The Elder Brother on the Doorstep

I wrote this paper during Seminary-the-First-Time, too. This one was about Parables (that’s a Jesus story!), but I got this professor to let me write it as a story rather than a report, just like that Old Testament one. It’s a long paper, but it kinda has chapters. Definitely read it! I used the traditional English name-renderings in this one, for some reason. I like the transliterations out of Hebrew better, but at least this way you don’t have to work out that “P’rushim” are “Pharisees.”

Wordy Wednesday

 Denver Seminary

The Elder Brother on the Doorstep

Parables and the Kingdom of Heaven – Dramatic Monologue

NT511—The Gospels and Acts

By Jennifer Grosser, 12 November 2003

The Mustard Tree (Luke 13.18-19)

That man and his metaphors!  His name is Jesus, and even though he only comes from Nazareth, the people of the land[1] think he is a prophet.  He tells irritating stories[2] about what he calls “the kingdom of heaven,”[3] twisting familiar metaphors[4] about the redemption of Israel so that they are nearly unrecognizable.  My brother Pharisees and I have longed for this redemption for years, and along comes Jesus threatening to turn it all upside-down.  It makes me cross.  People like Joseph, who is only my servant, hear these stories and tell them to each other, and I hear them, too, and become even crosser.

Mustard seeds, for example, do not become trees[5].  Apparently, Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, because it starts small and grows large.  At least, this is what I understand.  I can even accept this.  But I don’t understand why he said it becomes a tree, and I don’t understand what birds nesting in the branches have to do with the kingdom, either.  There is a story in our Scriptures about a kingdom like a tree with birds nesting in it, too, but that was a Gentile one,[6] centuries ago, and whatever else can be said of it, surely the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with Gentiles.

Joseph said maybe it has, and maybe this is one of the “mysteries of the kingdom” Jesus keeps telling his disciples about.  I said it’s easy to talk about mysteries; it keeps out people one dislikes, and Jesus dislikes me.  Joseph suggested that “birds in the branches” doesn’t sound like an idea that would come from someone who wanted to keep people out.[7]   He further incriminated himself by adding that perhaps my dislike of Jesus was more the problem, and that I should consider the idea that the heavenly kingdom is about forgiveness most of all.[8]  I got angry with him then, and told him if he were less capable, I would dismiss him.  He said perhaps I was beginning to understand forgiveness already, and that there might be a mustard seed growing in me somewhere.  I growled at him and stalked out of the house.

The Banquet (Luke 7:36-50)

This is what I did the night of the banquet, too, although not at Joseph, and not at first.  At first, I invited Jesus to one of the meetings of our haberim, our local religious society.  We meet for meals and invite visiting sages to come share their ideas with us.[9]  Jesus was visiting, if not a sage.  I wanted to know what he meant by the kingdom of heaven.  I thought he would recognize the honor showed him by my invitation, but it appeared not, and it was all the fault of that woman.

The banquet was laid, and I thought I had been quite generous with it, given the fact that this Jesus is actually an erstwhile carpenter.[10]  He was going to have to prove that he really was the prophet all the people think.[11]  It does not do for people to go about with delusions of grandeur, and I certainly was not going to encourage this man’s.  Having him in for a meal was munificent enough, and just in case he got the idea that I was convinced of his claims already, I did not bother to kiss him in greeting when he arrived, nor did I have Joseph wash his feet.[12]  Joseph gave me one of his reproving looks, but I have lived with those long enough that they cease to move me, if they ever did.

As usual, all the riffraff spilled through the open doorway into the edges of the room as the meal got underway.[13]  People will always be curious, and Jesus had just made some rather intriguing statements out of doors,[14] so no doubt they wanted to see if he would make more of them.  Among the people in the corners this time was a certain woman.  She is a “sinner in the city,”[15] as we say, and that is being kind, really.  Joseph says I had better say she was a sinner in the city, only that is not just being kind, but fanciful.  I don’t think that kind of woman can ever change, even if she swallowed an entire mustard “tree,” birds in the branches and all.

