Jacob & the Prodigal

???????????????????????????????????????????Kenneth Bailey’s book Jacob & the Prodigal overlaps with important sections of my own book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace. In using the thought of René Girard and his colleagues to explore ways of renewing Christian spirituality (see Violence and the Kingdom of God for an introduction to Girard), I comment at length on the stories of fratricidal strife in Genesis and Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. (The Parable is better titled something like “The Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.”

Wee both see Jesus’ Parable as seeking to resolve the strife between brothers although, like the story in Genesis, the Parable is left open, leaving the possibility of resolution open but not fulfilled in the text. Having grown up in the Near East, Bailey has much knowledge of Semitic culture that many of us in the West do not have. As a result, Bailey offers many important insights into the Parable and the earlier narrative that pass many of us by. For example, Bailey emphasizes the foolishness of the Father in the Parable in running to meet his son at the edge of the village. For a grown man to run for any reason was considered shameful and to run for such a purpose especially so. This is just one example among many of the new insights Bailey has to offer us. Bailey treats the Parable as the climax of a trilogy of parables in Luke 15 which begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep and continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. By studying the parables together, Bailey explores the Christology of the Parables where the shepherd, the woman searching for her coin and the father all become images of Jesus Himself as he reveals how overwhelming and unimaginable the Love of God is.

The final portion of the book is a comparison of the Parable with the Saga of Jacob and Esau. Many of the parallels are contrasts which are at least as illumining as the likenesses. In both cases we have two brothers in strife. Isaac, however, in his in ineptness in being tricked is a huge contrast to the father in the Parable. Another contrast is that Jacob does well in the foreign country while the Prodigal Son does not. Another likeness is that neither Jacob nor the Prodigal Son repent of wrongdoing. (Bailey explains at length that the Prodigal Son is only scheming to get set up in a craft to get enough money to live on; he is not repenting of asking his father for half the estate, brutal as that was to his father.) Bailey argues that Esau doesn’t really forgive Jacob as I argue in my take on the story. The number of armed men Esau brings could suggest an aggressive meeting but it could be a defense measure, not knowing how many armed men Jacob might have. Bailey argues that the vowels of the Hebrew word for “kiss: are the same as the vowels for “bite,” leaving open the possibility that Esau bit Jacob. I can’t argue the linguistic case but it seems to me that so aggressive an act would have led to a more violent reaction than we have. In any case, I see Jacob not believing in Esau’s forgiveness and rather than a reconciliation, the story ends in a permanent separation.

In the Parable, the two brothers are separate at the end, thus keeping up the conflict that I see between them dating back to before the younger brother leaves. In the Parable, however, the central separation is between each of the brothers and their father. The younger son does seem to have accepted his father’s welcome, although we don’t know if he persevered in his gratitude. The older son is at odds with his father as well as with his brother. The challenge is whether or not the older son will accept his father’s love for his younger son. In like manner, Bailey demonstrates that this challenge is thrown out to the scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with “sinners.”
Bailey’s book is a valuable source of new insights that deeply refresh our understanding of a Parable that we think we understand so well that we have let it go stale. Most important, Bailey’s study makes the Love of God revealed in Jesus “full of sap, still green.”

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Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance

Treasures in Clay Jars: Veiled Missions

GregoryIcon1When Paul says that “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake,” (1 Cor. 4: 5) he is forcefully rooting his identity not in himself but in Christ. We are easily prone to the illusion that we each have a self that belongs to me and is mine to do whatever I please with it.

This illusion of an individualistic self is the veil “that has blinded the minds of the unbelievers who are perishing.” It is the “god of this world” who has cast this veil. The veil is what René Girard identified as the persecutory mechanism that has marred humanity since the dawn of civilization. It was precisely this system that was exposed in the Gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. When Paul says that the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing, he does not mean that God is casting people into hell; he means that as long as the Gospel is veiled, we perish in our own violence without even realizing it. When we are not rooted in Christ so as to proclaim Christ rather than ourselves, we are caught in the winds of human desires that carry us in all directions, all of them prone to collective violence. Moreover, we fall into cunning and falsification of God’s word and the shameful things we hide. These reflections seem to continue Paul’s discussion in the previous chapter of this epistle of the veil that covers the faces of Jews when they read the Torah, but by universalizing the veiling, Paul moves the unkind words about his own people. Universalizing the veil has the great advantage of showing that neither Jew nor Gentile has the thicker veil; all of us have it when we fall into systemic scapegoating violence.

Paul appeals to creation as providing the light that takes away the veil and gives us a glimpse of the world as it is meant to be. “For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord” (2 Cor. 4: 6). It is the fall into systemic violence that has obscured this glory. It is inspiring that this glory of the created world shows us the face of Christ, a hint that Jesus planned to enter into Creation to enjoy the world with us and didn’t come up with the plan to be incarnate just to make repairs when things went wrong.

It is perhaps this vision of creation unveiled that inspired Pope Gregory to discern what elements of the English culture could be converted rather than rejecting them wholesale. He advised Augustine of Canterbury to convert the temples rather than destroy them. Of course, just as we have to practice discernment as to what must and can be converted and subverted in another’s culture, we have to practice the same discernment with the veils placed over our own faces by our own culture. The famous story of how Gregory, before he became pope, was inspired to promulgate an English mission is a case in point. Upon seeing some fair youths in the slave market in Rome, Gregory asked who they were. On being told that they were Angles, Gregory, in uttering one of the most famous of puns, said that instead, they should become angels. If anything embodies the persecutory mechanism, it is slavery. Chesterton suggested that Gregory could (or should) have meant: “not slaves, but souls.” The veil lifted enough for Gregory to see the youths as humans in need of salvation and, as pope, he sent a mission to do just that, but the veil did not lift enough for Gregory to agitate for the abolition of slavery, much as he was willing to be a slave himself for the sake of those in need of his pastoral care. That job was left to an energetic descendent of the people converted by Gregory: William Wilberforce.

Preaching in the face of such veils, not least our own, is a daunting task and it is no wonder Paul urges us not to lose heart in the process. It is enough to make us feel like clay and Paul tells us that feeling like clay is exactly the way we should feel when faced with the task of preaching the Gospel. When we realize that we are made of clay, as Genesis 2:7 teaches us, we appreciate what a great gift are the treasures inside the clay jars that are us, a gift from God so that we can “commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).