Friday, June 29, 2012

The Parable of the Elder Brother

This parable has been on my mind for the better part of a year now. I noted with amusement Rob Bell's attempt to support his views on heaven and hell from it. Just as I wrote in the book, Rob Bell's attempt is a "vulgar but logical extension" of the common evangelical interpretation of this passage. Jesus, so we have been taught to believe, is a teddy bear. Or rather God is just a big teddy bear, sent Jesus to let us know, and this is the sum total of the Christian story. And so what ought to be read as an anti-Pharisee polemic instead becomes a rapturous celebration of salvation, a passage where all Christians envision themselves running to daddy for a big hug. The entire point of the parable is completely left out of the Sunday school lesson, which normally ends with the prodigal son coming down the road toward the open arms of his father. I have heard entire sermons preached on that scene. Rarely have I heard a sermon on this parable begin with its proper context:

"Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

Everything that follows, that is all of Luke 15, is a response to the Pharisees accusing Jesus of breaking bread with sinners. Jesus, wielding a "sharp, double-edged sword" (Rev 1:12-16, 19:11-16, etc.), attacks and destroys an idea, a point of view, a conception of reality standing opposed to Him and His kingdom. It is not a teddy bear story.

As Christians, we know that all have sinned and thus all are sinners. Imagine Jesus in the presence of the Pharisees, knowing this. The idea that one should not eat with sinners becomes the idea that one should not eat with anyone. Jesus knows that those living in repentance of their sins will be declared righteous by faith, and thus not all who have sinned are unrighteous. What galls him is the Pharisee who believes he is righteous but is not, and then blindly rejects whom he thinks are "sinners" but accepts those Jesus knows to be unrepentant and thus unrighteous, while the "sinners" with whom Jesus is eating are declared righteous by their faith.

Make no mistake. Christianity teaches we should throw people out of the church fellowship who are living in sin:

"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat." (1 Cor 5:9-11)

Paul makes a distinction here between the baldly immoral and those who call themselves a brother and are still immoral. He is referring to the difference between a sinner who is currently living in sin, someone who "calls himself a brother" but, implicitly, is not and a sinner who has repented and is currently living in righteousness and in the body of Christ. The first we should "hand over to Satan" and "not even eat" with them. The second is a brother in Christ with whom we should "not give up meeting." (Heb 10:25) Jesus, of course, knows all this. Thus he does not attack the Pharisees' idea that there are some with whom we should not associate. If Jesus believed we should eat with everyone, since all are sinners, it would have been relatively easy to make that point. But Jesus knows that it is right for Christians not to associate with those who would by their very presence poison the body of Christ, for "a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (1 Cor 5:6) The problem with the Pharisees has nothing to do with rejecting some and accepting others. The problem is the standard they are using to determine who is who. The standard cannot be whether someone has sinned or not because all have. The standard is repentance.

Jesus knows he is eating with sinners whenever he eats in the presence of anyone. He is, after all, on earth. But the people whom the Pharisees, sinners themselves, are calling "sinners" are repentant sinners. Thus the people with whom Jesus is associating are in the right, and the Pharisees are in the wrong. If this parable had been part of the Sermon on the Mount, then we might be justified in interpreting it the way we do. But it was given to people who were in the wrong, not those who were in the right, and must be interpreted as a polemic against wrongdoers, not a celebration of those in the right. It is a rebuke and a correction, not a teddy bear story. It emphasizes not the prodigal son, but the elder brother.

The first two parables, of the lost sheep and the lost coin, contain no elder brother figure, which is why Jesus told the third parable. He is clearly searching, and "searching" is the right word, for a story that will more clearly illustrate his point. His point in the first two parables is that those who sin and come to repentance are welcomed and rejoiced over. Again, this is not to buttress the ego of believers but to rebuke the Pharisees for not rejoicing over the lost who are found, as God does. Then with the Parable of the Elder Brother Jesus finishes the attack with a flourish. In this parable we see the same theme, a joyous reunion of the lost with its proper home, but we also see a spectator to that reunion who has objections to it:

"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’" (Luke 15:28-32)

Thus the point of all three parables becomes clear. Jesus is on the one hand rebuking the Pharisees for being party poopers. But it goes much, much deeper than that.

Who is the elder brother? According to the story, the elder brother is a figure who never left the father. But we know, as Jesus did, that everyone has left the Father at some point. All have sinned. Notice what the elder brother says: "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders." Could such a person really exist, a person who never broke the law and never disobeyed God? Why does Jesus pretend that anyone remotely like the elder brother could even exist in real life? If the elder brother is representative of the Pharisees, then why does Jesus say that "you are always with me" when he knew that they were not? Jesus did so in order to make sure the Pharisees recognized his attack against them, but at the same time to provide them a clear way to repentance by forcing them to recognize their sin. He played to their misconception of themselves and in effect, invited them to become "sinners" so they might join the party. In short, he put a burr under their saddle that was intended to either irritate them or convert them. It was a clever, subversive attack and it was intended to be divisive, pitting his enemies clearly on one side and his sheep clearly on the other.

"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

Jesus makes this point more explicit in another great passage, John 9. Actually, you should probably read John 9-10:21. Jesus has just healed a blind man on the Sabbath, prompting the Pharisees and teachers of the law to proclaim with certainty that he is a sinner and could not be from God. The blind man is incredulous, asking how, if Jesus is not from God, could he heal the blind at all? Jesus reveals himself as God to the blind man, who promptly worships him. Then Jesus said:

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." (John 9:39-41)

Evangelicals love the part about the blind being able to see, but we tend to ignore that Jesus also claimed to be blinding those who could see. He was literally turning the world upside down, elevating the humble and bringing low the proud. But more than that, he was saying that those who claimed they could see were automatically guilty. Paul echoes this argument in Romans 7:

"What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead."

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that since they claim they know the law, their guilt remains. They would only be sinless if they didn't know the law, as Paul says. But of course their entire claim to fame is that they do know the law, and so their guilt remains, just as all have sinned. It is no wonder the Pharisees were blinded by this. They must have wondered to themselves, "How can we be saved from sin if we are still guilty even after following the law?" In fact Jesus was asked exactly this question more than once. It is the question Jesus came to answer. It is why he came to die, something he predicts in John 10, saying the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Jesus then goes on in John 10 to explain that his sheep know his voice because they are his sheep. Those who are not his sheep will not recognize his voice. He is clearly telling the Pharisees they are not God's sheep because they do not recognize his voice. He is saying that his real sheep, the ones with faith in God, have recognized him as their shepherd and rejected the Pharisees as "strangers," "thieves and robbers," and a "wolf." Once again this whole "sheep know my voice" passage is often interpreted as a teddy bear story. Aw...we are his sheep and he's our shepherd. How cute. We conveniently leave out the antagonistic parts of the story. Once again, this is a polemic passage against the Pharisees. It is a warning to all those who would dare to take ownership of God's sheep as if they were their own. It is a warning to all those who set themselves up as authorities over the faith. The message is clear: God is the authority, Christ is the Shepherd. And our God is a jealous God.