I understand the whole family thing—the family name, the family history, the family standing in the community. But there are other things about Jesus’ Middle Eastern world that I have no reference for—such as the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan, and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place. Patriarchs did not run. Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present. Patriarchs did not plead with their children; they told their children what to do. According to the rabbis “three cry out and are not answered: he who has money and lends it without witnesses; he who acquires a master; he who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime.”
Told in this kind of culture, today’s parable becomes the parable of the dysfunctional family—a story about a weak patriarch with an absentee wife and two rebellious sons he seems unable to control, who is willing to sacrifice his honor to keep his community together. It’s a reunion story, not a repentance story. It’s about the high cost of reconciliation, in which individual worth, identity and rightness all go down to the dust so that those as good as dead in their division may live together in peace. Given the shape many of our churches are in right now, we may need this parable more than the other one.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family," sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, March 18, 2007.