply tragic and hopeless situation, as “asostos” actually means “unsaveable”. The young son scatters resources and his capacities living just for the moment, with disastrous consequences, unseen to himself. And he did not engage in sexual exploits, as some moral commentators suggest, as this is what the elder son suggested he did. And we can’t just allegorise the father and say that this image represents God! A parable is a story containing images, exaggerations and fabricated types, and whose story surprises us and enables us to see the world with new eyes.
3. All three characters are complicit in the extravagant waste of resources, including human power and responsibility. Brown names the parable, The parable of the dysfunctional family. Hebrew scholars, closer to the Jewish contexts of Jesus time, have recently offered invaluable insights, and exposed Christian bias in understanding issues around Jewish understanding God, inheritance, Jewish parents and elder sons.
Conclusion This is a Dante-esque parable: as Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta notes a Dante-style comedy is a parable “that
ends in–with–in happiness. It’s a story that begins with a kind of disorder, catastrophe if you wish; the pilgrim was lost in the woods and then works himself out toward the light, toward the truth, toward God.” And the church in Luke’s time finds itself in a Dante-esque comedy. It squanders its energy on creating cultural walls dividing Jews and Gentiles; will it emerge out of the woods towards the light of Christ?
Rev Vladimir Korotkov