Parables as Imagination 3

Imagine a world where the worst of offenders or the least conforming or the most offensive — in other words, sinners — are restored to the table of fellowship.

That’s what Jesus exhorts the Pharisees and legal experts to imagine when he tells the parable of the “prodigal son” (which you can read after the jump).

Again, the Pharisees and legal experts are offended by Jesus’ behavior of welcoming tax collectors and sinners to the table. Jesus’ response is to tell stories, and by those stories he ushers everyone into a storied world — an imagined world — where a different order obtains.

In that world, Jesus says, we can imagine a man with two sons … the younger one a corrupt character who wipes out his dad’s inheritance and disrespects his father grievously and publicly, squanders it away in the Diaspora, and ends up — shockingly and comedically if not tragically — feeding pigs. But the kid comes to his senses and commits to going back home and telling his father he’s sorry and begging for mercy — just enough mercy to work on the outskirts of the estate.

We wait for Jesus’ story of how the father responds because we know that world was not fond of rebellious wandering sons, but the father’s response mirrors Jesus’ table practices: he throws a huge party and gives the son everything and more, so much so the son gains his father’s status.

The story’s not over because the kingdom world Jesus imagines is not ideal or perfect: we are asked to imagine what the older son’s response was. And he, like the Pharisees and legal experts, grouses over the father’s behavior. We’ve come full circle, then.

But the father’s response, once again, surprises: instead of reprimand, the father shares his commitment, too, with the older son and reminds him in covenant language of his covenant love and faithfulness. Covenant people, he says, need to celebrate when the sinner repents and rejoins the table.

If God welcomes them to the table, God’s people must as well!

What the Pharisees and legal experts need most is a renewed imagination, an imagination that can see what God can do in healing people. Imagine a world, Jesus wants us to see, where sinners are restored to God and to the community.

15:11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 15:13 After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. 15:14 Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. 15:15 So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 15:16 He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 15:17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger!15:18 I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”‘ 15:20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. 15:21 Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 15:23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, 15:24 because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again – he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

15:25 ”Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 15:26 So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. 15:27 The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ 15:28 But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, 15:29 but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! 15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. 15:32 It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bill Sahlman

    these are great! People lived by narrative. And in the Roman world (aka: kingdom) everything was maintained by dividing. Dividing rich from poor, continuing patriarchy, slaves (lots!) from free (few)… you were with the Romans or against them. If against, there was a special cross outside the city with your name on it. Imagining a world where .. [all are one?] or [fathers/masters accept and restore sons/workers] ? craziness!

    these stories give us the invitation .. to imagine.
    not go back andt ry to live the new set of rules we think they create. but see the trajectory of a new world.. and where that can take us.

  • jeffcook

    Speaking on imagination, I wonder if Jesus thinks the parables are the most effective road to “faith”. Through these stories Jesus is saying, “See the world this way.”

    The problem with the pharisees in Luke 15 isn’t their zeal or wish to please God, but their perspective/faith/imagining of what God’s kingdom entails. Are the parables, essentially, snap shots of the kingdom that unveil God’s values and perspective in opposition to common religious missteps?

  • Scott Eaton

    Scot, thanks for this. For reasons I will not go into, this was perfect in its timing and blessed my day!

  • Susan_G1

    I think the problem I’m having with these is imagining not the world that Jesus describes, but the world Jesus lives in, where these parables would be met with scepticism or shock.

  • lbehrendt

    Who says the younger son said he was sorry? Who says he repented? Not Luke.

    If the story is read that the younger son repents before he’s restored to his position in the family, then the story loses its bite. Are we supposed to forgive people who repent? Of course we are. Even the hardest-nose Pharisee believed in forgiving those who repented. And quite frankly, if the younger son truly did repent, it would not be an impossible feat to forgive him. If Jesus wanted to tell us a parable about how it’s hard to forgive the repentant, then he would have had the younger son commit a serious crime, like arson or rape or murder. What the younger son did during his prodigal life was not nice, and the way he insulted his father was worse still, but it’s a major sin in Judaism not to forgive those who are truly repentant, and I don’t think Jesus is addressing whether we should forgive those who sincerely ask to be forgiven.

    The power of this parable is that it asks, what are we to do with those who have sinned and have not repented? Do we shun them? Do we close our doors in their faces? Do we make repentance the price they must pay to join us in fellowship?

    These are difficult questions, and it is to Jesus’ great credit that he raises them, and answers them.

  • trin

    Imagine . . . imagine a world where God is constantly watching, waiting, straining to see down the road for any glimpse of those he loves returning home.

    Imagine . . . imagine a world where, while we are still a long way off, God runs toward us, and throws his arms around us . . . this told in a culture where men did not run in such circumstances. Grace packed down and running over!

    Imagine . . . imagine a world of not just a prodigal son but of a prodigal God – a wastefully extravagant, recklessly extravagant God of love, who gives that love on a lavish scale.

    Given Luke’s context, this parable is not about a prodigal son but about a prodigal God! I move we rename it. All in favour?

  • attytjj466

    Imagine a world where we treat sinners differently. Instead of avoiding them, separating ourselves from them, ostracising them, condeming them, demeaning them, look down on them, ……imagine a world where we seek them out, pursue them, befriend them, invite them, love them, act loving towards them, extend friendship and fellowship to them, and invite them to see and experience and know God in a new and fuller and exciting and loving life changing way.

  • Ken Braun

    There is possibly another dynamic at work in this parable if what I heard is correct. An individual, I heard speak on this, who ministered within the Middle East said that he discovered a shame/embarrassment reality at work within this parable. Every time he shared this parable in Middle Eastern settings the men in the audience would have difficult accepting the language of the Father running. They relayed to him that for an man to run he must make room for his knees to move in a manner to allow this, in other words provide the opportunity for him to lift his knees, to accomplish such a think in typical Middle Eastern clothing he must pull up his garment. In pulling up his garment he risks embarrassing/shaming himself within his community to go and embrace his son. The father shows that his love for his younger son is deeper than his fear of scandal.
    Imagine a Father who is willing to risk embarrassment that he might reconcile with his son. Imagine God’s love for humanity that risks shame and scandal in order to accomplish reconciliation.

  • Josh

    A few passages come to mind…

    9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? (Jer 7.9-11)

    24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Mt 25.24-30)

    26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb 10.26-27)

    6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 Jn 3.6)

    17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2.17)