Jesus reclined on the couch designated for him, after it became clear I had no intention of encouraging his self-aggrandizement.  Guests should not comment on their host’s hospitality,[16] and I hardly thought he dared in any case, knowing the stock from which he came.   But the woman might as well have done it for him.  She had crept behind him, so that she was standing just where his feet jutted back into the shadows.  The meal had scarcely begun, when there was a strange noise.  Everyone turned to look at the maker of the sound, and there was the sinner-woman, crying over Jesus’ dusty feet.  As she sobbed, she took the flask of perfume that hung from her neck and broke it all over his feet, too, so that the perfume mingling with her tears made a great soppy, muddy mess.  To make matters worse, she let down her hair and began wiping the mess up with it.  She might as well have disrobed in front of us all.[17]  I was disgusted, and embarrassed for my guests.  They, for their part, did not know which way to look.

Wryly I thought to myself, “If this man were a prophet he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

“Simon,” said Jesus then, as if answering my thoughts, “I have something to tell you.”  He certainly did.  “Two men owed money to a certain money lender.  One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.  Now which of them will love him more?” (7.40-42).

The trouble with parables, especially as Jesus tells them, is that they are tricky.  They are first of all disorienting, because they never sound like they have anything to do with present circumstances.[18]  But of course they always do.  While one is trying to discover the connection between story and situation at hand, one is also acutely aware that, however one answers one is likely to be incriminated, most likely for espousing some perfectly defensible mode of behavior which Jesus sees as incompatible with his vision of the kingdom.  Incomprehensibly, though one can agree or disagree, the very decision makes one feel compelled to act accordingly.[19]  The answer to Jesus’ present question was not difficult.  It was the dread of what would come after that made me pause before I answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled” (7.43).

“You have judged correctly.”  Somehow I was not comforted.  “Do you see this woman?” (7.44) he went on, talking to me but facing her.[20]  Of course I saw her.  She was difficult not to notice.  He was forever defending and having table fellowship with completely unsuitable types.  He even had adopted an unheard of practice of allowing women to run around with him and his disciples.[21]  But surely he was not going to defend this woman, was he?

“I came into your house,” Jesus said.  “You did not give me any water for my feet.”   The room grew deathly still.  Everyone was staring.  I sat, willing him to stop.  Surely even this maverick would respect the desire of his host to preserve some sense of decorum.  But he continued, “She wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet…I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, [therefore][22] she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (7.44-47).

I was furious, but there was nothing to say.  Jesus was still facing the woman.  “Your sins are forgiven,” he said to her, to the further consternation of my guests.  “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace” (7.48, 50).

The Nature of the Kingdom

It was the woman’s fault.  I will not even blame Jesus.  Without her, the haberim would have asked questions, and he would have answered them.  We would have eaten and been civilized like men, and I would have discovered if Jesus were a prophet.  Instead, the guests left early, with silent apologetic faces, and Jesus left without apology at all.  Afterwards I paced our small courtyard to try to recover from the insult he had given to my hospitality.[23]  Instead, the only thing I could think of was the kingdom of heaven.  “Joseph,” I commanded, “come out and talk to me.”

Joseph came out.  “Joseph,” I said again, “Jesus did not mention the kingdom of heaven in his inexcusable little diatribe, did he?”

A muscle in Joseph’s face twitched, but he said, “No sir.”

“Therefore he must have been talking of something else.  The parable he told tonight was not about any kingdom.”[24]

“Not in those words, sir, no.”

“How then?”  I had no reason to think Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of heaven.  I did not know what it could have to do with two debtors.  But an uncomfortable nagging had begun in my mind, and it disturbed me that Joseph might also think there had been a message about Jesus’ concept of the Lord’s reign[25] in his tale.

Joseph was silent, which I knew meant that he disapproved of me and was waiting for permission to tell me so.  “How then?” I repeated.

