It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take, but who would have thought it’d figure — “Ironic,” Alanis Morissette
News is that post modern philosopher Umberto Eco died recently. His reviewers note that his importance in a post modern philosophical chaosmos, Eco stood out as one of the few that honored the idea that something happened before today and the ever oppressive “now.” The past, Eco posed, must not be allowed to be destroyed, it must be revisited even though we cannot revisit it innocently. We realize that the past is, well, past, but, ironically, it matters. We know the past is there and we know that we know — yes that second variant of knowing is important. We therefore speak with its echoes and cadences but yet we speak into present realities. One cannot avoid the sound of the past’s echoes in ones own speech. To try would be to not speak at all. To destroy the past, therefore, is to live in utter silence.
The past, tradition, culture, and alike are not the enemy of today. Neither is the present a utopia of a truth and a way of life long past and therefore irrelevant as someone else’s dream and in need of rejection. The present is merely a waypoint we find ourselves at on a journey set in motion by truth long since found, a truth that is always in need of sages to point to it. We study history and find ourselves doomed to repeat it but that is superior to destroying the past and its lessons and instead embracing and celebrating our failures.
Why is this important to the parable of Prodigal Son? Well, let us observe the place the man leaves behind: He is part of a house, a family, a clan, a tribe of Israel, an inheritor of the great tradition of Abraham and Moses. He is, to use last week’s example, a tree planted in the soils of Torah. That soil is tended and kept generation to generation. The commandment to honor ones elders is not a matter of domestic peace through blind obedience by ones progeny but more important a matter of continuity with the history of the people walking under God. The commandment has a codicil: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” The future of the people of God in the land is assured in this commandment when one generation carries on in the tradition, the covenant, handed on faithfully by the sages from generation to generation.
A tree planted in the vineyard of the LORD — a common term for Israel — draws its strength from the soil that is the Torah and the Faith of Abraham. Separated from this it has no strength and no fruit pleasing to the LORD. The tree cannot from its own reason or strength come to bear fruit to its creator but the LORD provides the soil in which it can thrive. (Lk 13:8)
What then will become of this man separated from all that makes him what he is and perhaps even denying what or who he is? Once the father, the clan, and the house is left in the distance not just physically but spiritually as well, what will decisions be rooted in? Only silence will reach the ear to the heart’s question: “What will I do or leave undone?”
A sheep without a shepherd will be alone in the wilderness until succumbing to the all too real fate of this world: becoming prey. (Lk 15:3-7) A coin slipped beneath the floor of the house will lay there forgotten and worthless for centuries without a diligent searcher. (Lk 15:8-10) Both shepherd and searcher must exist and long for the sheep or the coin for the stories to have a better ending.
A son lost in the far land will stay lost in a far land rooted in nothing and hearing only silence reply to the hopes of his heart. He must have a clan, a house, a Father to whom he can return where the silence can be broken, a father who remembers who this son is. If the Father does not receive the son as he returns, then the son is in dark silence forever in spite of his repentant spirit drawn to the past by the pains of his stomach. Only if the gardener is willing to receive the tree in his vineyard will it get soil to draw strength from and only then can there be true repentance since only in that state can the tree survive and produce new growth.
How can one reject the sinner? How can the sinner be planted in better soil if, like an errant pharisee, the gardener refuses it room? (Lk 15:1-3) If Jesus does not receive the sinners about whom the pharisees complain then those sinners are lost permanently.
If the church cannot receive sinners then she has lost the right to call anyone to repentance since only in the presence of the sage, only in the presence of the willing gardner, can the repentance ever be lived out.
The older brother’s life is indeed complicated. In his time and culture he had to be a model of the wisdom of the house. That wisdom would have included being the gentle presence that reconciled little brother and father already at the outset of the story before little brother ever left home. (Pilch) He has not and even now he is not making any effort to pretend to try to be that reconciling presence.
He, the elder son, ought to have acted as co host of the feast since all that was the father’s was also his. (Lk 15:31) Yet, he insists on being outside the house. The fourth commandment and its expansion have been totally obliterated. He shows that not only is he not the sage who explains and points to the treasure from the past but worse he is not even in touch with the tradition himself and is not drawing strength from the soil of the vineyard the Father has graciously provided.
We must wonder if his is not the greater sin for certainly his was the opportunity to show sinners the way so they could return home. (Ps 51:13) Yet, he will have non of it.
The three parables in Luke 15 are rightly beloved as they tell the heart of the Gospel while disclosing the heart of God. God longs for, searches for, and receives the sinner who has ignored the Law, the sinner who has walked away from the places where life is found. Any contemplation of the parable of the lost sons will certainly make anyone, in any time, wonder if God might not truly receive, nay, want him/her back and might be searching to make that happen right now.
Yet, there is an edge to this parable. It is told as a counter to the pharisee’s complaint that he, Jesus, is associating with sinners. It is at some level polemic in spite of all the Gospel beauty contained in it and the “bad guy” in the story is the older brother. His figure: arms crossed in defiance, face set in dark lines, his back half way turned away from the house, his anger radiating from his brow — is meant as a warning to us all. The younger brother left home out of foolishness, ill attended by a sage who did not speak when he should have. Will this one leave in anger? Will he be redeemed or will he live his live in angry silence?