The Orient is the land of honor and therefore of honor killings. Istanbul has one per week. Even liberal Jordan has reduced sentences for men who kill their wives who have brought dishonor. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas promised to change honor-killing laws by 2010 but has not yet got around to it. This is life in a shame-based society.
Jesus concocts a story that makes all shame scenarios pale. It is familiar to you as the tale of a feckless youth who strikes out on his own with his part of the inheritance and returns sorry. But there must be more to it than this or the Pharisees would not have sought to kill the teller.
You must imagine that the father is a man in the social register, with servants and fatted calves, a banquet room, and the standing to summon the community to it. The son's request is tantamount to saying, "Father, I am tired of waiting for you to die." The father would be expected to refuse this request, but he is not behaving like a traditional oriental patriarch.
The son "gathered all he had," that is, he "turned it into cash." The family breakdown is now public. The son needs his father's permission to perform this transaction. First-century Jewish law did not permit the division of inheritance until the father's death.
An ancient Israeli ceremony called the qetsatsah was a method for shunning a Jewish boy who allowed his inheritance to fall into the hands of Gentiles, if that boy ever showed his face in town again. It involved breaking a jar, filled with burnt corn and nuts, in front of the offender.
The son wastes the family fortune on "prodigal living," not necessarily "harlots"-that is an embellishment by the older brother, who has been in the field and knows nothing, but wants to make his brother sound worse. The prodigal's only chance to avoid qetsatsah is to earn back the inheritance money somehow.
Since pig farming didn't pan out, he has no other option but to approach his father for work. (I recall from Korean culture that one does not return home from long absences empty-handed but bearing gifts; this scene is unspeakable.) Still clueless about the father's heart, he hatches a "humble" speech that he thinks will soften his father by addressing the root of their estrangement-financial losses. He is still trying to save himself by the law.
There is no mother in the story. I wonder if this is the better to highlight the father, who now acts like a mother. If Michal glared with contempt from her window at King David for dancing before the ark, what would she make of this patriarch hiking his skirts down the road toward his smelly son? Middle Eastern sheiks do not run down the road before the kitchen help! This father behaves not only like a mother but a servant.
I have been asking myself about the banquet scene. Would I really like to be the father at that congratulation party, surrounded by invitees who all know what has been going on, and who may be nursing contempt for their host's undignified forgiveness and lavish love? And then it dawns on me: The father is aware of their thoughts. Who says no one underwent qetsatsah?
What did the father know and when did he know it? Did he know the son would fail? Sure. And he also had a plan-to reach his son before his son reached him.
Here is the way I thought my conversion went: God sought me, and then I performed a heroic (if self-conscious) act of repentance alone in a room in Osterville, Mass., on a rainy day in 1975. What a team we were, me and God!
Maybe it didn't go quite that way after all. Jesus told a triple parable. First, a man looks for a stray sheep and finds it. Second, a woman looks for a stray coin and finds it. Will the third in the trilogy break the pattern? I think not. This is not the tale of a son who finds the father but a father who seeks and finds a son.
This celebration is not the son's day but the Father's day.