Monday, April 15, 2013

The Personability of God, Part 1: The Parable of the Prodigal

From the January 2010 E-Block.

In many articles I have criticized teachers who “overfamiliarize” the person of God. Readers have rightly raised the question in turn of just how “familiar” I suppose God ought to be to us. While most of us agree that many popular teachers go too far in seeing God as a “buddy,” others question the degree to which I delineate just how “personal” God should be – perhaps even wondering if there is any difference between what I offer and the deist view of God. 

The question is a fair one, and it is one I hope to answer as I continue research over the next several years. However, I will begin this research with some small steps in an E-Block series titled The Personability of God. Our goal here will be to examine Scriptural texts frequently appealed to as indicating a close, personal relationship (as understood by modern persons) between ourselves and the members of the Godhead, in contrast to what I have hypothesized to be the correct model: A generally more remote relationship, similar to that held between a client and a patron (and the patron’s brokers). 

We begin with a text familiar to so many of us – what is called the parable of the prodigal son. For reference, here is that text in full: 

11And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. 13And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 

17And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 20And he arose, and came to his father. But 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. 

21And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. 25Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29And he answering said to his father, 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: 30But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Exegetes who view God in a more personal way will generally take one of two approaches with this text.
  1. It may be argued that the father in the story is meant to represent God. Additionally, it may be said that the younger son represents the covenant of grace, while the older brother represents the covenant of law.
  2. Alternatively, it may be argued that although the father is not meant to be God, his reception of the younger son is meant to illustrate God’s loving grace in receiving the repentant sinner.
It is our contention that the first view is completely off base, and the second is more accurate, albeit sometimes too much colored by our understanding of “love” in terms of sentimentality. We will defend this view with a series of questions and answers. Our primary source of information is an essay by Richard Rohrbaugh from the book Jesus and His Parables titled, “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors” although we are using general background knowledge from the social sciences to validate his findings as well.

Is the father in the story meant to be God? If so, it should first be noted that there is little to commend such an equation, save by begging the question that an analogy to God’s grace is to be found in the first place. Jesus does not say that the father is the Father, though in the form of a parable, this is not strictly necessary. More important is that if the father here is the Father, then we are led to the conclusion that so is the shepherd who left his sheep (15:4-7) and the woman who lost a coin (15:8-9). Do we wish to hypothesize that God leaves us to our own devices (the ninety-nine), unprotected from wolves, while he goes to find one lost sheep? Do we wish to hypothesize that He is capable of losing track of us? This is an important point, moreso than we may realize, for from a cultural perspective, the unfortunate fact is that the father in this parable is a thoroughly inept fool – he commits a number of horrendous breaches of the social code, such as:
  1. Abandoning his place as the head of the family by acquiescing to his son’s unreasonable, insulting demands – thereby also abandoning his honor and authority in the larger village social structure.
  2. Similarly, doing the same with his elder son at the end of the story, begging him to go into the party (he should rather be issuing a direct order to the eldest son to participate).
  3. As even exegetes in favor of the two above positions acknowledge, humiliating himself by lifting his robe and running.
It does not seem likely that Jesus would intend to portray the Father with such unflattering images. The family in this scenario would become disgraced in the eyes of the village they lived in. Indeed, what many commentators have not recognized in the past is that, despite the elder son’s words, the fatted calf is killed as a way of trying to reconcile the family with the rest of the village: A fatted calf would have too much meat for just one family, and the rest of the village would have despised the entire family for setting a poor example that others in the village might be tempted to follow.

Relatedly, are the sons meant to parallel the two covenants of grace and law? The basis for this seems to be little more than that the younger son “repents” when he goes back to the father. But strictly speaking, the son says and does nothing that can be clearly equated with Christian repentance. The phrase “came to himself” is sometimes read this way, but there are no parallel usages in other literature that can validate this meaning, and it needs mean no more than that he came to recognize in practice how far his situation had changed.

The younger son’s motivation for return is also not coherent with Christian repentance, for he returns out of need to fill his stomach, and he offers to come work for his father – which would amount to an illustration of salvation by works, if the analogy is to hold. (It is not clear whether he does go on to work for his father, but under normal circumstances, he would be expected to indeed participate in the survival of the family – in other words, work.)

In addition, there is actually little to indicate that the youngest son engaged in sinful activities when he squandered his inheritance. The older son’s charge of spending the money on harlots can hardly be taken seriously; he was not on the younger son’s tail watching what he did in a faraway land. The charge is a case of deviance labeling, a stock insult, as opposed to a clinical observation. The words translated above “riotous living” also tell no such tale of necessity; the word used does mean excess, but this is just as well interpreted in terms of unwise stewardship, of a “boy from the country” not knowing how to manage his finances in the big city. (Rohrbaugh applies the example of modern Third World peasants who spend all their money when visiting cities.)

This may be of little relevance, since the son could arguably still have plenty to repent for, notably the way he treated his father. However, it remains that there is no clear statement of repentance by the son. He admits his error, but this is just as well seen as an admission preparatory to regaining his place in the family – in other words, he is not sorry he did it because he is repentant, but because of the penalty he undergoes.

Thus there is little to recommend an analogy to the covenant of grace, for what parallels may be found are too generalized. Perhaps the most important point is that there is no parallel to the atonement in this parable – and exegetes who admit this claim that to say so is to “miss the point.” But it can be said in turn that the charge of “missing the point” itself begs the question.

What about the fact that the father says that the younger son was once lost and dead, but is now found and alive? In this case, we should be careful of not reading into these terms later soteriology (or even John Newton’s hymnology).

The words “lost,” “found,” “dead” and “alive” had yet to acquire such a semantic overlay; let it be kept in mind, for example, that in an agonistic setting, a deviant may be treated as though “dead”. It is in those terms that these words should be interpreted.

So what, it may be asked, do we do with the points of contact Jesus does offer us – of how, in his words in the prior, smaller parables, heaven rejoices over one lost sinner returning? We would maintain that the point of this parable is much the same as the others, effectively operating as qal wahomer: what applies in a less important case will apply in a more important case. The subjects of the three parables are 1) a foolish shepherd who abandons his flock; 2) a woman who has carelessly lost a coin; 3) a foolish, dysfunctional family. The message is thus that if even these three foolish examples give us people who are able to recognize the need to return the lost to fellowship, how much more so should God welcome the repentant sinner?

This is a direct slap in the face to the Pharisees (who, by implication, are foolish for keeping sinners at arms’ length and refusing to welcome them, much less aid them in finding a place with God). It may also subtly indicate that things that outwardly appear foolish and shameful hide within them a God-given principle -- just as the cross appears to have been a case of Jesus (divinity) dying a shameful death, which obscures, to those unwilling to see, God’s triumph through the Resurrection.

The story of the prodigal thus indeed has a message about God’s covenant grace extended to sinners. However, it is not quite the same message being found by those who see in the parable either a father who is meant to be the Father, or an analogy to the covenant of grace – and thus provides little to substantiate a relationship with God in familiar, personal terms to the degree supposed.

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