Friday, September 12, 2008

Jesus and the Law of the Wayward Son

This week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) according to the Jewish cycle of scripture readings includes the Law of the Wayward Son.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

What I find interesting here is how this law connects with the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In a way Jesus is providing Torah commentary through this parable. At least, that is one way to look at it. How does Jesus find a way around the penalty of death for the wayward son?

Luke 15:11 - 32 11 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'

Arguably the prodigal son would fall under the category of this law of the wayward son. He has refused to obey his father and demanded his inheritance so that he might squander it on dissolute living. Not only is the prodigal’s behavior a disgrace to his parents, but under this law his crime is punishable by death. Is this why his father counts him as dead?

The prodigal’s father—and his mother, who is not mentioned in Jesus’ parable—could have taken him to “the elders of the town” and have him stoned to death. But the father does not do this. Rather the wayward son is allowed to go his own way out of the presence of the father. The son’s dissolute behavior leads to its natural consequence of destitution, kind of moral death.

This is not far from other rabbinical teaching found in the Talmud.

Talmud, Sandhedrin 70a, 72a The wayward and rebellious son is executed on account of the future, as the Torah penetrates to his ultimate intentions. Eventually, he will squander his father's money, seek what he has become habituated to, not find it, and stand at the crossroads and rob people [killing them, thereby incurring the death penalty]. Says the Torah, "Let him die innocent, rather than have him die guilty..." [Source:]

Here the outcome of the son’s rebelliousness is of a quality that it would be better to die innocent than to die guilty. I do not believe that the Talmud is endorsing the death penalty—and certainly not a “pre-emptive” death penalty!—but rather is teasing out the inner logic of the law that reveals God’s compassion limiting our exposure to degradation.

Jesus’ parable clearly relates the natural consequence of the prodigal’s behavior and how the father counts the son as dead already. If the father counts the son as dead, then there is no taking him before the elders to be prosecuted.

The prodigal’s brother makes the stronger case against his brother who “has devoured [the father’s] property with prostitutes.” He contrasts his own obedience with his brother’s disobedience (Luke 15:29-30). Does the righteous brother have a right to call the death penalty on his brother? No, Torah states that only his father and mother, not siblings, may take hold the son and bring him before the elders. The brother is not permitted to bring judgment against his brother.

[Did the father allowed the prodigal to run off with his inheritance to protect him from the wrath of his brother?]

In returning to his father, the prodigal is taking the risk that his parents will bring him to judgment. His life has become so unbearable that he is willing to take this risk. The son has faith in his father’s mercy that he will receive him as a slave and spare his life. The son is willing to accept the judgment against him, but trusts his father more.

He is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Luke 15:18b) The consequence of sinning against heaven was the famine that brought him to near starvation. The repentant son goes two steps further when he pleads, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (Luke 15:19) He had failed to honor father and mother (Deuteronomy 5:16), so he says he is no longer worth to be called a son. He is humbled. Finally, he pledges obedience, now the obedience of a slave, not a son. He has repented of his stubbornness and rebelliousness.

So how does Jesus get around the law of the wayward son? I believe the answer is in how the father counts as dead and as alive. The father counts the rebellious son as dead, in which case the law no longer holds. A dead son cannot be brought to trial. Meanwhile the judgment of heaven, famine, brings the son to repentance wherein the son has returned from the dead. Alive again, the son is no longer stubborn or rebellious, so there is no charge to be brought against him. New life and ultimately resurrection is itself redemptive. The father then is able to rejoice. Before the accusing brother, he says, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

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