A good story is always new: Re-reading the greatest short story ever told
Last week our distinguished friend Melissa posted a lovely reflection on the value of re-reading good books. Since I count re-reading as one of the greatest pleasures life affords, I thought I’d pick up the re-reading theme today, and apply it to perhaps the pithiest story ever told: the Lord Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son and his elder brother.
One of the great delights of familiarity — with a person, animal, story, piece of music, whatever — is that there comes a point after which the familiar person or thing almost cannot fail to surprise us. The source of the surprise isn’t usually that the familiar object steps out of character. I suspect it’s more that our familiarity with the whole of the thing frees us to appreciate its details more fully — and these details will regularly surprise us. We may never have noticed the quirky intake of breath at the end of Jack’s laugh had we not heard it a thousand times. We might only catch a brilliantly significant quote buried in the middle of a mystery on the fifth reading. It may take ten listens to unstop our ears to the reappearance at the concerto’s end of a little countermelody that hadn’t shown up since the concerto’s beginning.
Something like this happens every time I read the parable of the Prodigal Son. It may be the most familiar story in the world, but it can surprise an attentive listener on every telling. What caught my attention for the first time on a recent reading was the elder son’s slander of his brother, and how perfectly it echoed the slander the scribes and Pharisees routinely threw at the Lord Jesus: “This son of yours, who has devoured your property with prostitutes . . . “
One of the awful things about slander — perhaps the reason why God thought it a sufficiently grave offense to include it in the Ten Commandments — is its power to color what we think of a person, even when we do not find the slander credible. The elder son in the parable, the one who stayed home and by his own testimony never had disobeyed his father, now lets fly all of his hatred and pent-up disobedience: he falsely accuses his younger brother of devouring the father’s property with prostitutes. Now for all anyone knows, that may have been true. But only incidentally. For Jesus in telling the parable tells us nothing of how the younger son spent his inheritance. Nor does He give any clue that the elder son investigated the matter before spouting off. The common pigeonholes to the which the two sons are assigned — the elder as chilly bean-counting prig, the younger as hot-blooded libertine — are based more upon the elder son’s slander than anything else, and obscure what Jesus is really doing by telling the parable.
The Pharisees leveled the same accusation against Jesus that the elder son leveled against the younger. Their slander, in fact, occasioned His telling the parable:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’*
Now since truth is an absolute defense to a charge of slander, and the Pharisees and scribes technically uttered truth, how is this slander? St Luke inserts a significant little word here: “grumbled.” It’s the same word used repeatedly of the Israelites in the wilderness, who were serial grumblers. The obvious implication is that the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of doing something He ought not to have been doing.
And what was that?
Let me sum up. The remnant of Israel, kicked around and under the foot of occupying Rome, still knew by faith that God had entrusted them with treasures: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of Torah, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs.** Faithful Israelites were faithful stewards of these treasures. Jesus, by the account of the scribes and Pharisees, was opening the storehouse of Israel to the wrong people, to faithless Israelites who had squandered their inheritance. By receiving and taking up for them, Jesus, no less than the younger son in the parable, was devouring the Father’s property with prostitutes. The parable was Jesus’s defense, not only of repentant sinners, but of Himself; He was letting his slanderers know where He and they stood, respectively. He was not squandering but investing, and wisely — for the lost sheep were coming back into the fold, lost coins were being found, lost sons and daughters were coming to their senses. The Pharisees’ situation was dire but not hopeless: They were being tightwads, were resolved to sit on their inheritance until it rotted, were looking out (down) at the rest of the world with a jaded, stingy eye. But, at that moment, their Father was still pleading with them.
* Luke 15.1-2
** Romans 9.4-5