An Insight For Christian-Jewish Relations
In Pennsylvania Dutch country, when an Amish farm gets too small to further subdivide among descendants without peril to the economy, the parents give up the farm to their children. One child gets the acreage; the other gets cash settlement and goes off to start a new life. The parents then retreat to the Grossdaddy house and live on at the behest of the inheriting son.
In the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) contains this line, “and he (the father) divided his living between them.” Just like Amish farmers, the father in this parable retreats to allow the next generation to seek its living. This key to the parable is often missed. It shows that the father loves both sons; and the father now lives in the house of the elder son as a guest. The son who leaves has bid farewell to his father.
In the 4th Century, Peter Chrysologos, Archbishop of Ravenna in Italy, called the older son Israel, the younger one the nations, or “gentiles.” He said, “morals, not age, make the Gentiles younger, and not years but understanding of the Law make the Jews the elder brother.” The morals of the younger son were off base, the observance of the Jews was proper and right.
Chrysologos’s interpretation plowed fresh ground when he suggested that the fatted calf, sacrificed to welcome the younger brother home after he “came to himself,” was an image of Christ, grounded in Old Testament images. The fatted calf represents the reception of Gentiles into the covenant God made with Israel. In other words, this “prodigal son” is received into the house to share the inheritance of the elder brother. Gentile Christians knew that they entered into the family of God as guests in the house of Israel. This insight was buried as Jewish-Christian relations broke apart tragically from the 5th century on.
The New Testament construction rests upon the Old Testament. It was built by searching the scriptures. Without the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, there could be no New Testament. When Jesus came among the Jewish people in that first century, those who surrounded him described his impact with references to the Old Testament in which he was immersed. His disciples searched the scriptures for images that explained who he was and had become to them and others. This was the way they came to speak about him.
The chief hurdle was to explain a suffering Messiah, one who had died. This was not supposed to be, according to readings of the scriptures at that time. Messiah was to be a victorious leader who would overcome adversity to raise Israel triumphant once again. Jesus did not do this. In fact, he died in ignominy at the hands of the Romans who killed him for undermining their authority (Luke 23). Those who surrounded him, however, knew him alive again after his crucifixion. This led to a feverish search of the scriptures for images that could give voice to this incredible experience. One central image was that of sacrifice, and it occurs in Luke’s parable, as Peter Chrysologos saw.
The parable of the prodigal son, thus, may not speak to Israel as much as it speaks to those not of the house of Israel who heard the Gospel of Luke, who saw in Judaism a shining light and a moral force in which they wanted to participate by adoption. As we grow into a renewed relationship between Jews and Christians, stories like this give us images for a future when we are bound together – as once, long ago, we were bound together before the parting of the ways.
published 17 Feb 2012