10 march 2013/Sunday/lent 4
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2
So Jesus told them a parable – three parables to be precise: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and what has become known as “The Prodigal Son.” Which may be to put the accent on the wrong syl-AH-ble as my late father was fond of saying. Some call it the Parable of the Compassionate Father. Some say it is the Parable of the Two Beloved Sons. Maybe it should be the Parable of the Angry Older Brother.
Somehow it is meant, along with the other two stories, to be a retort to the grumbling – which grumbling disapproves of who is sitting at the table. We may as well face it, we all get like this. As we head into the school cafeteria, or the church supper, or even a public restaurant, we size up the room. Who is sitting where? Where do I want to sit? Where do I definitely not want to sit? Or, the always popular, I hope someone remembered to save a place for me at their table [so I do not have to sit with all these other folks]!
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus. Voluntarily. He was not gathering them. He was not inviting them. Yet, they seem to instinctively know it is safe to sit with him – even though local customs would say do not even think about it.
Jumping ahead to the third tale of the father who has two sons – recalling earlier tales in Holy scripture: Cain and Able, Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s eleven older sons and Joseph. Cain slays Able. Jacob steals Esau’s blessing. Jacob’s older boys sell Joseph off into slavery in Egypt – but Joe gets even when following three years of famine, and now he is Secretary of the Interior for Pharaoh, he manages to get the brothers and all twelve tribes of Israel to voluntarily become slaves again in Egypt themselves!
How odd that we sometimes think of TheBible, The Tanakh, as a book that somehow means to promulgate “brotherly/sisterly love.”
Not to belabor the details, but the younger brother Jesus talks about has wasted his inheritance, ends up destitute feeding pigs (not kosher!), is envious of what the pigs get to eat (!), returns home whereupon his father welcomes him back and throws a lavish welcome home party. About which the older son, who has faithfully tilled the soil at home all along, is resentful. The father tries to smooth things over, but the story ends without telling us if the older brother ever joins in the feast. It is clear that he does not, like the Pharisees and the scribes, approve of who is at the table , i.e. his profligate younger brother who has effectively reduced everyone’s future inheritance.
No doubt about it – the older brother has been cast as the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, read: Israel, the Jews, Judaism. This to disastrous effect, and misses the nature of parables in and of themselves. For to treat them as allegories [so the Father represents God, the young son represents sinners like us, the older brother is the Jews, etc etc ] is to step away from what must have been their original intent – to see ourselves in the story and be shocked into imagining that we might change by the simple fact that we do not like what the story shows us about ourselves.
At the very least followers of Jesus, Christians, ought to see themselves and our own clannish behaviors. For instance, although Jesus does not appear to have any restrictions on who can or cannot sit at His table, the Church has long argued that you need to be at least baptized, preferably confirmed, make your confession, be repentant, understand what the Body of Christ is, old enough to “know what you are doing,” and so on. Jesus walks past a few fishermen and says, “Follow me,” and they follow him. Hi sits down with tax collectors and sinners. He asks no one for ID, no one to pass a quiz or test, no one has to repent, no one has to confess – in short, he welcomes people as they are. There is no “us and them.” In Christ there is no east or west.
The results of conditions we set have been, as I have already suggested, disastrous. To use a story such as this one to portray Jews as outliers resulted in anti-semitism, pogroms, and the Holocaust. When the story is meant for us to see that treating anyone, sinner, tax collector, Jews, Muslims, whatever, as outsiders can only lead to fear and hate and even worse.
Not to see ourselves in the story is to condone evil.
On Friday I accompanied the ninth grade girls of St Tim’s to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
I have been there before. I decided rather than to the top and walk down through the main exhibit halls that I would look at Daniel’s Story, The Children’s Tile Wall, and the exhibit on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – that fraudulent piece of anti-Semitic screed that has been given new life through its promulgation on the internet.
The Children’s Tile Wall remembers the 1.6 million children who died in the Holocaust. Young people who visit the museum can make a tile – a ceramic tile. They are then fired and placed on a wall. Tile Wall memorializes the children murdered in the Holocaust. A quotation from Yitzhak Katzenelson appears above the tiles: “The first to perish were the children...From these a new dawn might have risen.” American schoolchildren painted the more than 3,000 tiles, many of which call for peace, hope, remembrance, and freedom. They say things like: “Hope,” “Never Again,” “We are all alike,” “Peace,” “Love,” “Remember Gay Victims,” “Peace not War” ….
I stood there impressed with the messages from our children. And then I wondered. What happens? When we are young we know these things, we believe these things. What changes? And why? What makes us fearful, hateful, scornful of others – all others not like ourselves?
Next was the exhibit, A Dangerous Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a hoax, a fraud, purporting to be the minutes of meetings of prominent Zionists and their plans to take over the world, first appearing in Russia in 1903-1905, later distributed by such industrialists as Henry Ford, and now promulgated on the internet by Neo-Nazi groups, protected as “free speech.”
From the exhibit: “Many school textbooks throughout the Arab and Islamic world teach the Protocols as fact. Countless political speeches, editorials, and even children's cartoons are derived from the Protocols. In 2002, Egypt's government-sponsored television aired a miniseries based on the Protocols, an event condemned by the US State Department. The Palestinian organization Hamas draws in part on the Protocols to justify its terrorism against Israeli civilians.
“The Internet has dramatically increased access to theProtocols. Even though many Web sites expose the Protocolsas a fraud, the Internet has made it easy to use the Protocols to spread hatred of Jews. Today, a typical Internet search yields several hundred thousand sites that disseminate, sell, or debate the Protocols or expose them as a fraud.”
After that I found myself sitting in the Hall of Remembrance where votive candles are lit before the names of each of the camps, and a central flame burns to recollect our thoughts and prayers for those who perished and those who liberated the camps. I sat in silence for one and one-half hours until it was time to take the girls back to St. Tim’s. There was nothing left to say.
When we misread scripture, even something as familiar and seemingly benign as this parable of two sons in Luke, we allow ourselves to slide down a slippery slope that leads to such abhorrent results as the holocaust. In our hearts it is easy to side with the older brother in his resentment that his profligate younger sibling gets such a welcome home party – or, simply that people we do not ordinarily approve of get to sit at the table with Jesus. Sinfulness is not the question in this and the other two parables [the lost sheep and the lost coin]. Or, maybe it is – maybe Jesus tells the story to enable us to see the sinfulness that resides in the human heart that wants to exclude anyone from the table. We are the profligate younger son. We are the resentful older son. We pray for that day that we might, like the father, welcome and love both sons and all whom God sends our way. Perhaps until we do, we all need to sit in silence before the eternal flame of God’s uncompromising faithfulness and steadfast love.
Lerke Rosenblum, a young girl who escaped from a German concentration camp wrote;
I yearn for the laugh, free and open,
that long ago rang through the air;
an uproar of children of despair.
I yearn for a step to be taken
with pride and a sense of self-worth.
I yearn for the day when I’ll waken
to find myself free on the earth.