03 – Presumptions
“There was a man who had two sons”
Whenever the central story in Luke 15 comes to mind, each person’s presumptions come into play. These are often unexamined, so whenever any writer comes to this story with a different set of presumptions (also often unexamined) they jar us and set up a defensive reaction. So I thought I should try to examine my own presumptions, so I could “blow the whistle” on myself, and also give a few clues to help the reader understand some things that I might say later.
The story is an absolute fiction. It is not interested in the details it does not include. But the story is “true to life” and so we are always tempted to treat it as an actual event. So it is inevitable that we want to know more about each of the characters. We live in the age of the detective story, whether in print or film, where the detective tries to detect motives, causes, consequences, background, and a myriad other details that the detective believes might be germane to the case. This is all done to better help the reader understand the clues that are provided, so as the gaps between observed facts are filled-in, it makes a credible case for both the reader and the writer.
The story that Jesus tells and that Luke retells is vague where we want clarity. But the genius of the story teller may lie in this vagueness. When we come to this story, with our own story in mind, we can see ourselves more easily if there are fewer things that cause us to say “that’s not like me!” So the characters are not named, their ages are not revealed, how much time transpires between the start and the close of the story is not indicated, and what happens after the events described is not given.
Some of Jesus’ parables shock us because they are so unlikely. The parable about the day labourers who are paid the same amount of money, whether they worked a full day, half a day or only an hour, is one of those. (Matthew 20:1-16) But some parables, though fiction, are absolutely believable. They approach what is called “verisimilitude” and ask us to engage in “the willingly suspension of disbelief” so the point can be made. Luke’s retelling of the stories of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the one about The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31) and the one about the Father and his two sons are those kind of stories. They may be called “mere fiction:” but there is nothing “mere” about stories that teach us things we need to hear. So I suspect that such stories ask us to enter into them in our imaginations, to actually re-live the events, and so understand those things we might be confused about, and thereby teach us how to live well.
So, let me offer you a few of my presumptions as I enter this story.
How old are the three major characters in this story?
How old was the Younger Son when this story begins?
I see him as a young man around 21 years of age. He is a young man, unmarried, trying to discover what his vocational options are, and with enough courage to go and explore a wider world than home. Of course I could be mistaken. He could be a 16 year old who wants to run away from home and live on the wild side. He could be older, but the word “younger” wants me to keep him in the young adult demographics and not just younger than his older brother.
How old was the Elder Son when this story begins?
We do not meet him until his younger brother returns but in my imagination I see him at least a decade older than his brother. He may not actually be any older than Esau was compared to Jacob, since they happened to be twins. But because he is called “The Elder Brother” it may not only describe his position compared to his younger brother, but it actually makes him look older in years. The term “Elder” was used in Israel and the early church also to describe those who were old enough in years to be considered leaders in the community. Besides that impression, he seems to act older and feels older when he says to his father “All these years I have worked for you…”. But of course I could be wrong. He may only be a year or two older than his brother, and I simply presume him older than that. Some are older than their years, having lived too long with the burden of self-imposed authority on their shoulders. But in my mind I see him in his thirties when the story begins.
How old was the Father when this story begins?
I see him as an older man when the story begins, and a senior citizen when the story ends. I have probably been influenced by all the paintings I have viewed over the years which usually make him took old. (See Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.)
But I also see him as an older man because he is willing to divest himself of control over his estate, and entrust it to his two sons; not something a younger father would be prone to do. Because no mother is described in this story, it also allows the impression that his wife might have died, and left him a widower.
Of course, this parable, perhaps choosing to show us how two sons might normally behave, may instead choose to show the Father in contrast to how fathers in that culture would tend to act. The father is unconventional, even abnormal, in how he is portrayed in this story. Jesus has patterned this father after God, and has patterned the sons after we mortals. So the father is acting very differently than most fathers act, and so he could still be middle-aged and thereby make the contrast more startling between our Divine Father and human fathers. Nonetheless, I still see the father as an old man. Again I could be mistaken, but I thought I should let you see how I see this father, for it does influence me as I write.
How long was the younger son gone?
