Yesterday I asked, in what sense does Bailey see the story of the Compassionate Father in Luke 15 as a retelling of the story of Israel?
It is easy to forget that the creator of a great story has the freedom to choose where to begin. Jesus sees himself as the divine presence in the community with the task of calling Israel back to God. Israel is “lost in exile” and needs to be brought back. To philosophize like Philo will not do. He must tell a story; and to be effective the new story must resonate with a time honored tale out of the past. The story of Abraham will not do. Abraham migrated from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan. The story of Isaac is also inappropriate. Isaac does no go anywhere. Joseph is born in Haran, on the Euphrates and dies in Egypt, and thus his story is also inadequate. Moses is born in Egypt and dies across the Jordan. Thus his pilgrimage does not mirror Israel’s history. But Jacob’s story is a tale of life at home followed by exile and family return. The saga of Jacob has the necessary outline, and Jacob is Israel. Perfect! Jesus deliberately chooses this story out of all the other major stories available to him and reshapes it into an account of who he is, what Israel’s predicament has come to be, and how he has come to bring her exile to an end. The polished result is the story we have examined. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 213-214.)
Bailey identifies 51 parallel themes between the story of Jacob and the story of the Compassionate Father. He identifies twelve instances where elements are directly repeated. For example, there are two sons; a rebellious son goes into a far country; fear on the eve of return. There are sixteen elements that are revised, like the way the younger son breaks relationship with the father; the nature of a blessing/inheritance; a manipulative speech upon return. Then there are 23 instances where the elements are reversed, like the nature of the father, success versus failure in the far country, gifts on return, and the evolution of the symbol of the father into a symbol for Jesus.
As Jesus re-creates the sage of Jacob/Israel in a parable, a few dramatic items are unique to one story or the other. The vast majority of the elements observed and discussed above first appear in the Jacob Saga and are then repeated, revised or reversed as they appear in the second. There are too many of them for all of this to be an accident. The author of the parable is clearly creating a new story for recognizable community that follows the outline of and builds upon the old story. With confidence we can affirm Jesus of Nazareth as the theologian who created these three sophisticated, intertextual and interlocking stories. …
These three parables show Jesus responding to a challenge from his contemporaries. He takes a story about a particular tribe and its self-understanding and transforms it into a drama that relates both to the nation as a whole and to the human predicament. The heart of this new story, built on the old, climaxes on a particular divine intervention of costly love into that predicament. As seen, Jesus presents himself as the agent of that divine intervention: as the good shepherd, the good women [sic] and the good father. To repeat N.T. Wright's choice phrase, Jesus offers “significant variations on the parent worldview. …
“Rebellious sinners” become “Jacob,” and “righteous sinners” are presented as the new “Esau.” The father, a symbol for God, evolves into the symbol for Jesus, who at great cost offers reconciliation separately to each type of sinner. If accepted, this new identity-forming story will make irrelevant the politics of “fight to the death against Rome” espoused by the zealots of the day. Jesus is quite able to hear the rumbling of the approach of a great storm. His offered new story, if accepted, will disperse the storm and the nation will be saved. When it becomes evident to him that only a few catch the vision of the new story, he weeps – over Jerusalem! Even on his way to the cross, his perceptions of the hard days ahead for the nation are still on his mind as he responds to the lament of the women (Lk 23:28-31).
As he creates the parable of the good shepherd Jesus rewrites Psalm 23. In the parable of the compassionate father and two lost sons, he presents a new version of eight chapters of the Torah with himself at its center. The centuries-old Latin saying is correct – this parable contains the gospel within the gospel. It is indeed the Evangelium in Evangelio. (214-215)
The implications of this retelling of Israel’s story are many. For the purposes of our discussion, I want to focus on one critical aspect: The story of the Compassionate Father casts God as the paterfamilias of a household offering costly grace to seek out “law-breaking sinners” and “law-keeping” sinners to bring them into the household as his children.
In Jesus day, there were three reformist/revolutionary movements at work. The zealots believed in armed rebellion to cleanse the land of oppression and domination by sinful Gentiles. If they rose up against their oppressors, they could in a sense “force the hand” of a righteous God to intervene and restore Israel. Gentiles, Roman collaborators, and sinful Jews would be subjugated.
Then there was the reform movement of the Pharisees. They believed that if people would live holy lives, God’s favor would once again return to Israel. Sinners were preventing the favor of God from being showered on Israel.
Then there were the Essenes who had given up on society and moved into isolation in the dessert. They saw themselves as a faithful remnant that would keep purity alive until the messiah came.
Jesus undercuts all of these agendas with this teaching. Jesus places relationship with God ahead of righteousness and has righteousness emanating from relationship. The zealots and Pharisees have a notion of God as Father and as we saw earlier, there is some movement toward a more personal God in the Second Temple era. Still, their primary image is of a God of righteousness, not as a God of loving compassion. Spilling of Gentile blood will not bring righteousness and ultimately God’s favor. Rigorously obeying elaborate legal codes will not bring righteousness either. The “good news” is that relationship with God, a loving father seeking to bring his children into the household, can be restored if we will just accept being found by God. Righteousness will flow from that relationship. We simply need to step through the door of the home and accept being found.
The Essenes, you will recall, had a highly developed understanding of their community as fictive family. They had the idea of a loving father. But their understanding of family created internal solidarity while erecting high barriers to outsiders, even against less observant Jews. The mission was about preserving righteousness instead of seeking the lost and extending relationship. The household Jesus portrays is one turned outward seeking to bring lost children home.
So Jesus' central metaphor is bringing “law-breaking” and “law-keeping” Jews back into the household of God. But this leaves an important question in light what we know about the rest of the New Testament. This parable does not seem to address directly the issue of the Gentiles and yet we see that almost immediately the church began to extend its mission to Gentiles. Was this an innovation from Jesus vision or did Jesus also have the Gentiles in mind as part of the eschatological household of God? We turn next to the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24.