The first followers of Jesus read their Bibles differently. Based on their experiences, they read their Bibles with new eyes and connected with the stories of their faith in new ways. Over the last week, as I was reading the parable of the prodigal son again, I found myself doing the same thing: connecting with the story in a different way, and putting myself into the story in a different way.
I read the story in the original language, in Ancient Greek, and that made me slow down. My Greek is nowhere near as good as my English, and as I slowed down, I noticed some things about this story that I haven’t before.
The younger son comes to the father asking for his share of the inheritance. And that’s a pretty confronting thing. Many people find that asking their family for a loan causes great offence and hurt. And people who study other cultures tell me that it can be even worse. In the culture that Jesus lived in, a son going to his father asking for his inheritance is effectively saying, “You are dead to me. I am not part of this family anymore. There is no more connection between us.”
And as I was reading this story this week, I noticed something strange. Or, at least, it seemed strange to me. I know this story, so I know that the father gives a large share of his property to his son. But as I read it in Greek, I didn’t see the usual Greek word for property or inheritance or wealth. Instead, I saw the word bios, which means ‘life.’
So I had to look that one up. It turns out that as well as meaning ‘life’, bios also means the things associated with life, or the things necessary to sustain life. So the son asks the father for his share of the family property, and what the father gives his son is life, and the things necessary to sustain life.
And maybe that’s just a quirk of the Greek language. Languages can be funny things. But as I read it I thought about life. I thought about all the ways I have received life, and the things necessary to sustain life.
In the story the son goes far away. He doesn’t value what he has received. He wasted the things necessary to sustain life. He wasted the life that was given to him.
As I read the story slowly, I noticed something else. I noticed that the son doesn’t notice. He doesn’t notice that he is wasting life. He doesn’t notice that he is wastefully consuming the thing necessary to sustain life. He doesn’t until a famine comes over the whole land. It was probably a drought. The crops didn’t grow, there was not enough produce, and there was famine over the whole land. That’s when he noticed. That’s when he realised that he no longer had the things necessary to sustain life.
I saw myself in that part. I saw all of us in that part. Because that’s when we notice, isn’t it? We over-extend ourselves, we push ourselves right to the edge, but we manage, balanced there right on the edge. But then something changes—something outside our control changes—and we realise how precarious our lives really are.
And I read this story in light of another recent experience. A couple of weeks ago, my kids and I went to the Kids Climate Strike. I went with them on the train. I saw a lot of passionate young people with messages bringing home the truth about our whole society: what we are doing to this earth, how we are wastefully consuming the things necessary to sustain life.
For so long we chose not to notice. But with the land now covered in floods and fires, drought and famine, we’re noticing now. Now we are forced to acknowledge our wasteful consumption and our destructive misuse of the very things necessary for life.
The question is, are we ready to come home now? Are we ready to acknowledge the ways we have been given life? Are we ready to acknowledge the ways in which we have received the things necessary to sustain life? Are we ready to value them?
Are we ready to come home to earth, to soil, to dirt, to land, to place, to parents, to children, to friends? Are we ready to come home to each other?
And are we ready to come home to God, and to find that we are accepted, and to find new life in the source of all life? Ω
A reflection on Luke 15:1-3a, 11b-32 (C21) given to Sanctuary, 31 March 2019 © Joel Rothman, 2019. Photo by Stoica Ionela on Unsplash.
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