Tag Archives: parable

Of Crucial Importance


The best devotional book I have read in the past decade is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, to unpack Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He helped me see that at times I am the wayward younger son, at times the angry elder son, and even at times, the compassionate father. I found his description of the elder son’s reluctance to join in the celebration of the father’s love speaking directly to my own heart.

For me, personally, the possible conversion of the elder son is of crucial importance. There is much in me of the group of which Jesus is most critical: the Pharisees and the scribes. I have studied the books, learned about laws, and often presented myself as an authority in religious matters. People have shown me respect and even called me “reverend” . . . I have been critical of many types o behavior and often passed judgment on others.

So when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, I have to listen with the awareness that I m closest to those who elicited the story from him with the remark, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Is there any chance for me to return to the Father and feel welcome in his home? Or am I so ensnared in my own self-righteous complaints that I am doomed, against my own desires, to remain outside of the house, wallowing in my anger and resentment?

Jesus says: “How blessed are you when you are poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry . . . blessed are you who are weeping . . . ,” but I am not poor, hungry or weeping.  Jesus prays: “I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things [of the kingdom] from the learned and clever.” It is to these, the learned and clever, that I clearly belong. Jesus shows a distinct preference for those who are marginal in society—the poor, the sick, and the sinners—but I am not marginal.

But the story of the elder son puts all of these agonizing questions in a new light, making it very plain that God does not love the younger son more than the elder. In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in, and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behavior. The father moves directly beyond all evaluations to stress his intimate relationship with his son when he says, “You are with me always.” (p. 79-80)

Lord Jesus, thank you for the promise: “You are with me always.”

Who Is In the Ditch?

A common interpretation of Jesus’ parable on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is to think it is moral story. The moral objective is for us to do good for our neighbors. If you see someone stranded by the side of the road, you should stop and help them in some way. There is nothing wrong with this moralistic interpretation of the parable. At the end Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Good Samaritan by He Qi

Good Samaritan by He Qi

Yet such a moral interpretation is not the only way to read this story. Jesus’ parables nearly always contain a surprise that trips us up. The Good Samaritan has such a surprise. This was the focus of yesterday’s sermon which you can hear here.

Jesus told the story in order to answer a religious lawyer’s question about loving our neighbor. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered the question with the parable:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and left him half dead. (This not a big surprise since that road was an isolated one.) Now, by chance, a priest was coming down the road and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side of the road. (Minor surprise here, a priest might be one who would see the religious obligation to help, but does not.) Likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (The Levite, another religious person who should help him, does not.)

Now in classic storytelling fashion, Jesus has set up the third person to break the pattern of passing by and thereby demonstrate what loving the neighbor means. Since he is speaking to a religious lawyer and wants him to learn what love is, one might expect the third person to be a religious lawyer who stops to aid the beaten man. This would make the moral point very explicit.

Instead, Jesus surprised the lawyer (and us) by introducing a Samaritan into the parable. Samaritans and Jews had a great deal of religious hatred with one another since they disagreed on where God’s temple should be (see John 4:20). The Samaritan is the one who goes out of his way to care for the beaten man; the Samaritan is a totally unexpected hero.

But where is the lawyer in the parable? For that matter where are we in this story? He (or we) might identify with the priest or Levite or possible the Samaritan. But there is another possibility. Perhaps Jesus is inviting lawyer (and the reader as well) to see oneself as the man beaten and thrown in the ditch.

Many of us have a hard time accepting the love and compassion of others. We prefer being the one in control, dispensing the compassion. We keep our wounds (emotional, spiritual, relational, and vocational) hidden. Perhaps Jesus is calling us to receive compassion and care from others and not be so stoic. There are risks to such vulnerability. Yet Jesus took such risks when he was beaten, stripped and died for us. (More later on this later in the week).

Lord Jesus, help me to receive compassion for others.