The Prodigal Project (Part 2: The Parable Within The Parable)

[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]

Prodigal-Son-Painting-150x150In my last post, I initiated this series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son by pointing out that Jews and Christians are likely to read this parable in different ways. I mentioned that this parable has been described by some Christians as the “gospel within the gospel”, because (as at least one author has written) it “illustrates the mercy and forgiveness of God and the joy over a sinner who repents and returns.”

In this sense, the “gospel within the gospel” is like what theologians call “a canon within the canon”. A “canon within the canon” is a portion of the Bible, or a “key”, that we can use to understand the Bible as a whole. Sounds good, right? We can all use a little help to better understand the Bible. But the business of canons within canons is controversial. Some say that “one canon is enough”.  D.A. Carson acidly describes the canon within the canon as “a subset of scriptures taught in exclusion to those that would result in true doctrine.” The problem with canons within canons and gospels within gospels is that stuff gets left out, and sometimes stuff gets brought in, to make sure we don’t miss the Bible message. There can come a point where we are no longer using the “key” to understand the bigger gospel or canon – all we are looking at is the key itself.

If there can be a canon within the canon and a gospel within the gospel, can there also be a “parable within a parable”?  By this I mean a portion of or key to a parable that’s commonly used to understand the entire parable. In this post, I’m going to argue 2 things:

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The Prodigal Project (Part 1: Reading Parables Together)

p[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]

With this post, I am inaugurating a series on the New Testament Parable of the Prodigal Son. In future posts, we’ll read this parable together, and explore how to do this reading in an interfaith way. But our reading will commence in earnest in my next post. In this post, I want to raise a preliminary question: why am I doing this?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son might be the most beloved story in the Christian canon. For Christians, this parable shows that no matter how far we may wander from God, God still loves us, longs for our return, and is ready to accept us back and forgive us unconditionally. We might explore this beautiful message together in this interfaith space.

But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of two brothers. The younger one is the prodigal son from the title, the one who wasted his inheritance and eventually returns home to the father’s welcome in a way that gives us the warm fuzzies. But there’s another son in the story: he’s the older son, the son that’s not mentioned in the title of this parable, and he’s more difficult to deal with. While the younger son abandoned his family for the prodigal life in a distant land, the older son remained home to work on the family farm. In the Christian view the older son is the bad guy: he’s self-righteous, whiny and ultimately every bit as lost as his younger sibling, yet instead of seeking his father’s forgiveness, the older son acts like he’s earned his father’s love.

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A Blessing

beit_midrashI am about to commence a series of posts here about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, designed (I hope) as a framework for interfaith dialog.

I attended a religious retreat last weekend, and it occurred to me there that we might want to begin this study with a bracha, a prayer or blessing. I know that it’s common in both Jewish and Christian circles (and doubtless in other religious traditions) to begin study of sacred texts with a prayer. But I’ve never heard of this being done in interfaith dialog. So while on retreat, I asked a rabbi what would be appropriate, when a Jew begins interfaith study of scripture outside of the Jewish canon. She suggested that I look at the bracha said upon entering the Beit Midrash, the house of study.

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