Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Living Messy as a Family - Le Donne

To follow up on my previous post about sermons, I figured that it is only fair that I put myself out there for critique. Here is a sermon that I preached recently. Feel free to have a copy of Game of Thrones handy in case this gets cringe-worthy.



  1. Good sermon! But ...

    ... when you are preaching and run into a troubling passage of Torah, why not consult the Jewish commentary? The traditional Jewish interpretation (see, e.g., Sanhedrin 71a and 72a) is that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is to be understood in such a limited manner, or that it applies in such unusual circumstances, that the law was and could never be carried out. In other words, Deuteronomy 21 was written as a threat intended (in the words of the Artscroll Tanakh) "to inculcate values" in our children. See, e.g., Cosby saying that he'd come upstairs to kill Theo. (Maybe Jewish audiences laughed at Deuteronomy 21 the way that TV audiences laughed at Bill Cosby. But please don't tell my Rabbi I said that.)

    If you'd prefer to avoid preaching the Talmud from the pulpit, that's OK (we don't hear the gospels read from the bimah). But even a surface reading of Deuteronomy 21 makes clear that it cannot be applied to the prodigal son. The prodigal son may be "wayward", but he's not "rebellious". The text of Deuteronomy 21 refers to a son "who does not hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother". Even if you imagine a mother lurking in the background of the parable, you'd still have to identify when the younger son failed to "hearken" to the voice of his father. It may be rotten for the younger son to take advantage of an indulgent father, but it's not rebellion for the son to say "gimme" when the father always says "ok".

    To seal the deal, Deuteronomy 21 only applies if both parents discipline the son and the son "does not hearken to them". Good luck finding anything resembling parental discipline in this parable!

    So ... I am at a loss to understand why you'd connect this parable to Deuteronomy 21. I'm not cringing. But I AM scratching my head.

    1. Thanks for your kind insults Larry (I don't do emoticons, but this is where you might typically find one).

      I think that this is one of the points that I was making (if authorial intent matters, that is). The passage in Deut 21 might have simply been an empty threat and used as such to reinforce the society's values. "If you don't eat your lentils...!"

      As for how Deut relates to Luke, there is a big debate on this in NT scholarship. I tend to side with the side that says that Luke's "central section" is structured by the general order of topics provided by Deuteronomy. "General" being the key qualifier here. Cf. the immediate context of the parable in Luke and the immediate context of the passage in Deut 21. what of the main point of the sermon? Are you a control freak like me, Larry?


  2. Anthony, yes I got the business about the lentils (and a nice Middle Eastern agricultural reference there, too). But I also picked up that Deut 21 was being used to define the extreme punitive edge of the parable audience's expectations -- the 1st century equivalent of "someone ought to give that boy a good beating.” I thought you were reasonably good on this point ... maybe I worry too much that my Sabbath-on-Sunday friends read texts like Deut 21 too literally.

    Am I a control freak? Even my friends who are control freaks think that I ought to let go a little.

    The main point of your sermon? There was a lot to like in your sermon – two things I liked best is that you left the point open for your audience to ponder (very rabbinic of you) and that you identified with the older brother.

    I’m familiar with the interpretation that the older son is a control freak. But I don’t buy it. What exactly is the older son trying to control? If he’s trying to control his father’s affections, he’s doing a terrible job of it. He evidently made no effort to control his father’s profligate gift-giving to his younger brother. If you consider the issue of “control”, I’d argue that the problem is this: this family is out of control. Dad and younger son are acting in tandem to liquidate the family’s property, and older son is mostly a silent non-factor. When given his chance to speak, older brother asks why Dad never gave him a goat. Pathetic!

    This is a family in deep trouble, and so long as we can resist allegory, I don’t see how it would help if the older brother simply let go and trusted in providence. While this is a parable with many points to make, one obvious point is that the older brother needs to step up to the plate and DO something.

    1. Interesting, parables are the one place that I cannot resist allegory.


    2. I cannot resist allegory for long. But Amy-Jill Levine says to first read the parable literally. And if she told me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, I would do it (she wouldn't ask without a good reason).

      As I give in to allegory, I note that the parable is either addressed to the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, or else is given in response to their grumbling. I think the parable addresses the situation of the Pharisees. The Pharisees may be represented by the older son, but they're also represented by the sheep that didn't stray and the coins that didn't get lost. Sheep are not control freaks; neither are coins.

      Luke tells us that there's more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who need no repentance. As they say, that's not fair (it's even worse when you consider that to celebrate the recovery of the lost sheep, the shepherd probably served mutton to his friends and neighbors, and we can bet that it wasn't the lost sheep that got barbecued). Evidently, it's part of the heavenly plan for the squeaky wheel to get the grease.

      I don't see the older son as a control freak; I think he's jealous, just as Cain was jealous, and Esau was jealous, and Joseph's brothers were jealous. It hurts not to be the favored son. A little sympathy is in order for the older son, but only a little.

      If I look for allegory, that's the one I find: no one in heaven is going to celebrate the faithful (if whiny) presence of the older son. The younger son is going to get the ring and the robe, and the best the older son can hope for is to crash the younger son's banquet as an uninvited guest. It's not fair, and no one cares that it's not fair, because that's not the point. The point is for the older son to stop whining, grow up, act like the father, and start ministering to sinners himself. That MUST be what the father means when he says that everything he has belongs to the older son, since the father keeps giving his property (not to mention all of his attention and love) to the younger son.

      So even when I reach for allegory, I still don't think this parable is about control freaks. But I admit, it wouldn't hurt me to relax a little.

    3. Just for the record, I didn't call the older brother a control freak. I called myself a control freak. I think that the older brother has some very reasonable expectations for his family members ("he is the only one thinking clearly"; I think those were my words). But when his father and brother act shamefully, he finds himself in a chaotic situation that is out of his control. Such is life within the family. And if this is the way that families work, those who desire control are bound to become judgmental. So, in the end, I am reading myself into the story. This isn't best practice exegesis, but it can be helpful homilectically.

      ...and if A.-J. told you to jump off a bridge; I would recommend getting a second opinion.

      Always a pleasure Larry,


  3. I don't think you read yourself into the story. I think you are recognizing your presence there. It is a terrific story that way.

    When I read the story that the older brother is trying to earn the father's love with good works, then the older brother is me acting like a control freak. I know that my efforts to earn love are self-defeating, not to mention contrary to what Judaism teaches me. But with so much at stake, it's a hard behavior to resist.

    Yours really WAS a good sermon. It made me think. I'd like to hear more.