“He often tells of the kingdom,” said Joseph.  “So that I think even when he does not use those words, he is still speaking of it.”[26]

“And what,” I asked, “would you say the nature of this kingdom is, according to him?”  My relationship with Joseph is unusual.  Other Pharisees do not talk to their servants this way.  But wives cannot understand such things, and when I talk to Joseph, it helps me to get my thoughts outside of myself so I can understand them better.  I do not expect Joseph to know the answers.  I expect him to help me find them.

“Jesus said to repent because the kingdom is at hand—like that baptizer, John, used to say,”  Joseph offered.

“At hand,” I said.  “Does that mean it is already here?  I do not see the son of David on the throne in Jerusalem.  I do not see people accepting the Holy One’s yoke.[27]  Do you know what we Pharisees say, Joseph?”  Joseph probably did know; he heard our discussions.  “We say,” I said, not waiting for an answer, “that the deliverance of Israel is coming.  We are not so audacious as to claim that it has arrived.”[28]

“Perhaps, sir,” Joseph said, “it hadn’t arrived before now.”

“And how do we know it has arrived now?” I demanded.

“Things are changing, sir,” said Joseph.  “Maybe the kingdom has to happen inside people and come out.[29]  Maybe the rule of God without Rome will come later.[30]  Right now, Jesus heals people.  People repent.  Maybe this kingdom is about repentance.  And if it is, it must be about forgiveness, too.”

“And if you are right?” I said.

“Then,” said Joseph firmly, “we had all better repent immediately.[31]  Do not the Pharisees also say that people must repent before the coming of the restoration?”[32]

I looked at him.  “Joseph,” I said suspiciously, “do you think I need to repent?”

Joseph said nothing, and a moment later he bowed his head and re-entered the house.  This was the first time I thought of dismissing him.  How dare he imply that I needed to repent!  I am a Pharisee.  We understand the Scriptures.  We have handed down and treasured the traditions of the elders precisely so that we do not disobey the words of the Holy One.  One only repents when one has disobeyed.  But we keep ourselves ritually pure, eating only what the Scriptures allow, washing our crockery in a special manner, and certainly avoiding all contact with defiling persons.[33]

I had just had a very upsetting evening, in which one of these defiling persons had not only come into my house but had humiliated me.  Jesus had proceeded to defend her by comparing her unfavorably to me, the Pharisee,[34] and then supposedly forgiving her, as if he had the authority.  Now my own servant was telling me I needed to repent!

“Yes indeed,” I thought bitterly.  “I’ll repent.  I repent that I ever invited Jesus here, and I will never forgive that woman.  I was shamed in my own house, by a harlot who apparently thought my hospitality to the ‘prophet’ was insufficient.  But Jesus is no prophet, and he certainly did not deserve any more hospitality than I gave him.”

The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35)

The trouble was, I could not forget the incident, or the parable.  For days I thought about the debtors, one owing much, the other little.  I could not forget because I knew Jesus told the story seeing me in it, and if I were in it, either way I was a debtor.[35]  I made a point never to owe anyone anything.  But it was clear the creditor in the story represented the Holy One, so if I were a debtor, it was to heaven itself.

For a while I comforted myself with the idea that at least I was the debtor who owed little.  But that consolation did not last.  Late one night, instead of sleeping, I tossed and turned under the horrible impression that perhaps the woman and I owed an equal debt, but she was forgiven much because she was somehow aware of hers, and I was only forgiven little because I could not see mine at all.[36]  This was an unacceptable notion, which I quickly dismissed at daybreak.

Nevertheless, fatigue made me pensive.  I could not understand how I could be indebted to the Lord.  After daily oblique comments by Joseph, I was beginning to grudgingly accede that perhaps I had been less than hospitable to Jesus.  Still I did not see how that had any bearing on the kingdom of heaven, nor on my owing a debt.  If I thought about it too long, I started imagining that Jesus was linking himself inextricably with the Holy One’s reign, and as more than just its messenger.[37]

The people wanted him to be their Messiah, the one anointed of God from the line of King David,[38] and if he were, he must somehow usher in heaven’s reign.  In which case, perhaps my snubbing him when he came for the banquet had not been the most politic action, and had incurred some sort of debt to the Holy One after all.  Of course no one, least of all Jesus, had proven that he was in fact the Messiah, and I was still highly skeptical.

