Author: Fr. Michael Byron
March 31, 2019

Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish Scripture Scholar who has done a great deal of study and writing on New Testament Christian Themes. She is funny and breezy in her style.

She teaches at a place called Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN, where she describes herself as “a Yankee Jewish Feminist who teaches at a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.”

I had the pleasure to meet her at a gathering of inter-religious clergy at St. Catherine’s University a couple of years ago, and our parting gift from the gathering was her book titled “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.”

In that book she takes up several of Jesus’s parables and tries to enlighten Christians about how the original first century Jewish audience would actually have learned and understood those stories, rather than how 21st Century Christian preachers tend to presume they did.

I have returned to that book often, as I did this week in reflecting on the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son, which we have just heard from Luke’s Gospel.

Here are a few of her summary comments at the end of the chapter:

“What are we to make of that younger son? It is neat and tidy to see him as shattered by grace and fully repentant, but I doubt first-century readers would have. I neither like nor trust the younger son. I do not see him doing anything other than what he has always done – take advantage of his father’s love. It’s hard to get much work done when one is filled with fatted calf, and yet his father loves him, and he is a member of the family. Therefore, he cannot be ignored, and to dismiss him would be to dismiss the father as well.”

This parable, she says, “provokes” us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you love lost may be in right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, bot so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again.  Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one.

“Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary… you will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection – it is unlikely to happen twice.”

I love it when I can quote the insight and language of people who are better at it than I am.  It makes homily preparation so much less work.

There is very much that unresolved in this parable that can seem to us to be so familiar.

At the end of it nobody has yet to utter the simple words “I’m sorry” or “can you forgive me?”

We never find out whether that angry older brother – the one who was truly lost – showed up at the party. We don’t know whether he was ever persuaded by his father, or reconciled with him. Or with his brother.

There’s a lot that’s going to be determined by what happens next, whether in speech or in action.

Any of us who lives honestly understands the reality of being lost, whether it is we ourselves who are there, or loved ones, or whole communities – even if we or they may not even recognize it.

This holy season of Lent is an opportunity, among other things, to pose the question, “who’s lost? Why? And what can I and we do to at least start to create the conditions for the lost to be found, for the dead to return to life?”

As Amy-Jill Levine concludes:
“A father had two sons… the details can be filled in, and filled by any among us. The scriptures of Israel give us hope for our own reconciliations, from the personal to the international.

We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost… takes work. From those efforts there is the potential for wholeness and joy.”

Today on this fourth Sunday of Lent, our church observes what has been traditionally called “Laetare Sunday,” or “Rejoice Sunday.”

From the very middle of a season of penitence and reflection on sin, we are summoned to remember what it’s all for in the end: wholeness and joy.


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