We are given no facts and few hints about how long the younger son was away from home. Was it months or was it years? The country was “a distant country”. The suspicion is that it might not be a neighboring country like Syria, but may have been some of the favourite places for dispersed Jews such as Egypt, Asia minor, Greece or Italy. Such places take considerable time to get to and return from, and so might prolong the time away from home.
If the younger son’s share of the father’s estate was large, it would have taken a while to spend it, even if he spent it recklessly. The time was probably extended long enough for him to reach desperation. When his older brother complains “all these years I have been working like a slave for you,” this might indicate primarily the years since his brother had left, and not all the years of his life. So I imagine that he was gone for much longer than a few months. So in my mind I see him gone for 3 to 5 years. Just a guess, of course, with no clear evidence either way.
How extensive was the father’s wealth?
Again, we are not told how large was “the inheritance” that was to be divided between the two sons. Was it a large estate or a small farm? I see it as an operation large enough that there were slaves or servants as part of the permanent household. It was large enough to hire day labourers at peak seasons. It was large enough to be able to kill a fattened calf for the festival and maybe even hire some musicians. The older son, however, may have seen it in other terms. It was small enough that he had to work hard, and felt he could not take a young goat or the time to celebrate with his friends.
But it was large enough that the younger son could liquidate enough of the assets, without having to sell off any of the land, to fund his dream of a new life. It probably meant selling off some of the livestock, and giving him most of the accumulated cashable assets, that would make him feel that he had gotten his fair share.
So I see the estate large enough “to have enough and to spare” before he left, but not so large that it did not suffer from his leaving, and not so large that even the owners themselves did not have to work hard. Again, this is just a guess, as I re-image the story. You have my permission to disagree with me, and I will make little defense of my opinion.
It is estimated that there are over 30,000 denominations in the US alone, one for every 10,000 people! Some are very large movements, and some are very small. Over half of these have come into existence since 1960. Most of these begin as independent groups who split off from another church over some conflict, and begin in someone’s living room, then expand to other locations, and then register themselves as denominations. Some are led by skilled leaders and can grow rapidly. Many are like Jonah’s gourd, which shot up over night and perished the next night. It is difficult to discern whether these new offshoots are inspired by God or are simply the products of human divisiveness. But this we do know:
Great figures leave long shadows. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, and others of more recent vintage, attract followers. We understand them, revere them, choose them as mentors, defend them, and call ourselves by their names or their positions. But sometimes we are “captured” by these long shadows and cannot escape their influence!
Great contests tempt us to choose sides: Athanasius vs. Arius, Augustine vs. Pelagius, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Fundamentalism vs. Liberalism, Liturgical vs. Charismatic, etc. But some times, waging the wars our ancestors fought can be like the Hatfields and McCoys who keep on fighting, hardly remembering what caused the fight in the first place. In our reaction to opposition by others, we often harden our own position and push our own viewpoint to extremes, and so we falsify our own positions as we push our conversation partners to falsify their own. It is called the “Teeter Totter syndrome”. The more you lean on your end, the more I lean on mine. It is no longer about teeter tottering for the pleasure of both parties, it is now about the dominance and discomfort of our adversary.
A call for Modesty
There is a need for humility and modesty in theological debate. We are all far from being omniscient. To say, “I could be wrong” has a wonderful sound to it when tensions are increasing. The proverb, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials charity” should always guide us. And even when we cannot find unity even on what we deem essentials, at least let us agree to disagree, agreeably. We should always be ready to acknowledge “I do not know” as our primary response, even if we cannot resist adding “but this is what I think/believe.” Humility in the face of mystery may be wisdom.
I advise reading the words of Romans 14 & 15 from St. Paul, who speaks with great clarity on certain central issues, (as in I Corinthians 15 on the resurrection) but who can also “cut some slack” to those who differ over secondary matters. Reading John Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” may also prove helpful. “Do you love God, as I love God, then here’s my hand.” [i]
[i] John Wesley, Sermon # 39 “Catholic Spirit” The Works of John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, (Abingdon, Nashville, 1985.) Vol 2. pp 81-95.