On the other hand, one does not get to be a Pharisee for nothing.  The price, in my case, was a rather heavy load of guilt.  Regardless of my air of confidence, I always had an underlying suspicion that I was neglecting to follow one of the commandments or teachings—that I myself was somehow preventing the Holy One’s reign from being inaugurated on earth.  Ever since that woman had upset the haberim meal, my guilt had increased, as evidenced by my delusions of debt and my inability to sleep.  At long last, with something of a sigh of relief, I decided I would go to Jesus and ask his pardon, just in case I needed it.  If he could truly forgive that harlot, then certainly he would be able to forgive me.  Besides, in the story, both debtors were forgiven…

It was not difficult to find Jesus.  This day, he was meeting in the house of one of his wealthier friends.  He seemed to be discussing issues with those people who closely and regularly associated with him,[39] but, as others had entered my house to observe Jesus at my banquet, so now the curious had spilled into this house, too, for similar reasons.  I had come alone, and at first I was embarrassed to be seen among the gawking crowd, but soon my eyes lighted on Samuel.  He was a Sadducee, one of a group of people who, to my mind, seem to wish they were Greek instead of Jewish.  Generally Pharisees and Sadducees speak together only to argue,[40] but in this case it was comforting to see someone who looked less shabby than the others, so I went and stood with him.  He welcomed me with a smile.  I thought, not for the first time, that it is remarkable how Sadducees can be simultaneously so accommodating and condescending.

By the time I was able to pay attention Jesus, he had launched into one of his parables again.  “The kingdom of heaven,” he said, “is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.”  I think I made a small choking noise, because Samuel looked over at me with some concern.  I waved the concern away and said nothing.  Inside my head, however, my thoughts were whirling.  Had Jesus seen me come in?  He was speaking to his disciples; but was he telling this story because I was here?  Settling accounts again.  How did he know?

The story went on to describe two more debtors; this time one was a debtor to the king, and one was a debtor to the other.  The debtor to the king owed an extraordinary amount of money—even more than Herod required in a year, I thought.[41]  But, at the servant’s pleas for more time to pay the debt, the king cancelled all of it instead.  A gasp went up from the crowd.  This was hardly to be expected.  I thought of the inexcusable woman in my house.  This is what it would be like for the Holy One to forgive her all her sins, I mused.  It did not seem likely.  I knew from the Scriptures that the Lord does not look kindly on harlotry.  But could even harlotry be metaphorically more extreme than a debt of ten thousand talents?  I could not tell.

“But when the servant went out,” Jesus went on, “he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back’” (Matthew 18.28-29).

As Jesus told it, the first servant refused and had the man thrown into prison.  When the king found out about it, he called the servant back and imprisoned him, too, for not forgiving as he had been forgiven.[42]  “This,” Jesus concluded, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (18.35).  I did not wait to hear more, but went out into the street and began to walk.

“Simon?”  I turned.  It was Samuel, coming out after me.  “Are you all right?”

“This man and his parables,” I muttered, too distressed to worry about whether this Sadducee thought I was all right or not.  “They irritate.”

“They’re just stories,” said Samuel soothingly.  “You don’t have to do anything about them.  They’re his ideals.  No one lives up to ideals.[43]

“Some of us try to!” I retorted, probably more heatedly than necessary.

Samuel seemed not to notice.  “Take that story, for instance,” he continued.  “Flawed.[44]   Jesus was talking about forgiveness, but the king in the story only forgave his servant once, and at the next mistake had him thrown in prison for the rest of his life.”

I pondered this.  “But,” I said, after a moment, “the king represents the Holy One.  The king always represents the Holy One.  He has a right not to forgive.”

“God is a loving God,” said Samuel.  “He wouldn’t take back his forgiveness.[45]  I don’t think Jesus really knows what he is talking about at all.”

