Lost and found

31 March 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lent 4C (RCL)

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The parable of the Lost Son comes as the third of three parables concerning things lost and found. The first is the one sheep out of 99, and the second is the one coin out of ten. Now, we have one of two. Stories of younger sons and elder sons abound in the scriptures of Israel. Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – always the younger son comes out on top. Perhaps Israel experienced itself as the unlikely, lucky younger son.

In this case, the younger son asks for his share of the property, which would probably have amounted a third of his father’s estate, elder sons receiving a double portion (Deuteronomy 21:17). The younger son then squanders his share of the estate in dissolute living. He ends up feeding pigs, which would have rendered him pretty much permanently ceremonially unclean.

Unlike the shepherd missing one of a hundred sheep, and the woman missing one of ten coins, the father does not go looking for the son, but lets his foolishness run its course. However, when the son comes back, the father is waiting for him. He runs out, embraces him, kisses him, and has the servant bring the finest robe. Of course, the son would probably still have smelled like the pigs he had been feeding. He remains ceremonially unclean. But the father tells the servants to bring and sacrifice the fatted calf. The NRSV makes a bad mis-translation here. He doesn’t instruct them to kill the fatted calf, but to sacrifice it. The Greek word is thuo. The noun form is thusia, which means sacrifice. thusiasterion is the word for altar. Every time in the story the fatted calf is referred to, Luke uses this word. The father sacrifices the calf. The meal which follows is a sacrificial banquet.

The uncleanness of the son then becomes an important element of the story. The father invites him to the feast despite his condition. The relationship matters more than status. The older son comes in from the field and hears music. In the Greek, what he hears are symphonia and choron, symphonies and choruses. Symphonia is the music that accompanies a Greek comedy, and choruses the music that accompanies a tragedy. What the older son hears is Greek worship.

The older son refuses to enter the feast, so while the younger son was lost but now is found, the elder who was found now runs the risk of being lost. The father tries to reconcile the brothers.

The youngest son tried to commodify his relationship with his father, turning his share of the estate into money, which he then squandered. At the end of the story, the elder son can only see his relationship with his father and his brother in terms of commodity. When we play that zero-sum game, we will always be jealous. But if we calculate our wealth in terms of relationship, we are playing an open-sum game: the more people enter the party, the happier all will be.

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