Monday, November 22, 2010
Jesus had a knack for fiction. The Prodigal was no more an historical character than The Good Samaritan, or the frantic woman on the hunt for a lost coin, or the gentle shepherd who left the ninety and nine of his flock of a hundred to fend for themselves while he chased over the ridge after a single wanderer. None of Jesus’ subjects existed in time or space. They are, on one level, imaginary; but on another, real. It has been said that we remember fictional characters more clearly than the men and women who populate our history books. Good fictional characters make deep and lasting impressions on our hearts and in our minds. Jesus understood this.
Carl Jung had a clue to the reason why. Robust fictional characters become, as he called them, archetypes. They represent something far greater than themselves; they are psychologically, intellectually, existentially, spiritually compelling. The storyteller is not bound by the scrutiny of historical accuracy. The careful historian must base the narrative on the existing record. He or she reconstructs the moment as precisely as possible, eliminating any hint of bias. The storyteller, on the other hand, lives with none of these constraints. Fictional characters exist for one purpose only: the story. Their creator is free to create. The canvas is blank. No one ever told Charles Dickens that he got Scrooge wrong. No one ever complained that there never was a George Bailey of Bedford Falls. The characters come alive; though they never were. What we do with these allusions of literature or cinema is entirely up to us. The interpretation, the application, the identification then, is solely in the mind of the beholder.
So fiction is more like a painting than a photograph. Storytelling is an art form. Jesus told stories that live to this very day. We call them Parables.
They taught me the story of the Prodigal on flannel-graph back when I was a child. Those teachers took on the assignment to teach us youngsters the things we would not be learning in our public schools. They taught us the Bible from a cloth-covered board on a three-legged stand with colorful cutouts illustrating the story of the week. They would move the pieces here and there as the drama unfolded. It was state-of-the-art story telling, pre-video. I don’t think I understood anything about wealth transfer or riotous living, but I got the gist of it. Rebellion happens. Sometimes, there is conflict between parents and children. Fathers are sad when their kid walks out, and happy when they come home. I got that. But there is far more.
This year, I read Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God along with a collection of guys who meet every other week in the conference room of a law firm. The whole book centers on this one short story of Jesus found in only one of the four Gospels. (We’ve come a long way since flannel-graph.) Keller suggests that the popular title of the story, “The Prodigal Son,” may not be the best name for it (the title of the story is not in the text). The New York City Presbyterian proposes that Prodigal God is more to the point. What is so stunning about Jesus’ story is not that the younger brother took the money and ran off to sin city and burned the cash up in record time. What is astonishing is the father’s patient waiting and then irrepressible celebration at the return of the reprobate. That is breathtaking.
As Keller points out, the poignant story did not bring the religious establishment to tears of remorse. It did not prompt them to alter their view of tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners, welcoming them to the fold. It infuriated them. They were insulted. They wanted revenge. Ultimately, they took it.
“Prodigal” refers to lavish, extravagant, and reckless, as in prodigious. We tend to focus on the reckless disregard of the son as he thoughtlessly pours his portion of the father’s hard earned wealth down the proverbial septic drain. Keller suggests that we ought to focus instead on the father’s lavish, extravagant, reckless, prodigious mercy as he wraps his loving arms around the errant boy and calls for an audacious party.
Of course, many of us religious types look on the whole thing, as did the boy’s older brother, with contempt and bitter disdain. And for Keller, it was easy to fill up a whole book on the larger point Jesus is trying to make: this God we’re talking about is The Prodigal God. He stands ready with lavish, extravagant, even scandalous grace.
I went into this last week with the study of the parable on my to-do list. It was scheduled weeks ago. When I put it on the calendar back then, I did not know we would be living the story out. A very good friend of mine had a prodigal of his own come home this week. I watched him respond. I shared his tears. He is becoming a real life prodigal dad; like the father in Rembrandt’s immortal painting; like the tender father in Jesus’ parable – the one I first learned about from a flannel-graph board.
Fiction touches down in time and space.
I was there.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010