“Of course he does!” I protested.  “And the king didn’t take back his forgiveness.  He simply refused to offer it a second time.”

“Ah, my friend,” said Samuel.  “You missed the earlier part of Jesus’ teaching.  He had just told that fisherman friend of his—you know, Cephas—that his disciples need to forgive each other indefinitely.[46]  But the king did not do that at all.[47]

“The king didn’t do it,” I said, “because the servant didn’t do it.  He could forgive the debt—he just would not forgive the servant for not showing someone else the same mercy he had received.[48]  The servant did not fully accept the forgiveness, or he would have forgiven, too, and the rejection of forgiveness was what the king would not forgive.  It was an affront to the king’s generosity.  I think Jesus argued his point well.”

“You Pharisees and your rigid justice,” Samuel said, more condescending than ever.  “Listen to you.  You’re even defending Jesus now.  Are you coming back in?”

“No,” I said.  “I need to return home.  I—er—I have business to attend to.  Thank you for your concern, Samuel.  This discussion has been most enlightening.”

I am not certain how I got home that evening, lost in thought as I was.  I, of all people, had just defended Jesus, of all people.  Jesus had described the Holy One’s kingdom—the reign of a King who evidently forgives all debts but unforgiveness—and I had defended him.

As if that were not disturbing enough, I was identifying with this story even more than I had with the last one.  These characters, these types of people—I knew them.[49]  One of them was me, and it wasn’t, as it turned out, the servant who owed another servant a hundred denarii.  I owed the King ten thousand talents.  Would he forgive me?

For the next few weeks my wife said I was unbearable, and even Joseph appeared concerned.  Food did not appeal to me.  I was not sleeping.  Neither condition improved my mood, nor did the growing dread that I owed the King, the One True God, a debt I could not pay.  I had dishonored and mocked his very Messiah, the one who was going to bring the kingdom, and I had encouraged others to do the same.

Furthermore, when I had been offended, admittedly by a woman and a loose-living one at that, I did not forgive her.  She had made a spectacle of herself and of me in my own house.  She had infuriated me.  She had shamed me before my guests.  But she had honored the Messiah.  Jesus had said her sins were forgiven because her faith had saved her.  All that was left was for me to forgive her small debt to me.  Would I?

I did not want to forgive her.  I thought, on principle, that all such women should be locked up, like the servants in the parable, and the fact that this one had made matters worse by interfering in my own life only exacerbated my feelings.  But the more I worried and wrestled with my thoughts, the more I came to wonder whether it was really up to me to judge her for her sins against the Holy One.  This was the astonishing thing about us Pharisees.  We were scandalized any time Jesus told someone his sins were forgiven.  Yet many of us placed ourselves in judgment over everyone else, deciding who was worthy of forgiveness or not.  At last I could bear the conflict no more.  “All right!” I shouted one night, hoping the neighbors would not hear and that heaven would.  “I will forgive her!”

But the next day there was still no peace.  The servant in the parable had been put in jail until he could pay back his debt, because he had not forgiven.  I was willing to forgive now, but I had not been at first.  Maybe it was too late.  What happened in the kingdom of heaven when someone forgave too late?

The Elder Brother (Luke 15.11-32)

Even without an answer, eventually I had to start eating and sleeping again, and I did.  I tried to treat my wife more kindly, and I stopped threatening to dismiss Joseph.  Sometimes I wished the harlot would return to the city so that I could tell her I forgave her—or perhaps ask her to forgive me—although I was sure the results of that would be scandalous.  She, however, not able to return to a respectable life in a community who only knew her as a sinner,[50] had left everything and joined the group of people who followed Jesus exclusively.  They were slowly making their way to Jerusalem now.[51]  My household and I began our journey there for the Passover a short time later, but much more quickly, and we discovered them along the way.

