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The Prodigal Reader

Finding mystery and meaning in Jesus' parables

Twenty years ago, I taught English and American literature at a Chinese university. My students were smart, spoke amazing English, and read literary works even native English speakers find difficult—Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce—all with an enthusiasm I've rarely encountered since. Victims of China's Cultural Revolution in the late '60s and early '70s—a book-burning, knowledge-squelching period of their history—these students hungered for knowledge, especially knowledge of the previously forbidden: literature, religion, Western thought. After we'd read a novel or a play, we'd discuss different ways of interpreting it. Invariably one of them would raise a hand and stand to ask the question they all had: "But what is the correct interpretation of this story?"

The literary innocence of their question amused me. Nevertheless, many years later, as a new Christian studying the Bible for the first time and similarly hungering for knowledge just beyond my grasp, I read Jesus' stories and found myself asking the same question.

I encountered the more popular of Jesus' parables during the masses of my childhood and in my family's illustrated children's Bible—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower and the Seeds. As a child, I didn't think about these stories very deeply, except to glean the most obvious messages: the Good Samaritan did right. Forgiveness is possible for doing wrong, if you're sorry. And being cast on rocky ground sure is bad luck.

As an adult, though, I encountered tougher parables—tales of servants burying their money and virgins with lamps waiting for the bridegroom to return. Even the easy ones of my childhood suddenly became more difficult to understand. Like the stories I teach and write, Jesus' parables not only have characters and plots, but puzzling subplots, unresolved conflicts, odd details, and unfamiliar tropes. Many begin the same way—"The kingdom of heaven is like … "—but the resulting similes are different, elusive. The kingdom of heaven is like a seed, a merchant, a net, a vintner, a landowner, a treasure, a king, a bit of yeast. What is this kingdom of heaven? I wondered. So variously described, so recognizably our world, so peopled with such scoundrels.

All the stories invited more than the obvious interpretations. As a child, I never noticed the priest and Levite who didn't help the man left for dead on the roadside. But from the cynical perspective of adulthood, they loomed larger than the Samaritan, calling church authority into question and suggesting kindness is better undertaken in the course of one's daily business than in association with some group with mixed-up priorities. When I discussed this idea at the church I was attending, people told me I read too much into the parable and steered me back to the way I'd understood it as a child. Another friend read the story as a call to the church to supplant false prophets with those in pursuit of social justice. And when my husband and I discussed the story over breakfast, we came up with other readings. In short, the more I read Jesus' stories, the more confused I became about what, precisely, I was supposed to think and do as a Christian.

Ironically, from the pulpits of the various churches I attended, I heard that Jesus spoke in parables so people could understand him—especially the simple folk among whom he circulated: the fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes. This teaching perplexed me.

Jesus himself disputed that teaching, for one thing. When his disciples asked why he always spoke in parables, he answered, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables, so that,

'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" (Mark 4:11-12).

Jesus spoke in parables, he seemed to say, not to make his message easier to understand but to make it harder—indecipherable, in fact, at least for "those on the outside."

Nevertheless, Jesus used parables to address not only outsiders such as the educated hecklers among his listeners, but his closest friends and the "harassed and helpless" crowds who surrounded him (Matthew 9:36). I sensed his goal in telling stories—rather than in giving straightforward lectures and commands—wasn't to resist interpretation altogether but to resist the facile understanding that results from listeners being too determined to have the right answer. Like children so busy waving madly and shrieking "I-know-I-know-I-know!" that they don't really hear what the teacher's saying.

That Jesus' disciples themselves struggled with the parables comforted me considerably. "What does he mean?" they always asked each other. When Jesus warned against the yeast of the Pharisees, the confused disciples fretted that they should've brought bread. Jesus chided, "Don't you understand this parable? How then can you understand any parable?" (Matthew 16:5-12). And although he assured them they already knew the secret of God's kingdom, I'm sure they worried, as I worried, But how can that be, if I hear the parables and don't understand them?

Clearly, the parables have different ways of meaning than how many of us expect or desire. Like the disciples—like my Chinese students, ardent for knowledge denied them—we want a simple remedy for what's wrong with us and the world: a directly applicable point, the "correct interpretation." But stories resist such reductions.

The story of the Prodigal Son offers many messages. Paramount is the salvation message I picked up on as a child: God forgives those who repent, no matter how heinous their sin. Beneath that lie other messages: Forbidden pleasures are likely to disappoint us; God longs to be reunited with his creation; he scans the horizon for our return.

As a writer of stories myself, I'm awed by the efficiency with which Jesus gets us into a tale. In a few paragraphs at most, his parables are absolutely "on the page," as we say in fiction workshops. We may strain to understand his underlying message, but we're right there where he wants us to be: in a vineyard, at the wedding banquet, on the roadside bandaging a stranger's wounds.

Readers recognize themselves—and their family members, coworkers, and neighbors—in the people a storyteller invents. Having come to faith in middle age—after engaging in riotous living in distant countries for much of my adulthood—I recognize myself in the Prodigal Son. I identify viscerally with his hunger for the scraps thrown to the pigs; I snatched at them greedily, was even almost satisfied, until I finally noticed my Father in the distance, his arms full of treasures.

I also see myself in the Prodigal's brother. Muttering good riddance when his rival leaves. Sneaking a gleeful glance at the pigpen upon his return. Glaring from behind the father's back as he is welcomed home. I wouldn't have complained as frankly, perhaps, but I've certainly thought the brother's thoughts, which are Cain's thoughts and the vineyard workers' thoughts after working hard all day long for the same pay as those hired at the eleventh hour.

The Parable of the Prodigal raises questions it doesn't answer. I've always wondered why the father's so generous in the first place. The son's demanding an inheritance when the father was still alive is equivalent, then as now, to wishing him dead. Certainly parents who cater to their selfish children are believable—I've known many, and have been one myself on occasion. Still, the childrearing advice we get from every contemporary parenting guide—and what little we get from the Bible—would counsel against such spoiling. How can Jesus present the Father as such a wrong-headed parent?

"But that's not what the parable is about!" pastors and biblical scholar friends have objected. Yet Jesus, in using stories to teach, invites such speculations. Perhaps he even intended them. Perhaps he cast God as recognizably human to remind us of our similar impulses—our desire to give good things to our children, our vain hope to receive love in return for generosity—and thereby to personalize our awareness of the Father whose image we bear.

Does the Prodigal's brother repent of his envy? I doubt it. Does the Prodigal Son become a model child? If my experience serves as any statistical measure, it's not likely. Does the Prodigal's dad change his parenting style, or does he later, in a moment of pity, split the elder brother's inheritance in half and give the younger another chance? The story doesn't say. We're given only this glimpse of believable people in believable conflict, these opportunities to deepen our understanding of God and our relationship with him.

Jesus told stories not to dumb down his teaching for the uneducated, but to challenge those who've been given the secret of the kingdom of God to enter it more deeply. Through his use of parables, he invites us, in the words of C. S. Lewis, "higher up and further in" to the rich message of love and forgiveness he came to offer us.

Patty Kirk is a writer in residence and professor of English at John Brown University, and author of Confessions of an Amateur Believer and Starting from Scratch.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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