Sunday, May 1, 2011

New Testament Lesson #18 "He Was Lost, and is Found"

Luke 15; 17

Jesus sits with sinners and publicans and the Pharisees question why (v. 1-3).  By relating three parables, Jesus explains that he is finding what is his, but which has been lost:

THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP (Luke 15:4-7)

Chalkboard Diagram:


Lost Item
How Lost
How Found
Result
Sheep
Unintentionally wandered
Shepherd sought out & led back
Rejoicing!

This parable used symbols that Jewish men would relate to:  everyone understood the role of a shepherd, and the importance of sheep.  (See "The Good Shepherd" in a previous post.)

How does this parable relate to us today?  (Some answers may be that a person drifts into inactivity in the Church, and a home or visiting teacher, neighbor, or leader goes out of his/her way to visit often, to invite to socials, to coax back to activity.  Someone in the class may be able to tell a personal story that reflects this parable in his or her life.)

THE PARABLE OF THE LOST COIN (Luke 15:8-10)

Chalkboard Diagram:


Lost Item
How Lost
How Found
Result
Sheep
Unintentionally wandered
Shepherd sought out & led back
Rejoicing!
Coin
Neglect of the woman
Woman swept floor to remove dirt & debris covering coin
Rejoicing!


This parable used symbols that Jewish women would easily relate to.  Every woman, of course, had to sweep her floor frequently.  Money was vital to everyone in their culture.

How does this parable relate to us today?  (Some answers may include a person feeling unappreciated or overlooked by the congregation, especially as a new member, and staying away from church.  Then a bishop and his correlation committee taking careful stock of the ward and noticing the person has been missing.  Ward members then taking extra effort to sweep away the offences that may be keeping the person away, or overcoming the cultural misunderstandings, or the shyness of the individual, or the feeling of being undervalued.  All of these may be dust, dirt or garbage that is preventing a coin from shining and revealing its value.  Again, someone in the class may have a personal experience to share.)

THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON (v. 11-32)

Chalkboard Diagram:


Lost Item
How Lost
How Found
Result
Sheep
Unintentionally wandered
Shepherd sought out & led back
Rejoicing!
Coin
Neglect of the woman
Woman swept floor to remove dirt & debris covering coin
Rejoicing!
Son
Willful rebellion
Father watched, waited, never gave up
Rejoicing
&
Resentment


What is different in this story?  The mixed result:  rejoicing & resentment.  Something is wrong in this story, and that is the important part we need to understand in order to be true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Characters (Luke 15:11)
In the previous two parables, there were only two principal characters:  the shepherd/woman, and the lost sheep/coin.  In this third parable, there are three: the father, the "lost" younger son, and the faithful elder son.

The Younger Son (Luke 15:12-13)
The story begins with the younger son rebelling, begging to have his inheritance prematurely given, taking the inheritance and leaving the family.

The word "prodigal" means "wasteful."  This son had something of great value and he threw it away--not only the wealth of his inheritance, but the love and companionship of his family.  In fact, requesting his inheritance early was an extreme humiliation to his family.  It indicated that he wished his father was dead so he could have his money now, that he wanted his inheritance without working for it over the years as a family member, and of course, that he had no desire to be a member of this good family.  (Kenneth E. Bailey, former New Testament professor at Israel's Tantur Ecumenical Institute, "The Pursuing Father," Christianity Today, 10-26-1998, quoted in an AP article in The Herald Journal, 11-26-1998, and online at NationalCatholicRegister.com.)



The Father (Luke 15:12)
Nothing is said about how the father raised this son.  This is important to note: What the father did or didn't do prior to this point is not relevant; the son chose to leave. 

We will see how the character of the father is revealed throughout the story to be completely different than the character of an ordinary human Jewish father.

The first deviation from the traditional Jewish father is found in his response to the son's request.  Despite the ingratitude and rudeness of the son, despite the fact that transferring the inheritance before the father's death violated Jewish law, despite the cultural expectation that such a son should be driven from the home and family, despite the obvious embarassment of "a horrendous family breakdown...the father grants the inheritance and the right to sell, knowing that this right will shame the family before the community." (Bailey)

The Turning Point (Luke 15:14-19)
The prodigal son got just exactly what he deserved.  He wasted everything he had, and then an act of God, "a famine in that land," brought him to the point of absolute poverty.  He was so selfish, and so unattached to others, that when he was starving, there was not a soul who cared to give him food.  He had to steal it from the pigs he was hired to feed. 

A Jewish man would have been doubly shamed.

But then...these beautiful words:  "He came to himself."  It's always good to remember that when someone is acting the part of a prodigal son, he is not himself, he is not permanently defined by those willful and wayward acts, and his own divine nature is always still hidden inside somewhere, ready for him to "come back to himself".

In this case, that divine intelligence inside this desperate man realized there was a light at the end of his deep, dark tunnel, and that light was his father.  "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants" (Luke 15:17-19). 

It is remarkable that the son had hope in his father's response, considering the tough Jewish customs that prevailed at the time.  “From the Jerusalem Talmud it is known that the Jews of the time of Jesus had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles. It was called the ‘qetsatsah ceremony.’ … The villagers would bring a large earthenware jar, fill it with burned nuts and burned corn, and break it in front of the guilty individual. While doing this, the community would shout, ‘So-and-so is cut off from his people.’ From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with the wayward lad.”  (Bailey)

The son, however, was counting on mercy.  That showed a remarkable, if small, faith in and knowledge of his father.

