Sunday, December 18, 2011

A distant land

When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs.
"Prodigal son among the swine" by Albrecht Durer

            One of the readers of this blog brought me up short with a question about the farmer who hired Younger Brother.  I have to confess that when I was listing the dramatis personae that individual never crossed my mind.  But having been raised to consciousness, of course we must explore this individual as well.  The secondary problem I am now having is to question whether there are other characters that I have ignored, even after reading this parable daily since late November.

            We know from the story that Younger Brother had received his inheritance and migrated to a distant land.  To go to a “foreign” land was to leave behind all of the comfort of language, custom, religion, familiarity and community.  For Jews, anything foreign was also defiling, making one unable to perform the rituals necessary to righteousness.  To touch a dead body, for instance, rendered one unclean, requiring purifications described in the laws and regulations of Leviticus.  The story of the Good Samaritan is poignant because we chastise both the priest and the Levite who were required to be prepared to perform duties consonant with their office, and yet they passed by on the opposite side of the road, as far away as possible.  And if they touched the one “left for dead” who might in fact be dead they would be ineligible to perform these duties.  The scandal of that parable is that it is the foreigner, the Samaritan, the one least likely to assist who becomes the rescuer, the life saver for the one who had fallen in among thieves and had been beaten.  Even to be in the company of foreigners could render one unclean, which is why the high priest and leaders of the Temple refuse to go into Pilate’s fortress for Jesus’ trial.  It was, after all, the Day of Preparation for Passover, and being in the presence of foreigners, Romans, would make them ineligible to perform the ritual tasks of their offices.

            We do not know how long Younger Brother was in this foreign territory; the parable is mute on that point.  Was he there long enough to learn a new language?  Did they speak Koine Greek as did most of the Judeans and Galileans, or was it some other language and culture that would have required significant time for Younger Brother to become comfortable in that place?  It is obvious that the locals were quite willing to take this young man for all he was worth and then discard him when he was destitute.  I learned a song in the late 1950’s with a line that repeats, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”  And that is exactly the situation for Younger Brother.

            But who is this farmer that hires Younger Brother, and why does he hire an alien instead of one of his own countrymen?  Perhaps Younger Brother has lost his visa (and I do not mean a credit card) when he has no more money and therefore is an illegal alien.  Perhaps none of the locals will do such demeaning work, so the farmer has to hire illegal aliens.  Or it might just be that if he hired his countrymen he would have to pay them a living wage, and he can hire this wastrel for almost nothing, causing him to starve.  Does the farmer grumble because most of his illegal farm hands are living in a small apartment designed for an individual or a family of 2 or 3?  Are his neighbors angry that they have to put up with all these “illegals” living in their town who are sending most of their meager wages back to their families where ever home is and taking all the jobs away from the homeboys?  I wonder if there is the equivalent of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) in that country to deport those who are in-country illegally.  Younger Brother cannot even apply for food stamps because he does not have the proper credentials to get a hand-out.  Or is this farmer truly attempting to do a good deed by hiring the young man, thinking it will keep him from starving to death? 

            I know I am treading on thin ice for some readers, but if we are going to look at the parable and its cast of characters, we have to explore each thoroughly.  Granted, Jesus does not give us any detail about this man except for the fact that he is a pig farmer.  That alone was anathema for Jews because of the prohibition concerning swine, which makes the tasks for Younger Brother so horrific.  I can almost hear the crowd around Jesus gasp when it is revealed that the young man has to slop the hogs.  Our current American distaste for Latino immigrants may seem new, but one only need read history to discover that Eastern Europeans, Irish, Asians, and many, many others have received a similar welcome by those who were themselves immigrants some generations before to the shores of the land which says, “Send me your cold, your hungry, your tired…”  Unfortunately, xenophobia is a part of the human sinful condition that transcends time and place; it is not unique to the US, nor to the 21st century.  Thus, it is a simple translation to read back into the story, in the person of the pig farmer from a 21st century perspective.

            Much is made in the Hebrew Scriptures about caring for the “sojourner”, the resident alien.  Sojourners are to be cared for to the same degree as members of the community; they are to be fed and clothed and invited into the lives of the community.  How do we live out our calling as respects aliens?  Are we willing to make a place at our spiritual table, if not our house, for those who are strangers in a strange land?  From the Old Testament, we discover that the command grows out of the realization that we were once strangers in a foreign land ourselves (Egypt), so we should know the lost-ness, the loneliness of being in a distant country.  Can we welcome “home” everyone?  Or is our welcome conditional?  How does Jesus receive us? 

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