“You’ve probably taught this parable yourself...but its my turn this time,” said Bob Bowman, introducing the first of his three daily Bible studies at NOAC, focused on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.
In presentations that were part stand-up, part biblical scholarship, and all relevant to life today, Bowman focused each day in turn on one of the three main characters in the parable: the Older Brother, the Prodigal younger brother, and the Father.
He suggested that “words in a parable are pared down to their essentials,” and that Jesus may have used parables in a number of different ways, as “a subtle criticism of his own culture,” or to “drive home an important point,” or to relate a verbal problem almost like a Zen koan for his disciples to meditate on and lead them to new insights or an aha moment.
The Older Brother
One reason Bowman said the Older Brother is crucial to discovering the meaning of the parable is, perhaps counter intuitively, the Older Brother is not really necessary to the basic plot of the story. If the Prodigal younger brother wasted all the money, repented, and was forgiven, without the response of the Older Brother, the parable would still end in joy. “It ends fine without (the Older Brother),” so his inclusion must be crucial said Bowman.
Bowman, an older brother himself, characterized the NOAC congregation as “older brothers” too–in terms of their role in the church and in society, taking responsibility, keeping things going, doing the hard work required to support a family, providing stability.
But in many folk tales and in other Bible stories, particularly the Old Testament, the younger brother usurps the older brother. For example, Isaac is picked over Ishmael; David is anointed to be king in place of his older brothers; Joseph is triumphant despite his older brothers’ plans to eliminate him. “Younger brothers successfully pull the rug out from under the feet of older brothers,” Bowman said.
He characterized this basic plot line as a story based on “empire” as opposed to the reign of God or the Kingdom of God, in which “there’s room enough for everyone to win without someone having to lose.”
The Older Brother’s ultimate response to the return of his Prodigal and profligate younger brother is left open by Jesus. Thus the story is open ended, Bowman said, and Jesus allowed his hearers to decide the ending for themselves.
Bowman pondered aloud how he would end the story, as an older brother himself: after hearing that his younger Prodigal brother had returned and was welcomed back by his father with open arms, and getting angry about it, perhaps the Older Brother would say he just needed a few minutes to get used to the new situation, and would soon be able to join the party.
“Because that’s what we ‘older brothers’ do.”
In Bowman’s Bible study, Part II, he began by noting that Jesus’ parables hold more than one meaning, but the interpretation must fit the text. Today’s parable, he said, is not yesterday’s parable because today we are not the same people we were yesterday.
He also had disappointing news for everyone who had come out to hear him speak on the topic “A Certain Woman Had Two Daughters,” which had been announced as the topic for the day’s study. He had given that title to the NOAC planning team six months previously, but had found in the time since that it didn’t work! No one seemed to mind as Bob mined Luke 15:11-32 for more gold.
He surprised more than a few listeners when he pointed out that it is the Older Brother, not the parable itself, that suggests the Prodigal younger misspent his share of the inheritance on wine, women, and song. “Maybe the women are part of the older brother’s imagination,” he said. The original Greek text states that the Prodigal lost the money in “self-destructive living.”
Bowman asked his listeners to imagine that the Prodigal was part of the Diaspora of God’s people, the scattering of the Jews throughout the Persian and Roman Empires--he might have sought his destiny in the wider world with his father’s blessing.
Whatever happened, the money was soon gone and the younger brother experienced not repentance, or a turning away, but conversion, a turning towards. Whatever he had been attempting to do had failed. In leaving, he discovered who he really was, and had determined to come home.
Bowman reviewed other Bible stories, such as that of Joseph and his brothers, about people who take great risks to become part of the Father’s blessing--and the different roles of the older and younger siblings in such stories. These stories demonstrate that “parental love is never equally distributed,” Bowman said, and the older and younger siblings must come to terms with that truth.
The Older Brother, “teetering on the edge of his dilemma, of unequally distributed love in the world,” has an important choice to make. He had never learned the lessons of failure that led to the younger, Prodigal brother’s rediscovery of true identity. So Bob dramatized several possible endings to the story, in some of which the Older Brother’s choice leads to joy in the family.
While demonstrating there are many ways interpret a parable like the Prodigal Son, Bowman suggested in his third session of Bible study that the use of allegory--in which each character and item in a story stands for something else--can be disappointing. “Allegory tends to flatten the story. Allegory tends to stereotype people.”
For instance, insisting that the Older Brother stands for the Pharisees breaks down pretty quickly, he said. “Any true Pharisee would rejoice at a repentant sinner!” As for the suggestion made by some that Jesus is the fatted calf, sacrificed to save the family, Bob only shook his head.
What can be helpful instead, he said, is to put ourselves in the place of each of the characters. “It’s important to experience what each person went through. I want to hover over the figure of the Father,” Bowman said.
In many ways what the Father does in the parable--giving the younger son his inheritance and going out to meet the older brother, rather than insisting the older brother come in the house to see him--is neither dignified nor honorable in a society where saving face is integral. This is part of the “unreasonable extravagance” of the Father.
“Can you think deep down in your bones and identify with a parent who asked nothing of you...whose love was so great for you he threw a party? ...The father is more interested in having both sons home that in receiving repentance,” Bob asserted, and then asked, “Is the center post of our faith sin and forgiveness, or is the center post of our faith a relationship with God, each other, and a suffering humanity?”
Surprises abound in the story. Unlike other parables in which the shepherd goes out looking for the lost sheep and the woman seeks her lost coin, “no one goes out looking for the Prodigal. However, the Father went out to seek the Older Brother,” Bowman pointed out. And in pleading with the Older Brother, “the Father did not defend the prodigal. He only defended his joy.”