Sunday, February 27, 2005

Broadening our horizons

One of the great things about good biblical scholarship is that it creates new possibilities for the ordinary preacher. As I have prepared this week to preach on the all-too familiar parable of the prodigal son, I have had my thinking changed and horizons broadened by reading Kenneth Bailey's Jacob and the Prodigal (yes, I know I'm reading McLaren and Chester, but sometimes the needs of weekly preparation necessitate not just reading commentaries but whole books - it's one of the reasons why I love my job).

Bailey argues - as does Tom Wright - that Jesus' most famous parable is a retelling of Israel's story, especially the story of the nation's exile and return. Bailey makes a case for Jesus basing his story on the story of Jacob's deceit of his father and brother in the later chapters of Genesis. There two sons vie for position within a family, a father is deceived into giving inheritance early, the younger son goes off into a far country and then engineers a return and possible reconciliation.

Bailey shows that this story, formative for the nation of Israel (Jacob's name was changed to Israel by God as he confirmed the continuation of the promise to Abraham through him), was a topic of lively debate in Jesus' day. The book of Jubilees (dated a hundred years or so before Jesus' time) and the Antiquities by Josephus both contain a retelling of the story with application to their contemporaries. Philo retold it for a gentile mind with a philosophical bent.

So when challenged on his policy of including 'sinners' in his group, it is not surprising that Jesus too would use this foundational story to create a narrative that explained what he was doing and what God was doing through him.

Bailey shows that Jesus universalised the story, thereby paving the way for all kinds of people to come into God's family by being found (see previous post on how this works). So, while retelling Israel's story and showing how all its people were welcome in God's Kingdom which was arriving in Jesus' ministry, Jesus was also hinting at what as to come as his followers pushed out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that the world would be blessed through them was coming true.

The thing that really struck me in all this is the seriousness with which Bailey takes Jesus as a theologian. This shouldn't surprise a Christian, really. But in the world of scholarship there seems to be a reluctance to credit Jesus with much original thought. commentaries still talk about the gospel writers being the creative minds, weaving their account according to a particular theological slant. Tom Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God is a notable exception to this.

Bailey makes the case for Jesus the theologian in his book. He argues that Luke found the material that comprises chapter 15 of his gospel as a single unit, passed down from the original disciples, probably when he was in Jerusalem at the time when Paul's group (of which Luke was a part) arrived with the offering from the gentile churches and Paul was arrested. During the two years that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, Luke researched his gospel, speaking to eye witnesses and those who preserved and told the stories of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

If this is the case, then it tells us something vital about Jesus. It tells us that he took his opponents very seriously. Sometimes preachers are wont to make jokes about the pharisees being narrow-minded bigots who were always being made to look foolish by Jesus. If Bailey is right, then Jesus took the time to craft a story that took Pharisaic concerns very seriously and engaged them in debate about the nature of the people of God and proposed an alternative theology of God's action in the world. Indeed the parable in Luke 15 is nothing short of an exposition of the nature of God and a claim by Jesus to be embodiment of that nature as demonstrated through the way he lived and taught.

What this tells me as a minister is that I have to take seriously the questions and stories of those who do not share my view of the world. And I have to find ways of telling the story of what's happening in today's world in a way that reveals God's nature and love. And a way of telling the Christian story that resonates with those who live by different stories today. Jesus, of course, subverted the pharisees' story as he told his and invited his hearers to see the world his way. It is a subtle, compelling form of evangelism that we would do well to recover in the 21st century.

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