One of the most important things we can learn about the gospels is the nature of the language that the writers use. It is the language of parables – a language, it seems, favoured by Jesus himself. Jesus was a great teacher, as we know. He was a great storyteller and he constantly uses stories to communicate his message. But the parables are not simply stories. A parable is very particular kind of story: it is a story that is designed to confuse us, to unsettle us, even in some cases, to shock us. We have grown used to them. They are not unfamiliar. But yet, there is something in each of them that doesn’t make sense. The point in the confusion is that a parable is designed to bring us to the limit, as it were, of our ordinary way of thinking and to force us to cross over into a new kind of thinking.
What is it in each of these stories that doesn’t make sense? It doesn’t make sense for a shepherd to leave 99 sheep and go look for one, and then having risked so much, to slaughter one of the flock for a celebration. No Palestinian shepherd would do that. Neither does it make sense for someone to worry about a lost drachma, being worth so little, but then having spent the entire day looking for it, to then spend it in celebration. No Palestinian housewife would do that.
And when we come to the story of the Prodigal Son, there is a mysterious omission in this parable: the son speaks to himself, the son speaks to the father, the older son speaks to the father, the father speaks to the older son, the older son speaks to the servants, the father speaks to the servant. However, the father never speaks to the son who has returned. It doesn’t make sense for a father who has been so rejected to be silent, without reprimand, upon his son’s return, to have lost so much financially and then to spend just as much again in celebration when the cause of the loss comes back. Why does the father not speak directly to the son?
Yet there is also something further in the parable that is most unexpected, and that would have startled the first Palestinian hearers of the parable: the ‘father’ runsto the son. Such an action of a father towards his son would have been unheard of in 1stcentury Palestinian custom. The father occupied a position of status and of respect. The protocol demanded subservience of the son to the father. In order to maintain the respect of the son, the father maintained a certain distance by virtue of his position. Yet, here we have a father abandoning all protocol and restraint in such joy to receive back his son.
This is the madness of passionate love. And it is the passionate love of God, completely unlike the love that we are used to, to which Jesus is opening our minds to by this set of parables. We measure; we calculate; we evaluate. We weigh things up and respond in kind to what we receive. Yet, the love of the Father of Jesus is completely different. It does not measure, calculate, or evaluate. It simply pours itself out towards us. In the face of this, perhaps no words are necessary?
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