Message for Losers
(A Review by Christopher Laurence)
So you thought you understood the parable of the Prodigal Son? Wait a minute. For a start, it’s the wrong title, suggested theologian Trevor Dennis to the Lincoln Theological Society. It should be called the parable of the Two Brothers. He blames St. Luke for adding a gloss to the end of the story. Luke wanted his readers to focus on God’s love for the lost who repent. But to Jewish hearers of the story it would resonate with many familiar stories in the Book of Genesis where God chooses the younger brother. Cain and younger brother Abel God’s favourite, Isaac and elder brother Ishmael driven out, Jacob and elder twin Esau cheated of his birthright, younger brother Joseph cast out only to end up God’s chosen saviour of his family.
And so on. Trevor Dennis wandered around the Genesis stories like a man in a well-loved room, holding up various favourite ornaments for us to admire. These are the stories that would have been in Jewish minds when they listened to Jesus’ parable. They were the children of Jacob, the brother whom God had chosen, just like the father in the parable had honoured first the profligate younger son even though his behaviour had destroyed his father’s dignity.
If you can see the parable through Jewish eyes, Trevor Dennis contended, you will understand that the punchline is not: “he was lost and is found”, as Luke preferred, but the father’s affirmation to the rejected, unchosen elder brother: “All that is mine is yours”. For one of God’s chosen people, that was the shocker.
But Jesus’ parables are open-ended; they leave the hearers to draw their own conclusions. I don’t think Trevor Dennis intended to drive us to only one possible interpretation, but to illuminate the background of the story. This he certainly did and so drew us into his passionate conviction about the inclusiveness of God, which he regretted to see has not yet entered fully into the mind of the Church. He quoted from a Jewish liturgical poem: “Ishmael my brother how long shall we fight each other? ……shoulder to shoulder let’s water our sheep”.
[An interesting question was put: “Where are the women in the story?” Henri Nouwen, in his meditation on the great Rembrandt painting of the Prodigal Son, draws attention to the father’s hands. One, he points out, is male, the other is female.]