The Father Ran
"When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)  Here is another major deviation from the expected behavior of a Jewish father in Christ's day:  "Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. To do so is deeply humiliating. This father runs." (Bailey)


The father had been watching, waiting, hoping!  Did he wait until the son was "all the way back home" to rejoice and accept him?  No!  At the first sign, "when he was yet a great way off," his grateful celebration began, and he bridged the gap between himself and his son at the first possible opportunity.



Instead of instigating the public ritual of cutting his son off from the Jewish community for his humiliating behavior, the father bore the embarassment of a disobedient son in front of the whole village.  He was much more concerned about his son than about his social standing.  He never said, "I told you so!"  It was only, "Welcome home!  I love you!"  No punishment was meted out upon the son.  He was frankly forgiven without having the means to make up what he had destroyed.  And in a complete upset of tradition, the father hosted a public celebration honoring the return of his lost son.

The Father Cares for Both (Luke 15:28-29)
In the midst of the celebration, the father noticed his elder son was absent.  He sent an inquiry as to why.  The older son answered that he was angry and would not go in.  Here adds another blow to the father. 

“For a son to be present and to refuse participation in such a banquet is an unspeakable public insult to the father. … [Again] the father goes beyond what a traditional patriarch would do. … In painful public humiliation, the father goes down and out to find yet one more lost sheep/coin/son.” (Bailey)

The father listens to his older son's complaint.  He is concerned about both sons' feelings and both sons' growth on their own levels.  He treats each as he needs to be treated.  Never is a comparison made.

The "Good" Son (Luke 15:25-27,31)
Nothing is said about how the younger brother treated his older brother previous to the family break-up, therefore we can assume that this is also irrelevant to the point of the story. 

When the prodigal brother returned, the older brother was out doing his work, keeping at his duty.  Undoubtedly he had had to do extra work because of his brother's absence.  He had been faithful.  He had never left his father.  He was doing everything "right."  In fact, he was so busy working, he had not known his brother was back until the feast was in full swing. 

Unlike his father, he had not been watching.

His relationship with his brother had been distanced; when complaining to his father, he referred to his brother not as "my brother", but as "thy son." (verse 30).  What had caused this rift?  Competition!  Comparing!  "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends" (verse 29). 


The elder son had the greater blessings all along, but was ungrateful and unforgiving as soon as his brother had something he didn't.  The father tells him, "You misunderstand that what you already have is of much more value than a fatted calf."  "Thou art ever with me."  "You didn't have to suffer the consequences your brother suffered from his mistakes.  You were never starving, desperate, alone."  Furthermore, "All that I have is thine." "You still have your full inheritance.  You have not lost one thing because of his return."  (Although the prodigal son was forgiven, the money was gone and was not replaced.  His place in the household was restored, but there was a part of his life that he missed and which cannot be recovered.)



The older son had forgotten his real relationship to his younger brother!  In Jewish custom, the oldest son was the birthright son and received double the inheritance that the rest of the sons did.  This was to give him the means to fulfill his responsibility to take care of anyone in the family who might need help--a widow, an orphan, a disabled brother.  He was basically considered a sub-parent, and at the death of the father would assume the role of patriarch.

His father reminded him of this role when he said, "It was meet [necessary] that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother"--notice he says "thy brother," not "my son"--"was dead, and is alive again: and was lost, and is found" (verse 32).  In effect, the father said, "Aren't you and I on the same side?  Don't we share the same role?  Shouldn't we both be rejoicing?"


The Missing Conclusion
The response of the elder son is not given in order that Jesus may draw the listener up onto the stage to finish the drama, and give an answer for himself.  What will the birthright son (the Pharisee, the Jew, the active Latter-day Saint, the obedient "white sheep" family member) do?  Will he stay away from the feast and punish himself and his father with his bitterness, or will he remember his role as a sub-parent or under-shepherd and follow the example of love and acceptance his father has set?

The Role of a Birthright Son, Member of the House of Israel, Latter-day Saint
The ideal relationship hoped for by the father of the parable, and the Father of us all is this:



It's very important that we be able to answer the question posed by this parable correctly, because the alternative to joining the Father in welcoming and forgiving the prodigals in our lives is not good:  It means cutting ourselves off from the joy of feasting with the Lord in His Kingdom.  And if we do that, there remains in us the greater sin, the great condemnation, and the greater suffering.  (D&C 64:9)


Note:  The Church has a very thought-provoking 30-minute video depicting the parable of the prodigal son in a modern-day setting.  It doesn't appear to be available online, but it should be in most meetinghouse libraries.

6 comments:

Nancy W. Jensen said...

Suzanne Ballard, am I caught up to your prep schedule yet, or do I need to be one more ahead?

Majid Ali said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Valerie Hayes said...

Thank you for this wonderful, thought provoking post about the prodigal son. It was both informational and inspirational. Thank you for sharing. :)

Jolene said...

Thank you so much for your depth of insights into the New Testament. I read the scriptures with new eyes now and while I read and find insights of my own I just wish I could find the volume of insightful connections that you do.

EleanorPotter said...

Thank you so much for your insight on these parables and for how you organized the lesson. I learned so much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your helpful lessons. I learn so much, and am grateful.