Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Joy and resentment cannot coexist."

               This week I have been re-reading Brandon Scott’s commentary on the Parable of The Man with Two Sons in his book Hear Then the Parable.  I have made some remarkable discoveries and gained some insight which, it seems, has eluded me on the other occasions of study.  Scott divides the parable as a play in two acts, the first act being the story of Younger Brother and act two being Older Brother’s story.  As a good scholar, Scott relates the research and conclusions of other prominent scholars regarding this passage and his agreement and disagreement with his peers.  But also as a good scholar he gives us his own insights and conclusions based on his research, which is enormous.

               Dr. Scott points out the biblical theme of the favoring of the younger/youngest brother, which surely must have been in the mind of Jesus’ original hearers.  Isaac’s wife Rebecca knew of the fraternal conflict while her twin sons Esau and Jacob were still in utero.  The conflict plays out in Esau selling his heritage for a portion of soup, and again in Jacob’s theft of the elder son blessing by old, blind Isaac.  Even the least educated Jew of the first century knew by heart, embedded in their psyche, that the Israelites were God’s chosen people.  But the memory of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and the one on whom the old man dotes, was also a beautifully recalled tale of paternal care.  Remember it was not Reuben, the oldest son of Leah and Jacob, who was given the coat of many colors but Joseph, the first son of Rachel, son number 11.  An older son of the younger wife, to be sure, but far from the eldest of Jacob.  (For more on the sons of Jacob read Genesis Chapters 29 and 30).

               In act one of the parable it is obvious that Father loves his younger child with a great love.  When Younger Brother asks for his inheritance now, Father grants the request without regard to loss of prestige or honor in his household or community.  We can imagine that Father pines for the loss of this son throughout the time of his absence.  Is he dead or alive?  Is he well or sickly?  What has become of this beloved child?  One may infer that every day Father looks for the return of Younger Brother, and every day his disappointment grows.  Finally one day, looking out, hoping to see his son, Father catches a glimpse of Younger Brother in the distance and runs to him and falls on him, embracing him as he has wished to do for ever so long.  The resulting restoration of Younger Brother to a place of honor, complete with robes, a ring, sandals, and a feast is heart-warming and, for Jesus’ hearers, reminiscent of God’s love for the Chosen People, and the story is strikingly similar to the various rejections by Israel of God’s love and restoration by God to grace.

 Act two is a glaring contrast with the story of Younger Brother.  Older Brother, who has stayed home, tended the estate, been a loyal son in all things, has apparently grown resentful during the intervening years of Younger Brother’s absence.  What we are not told is whether or not the resentment had begun in youth.  Did Father show partiality outwardly throughout the growing years of his two sons?  Maybe.  Was Older Brother always jealous of the affection shown to his sibling?  Perhaps.  Was Older Brother ever able to enter into a truly joyous celebration if the party wasn’t for his calculated benefit?  Jesus does not fill in the details; the master story-teller allows us to “fill in the blanks”.  I do have a sense here that as Older Brother returns home (note the irony that both brothers come home) and discovers a party for Younger Brother’s homecoming he will once again be left out.  As Father Nouwen says, “Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.” (The return of the Prodigal Son, p.73)

               I intentionally chose these books for this Advent study, as the parable of the Man with Two Sons has much to tell us about ourselves and our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are preparing for the coming of Christ: in the celebration of His Incarnation, in His coming into our hearts, and in His coming in glory to bring in the reign of God.  I believe that the way we receive others will be reflected in how we receive God’s presence. In Jesus’ prayer for His disciples—best known as the Lord’s Prayer—we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Some years ago, I began praying that phrase, “Forgive me only as much as I am willing to forgive others.”  That, friends, is a very sharp two-edged sword.

               As we await the decisions of the court system, let us prepare to receive both Jesus and our brothers and sisters as we have been welcomed.  Pray with me, friends, that the hearts of everyone will be softened, and that we might see and serve the Christ in everyone.

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