I kept close to the other Pharisees in the group and tried to stay out of Jesus’ sight, but any time I thought I heard him telling what sounded like a parable, I found myself stopping what I was doing to listen.  One night, he was telling stories about lost things.  They were metaphors about his beloved tax collectors and sinners—the ones for whom heaven would apparently become most undignified in order to find them.  The Scriptures spoke against such people, and I still found it greatly illogical that the Holy One could have changed his mind enough to suddenly take so much trouble over them.  But then, he was the King, and maybe his kingdom could not be earned, only offered and accepted.

We Pharisees spoke of how important it was for people to accept the Holy One’s rule, so much more blessed than the rule of our human oppressors.[52]  Maybe the rule was repentance and forgiveness.  Maybe Joseph was right.  Maybe that was all it was.  Such a small thing, like a mustard seed, but with such enormous consequences, as if that seed could turn into a tree.

The stories about the lost things saddened me.  The lost were found, and they were rejoiced over more than the ones that had never been lost in the first place.  I wanted to be rejoiced over, but if I was not lost, there was no celebration for me, and if I was lost, I still had not been found.

Then Jesus told another story.  It was a parable, not about two debtors and a creditor, or about two servants and a king, but of two sons and a father.  The younger son made the scandalous demand that his father give him his portion of the inheritance early.  Almost equally surprisingly was that the father complied.[53]  Not surprising at all was that the son took it and squandered it.

Over the course of the story, this young son became destitute to the point of living with pigs, at which point he realized he was better off at home.  He set off in order to offer himself to his father as a servant, having forfeited any claims as a son already.[54]  After the stories about the other lost things, it maybe should have been less surprising to me that the father, seeing his son coming, ran to meet him.  But I confess I was shocked.  I would never run, especially to such a son.  A man in my position has abandoned all need to run.  It certainly would undermine any sort of respect I had earned.  Or would it?  Perhaps it would just show to the world how much I loved.  I did not think I had ever loved anyone or anything that much.[55]

I longed for that kind of response from a forgiving God, I realized.  This was what Jesus’ tax collectors and sinners and fishermen were receiving.  Somehow, through this Jesus, the Holy One was running to forgive them.  He was throwing his cloak about them and putting his signet ring on them and killing a calf for them to eat in celebration.  It was a completely different type of banquet than the one I had laid for Jesus.  Mine had been set to trap him and had instead trapped me.  This banquet of God—this kingdom of God—welcomed the sinner before he even had a chance to apologize.  Surely he was washed and purified eventually, but the father welcomed the son before any of that.[56]  This was a banquet anyone could join.  Why was I not celebrating?[57]

“Meanwhile the older son was in the field,” said Jesus.  I had forgotten the third character.  “When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  The older brother became angry and refused to go in.  So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours, who has squandered your money with prostitutes, comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:25-30).

I was staring at Jesus.  Where did he get those words?  How did he know exactly what it felt like, serving the Holy One the way I had all of these years?  How did he know just the way in which I had always hated the sinners—for their sin, and because it seemed they could get away with it?  But now I only wanted to join in the celebration.  I would forgive them.  I would stop hating them, heaven helping me.  I just needed to know if the elder son could be forgiven for his affront to his father (rebuking him in front of the guests—I understood that![58]).  I just wanted to know if the elder son could come inside.

Now I thought maybe Jesus was looking right at me, as I was looking at him.  “’My son,’ the father said,” Jesus said, looking at me, “’you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’” (15:31-32).

I waited for the end of the story.  What would the elder brother do?  But Jesus never said.  He paused a little, and then went on to speak of other things, and I was left, waiting on the doorstep with the elder brother.

Conclusion and Application

That is the trickiness of Jesus’ parables.  They draw one in until one becomes part of them.  Eventually, one has to tell the end of it oneself.  “I suppose,” I said to Joseph that evening, “we Pharisees are right about the kingdom of heaven.  Ultimately, it’s a choice.[59]  A person can either accept the rule of heaven, taking his yoke, or keep bearing the yoke of the world.[60]

“And what is his yoke, sir?” Joseph asked.  “I never was quite clear about that.”

“Now that,” said I, sighing, “is where I suppose we are mistaken.  I thought it was the Law and the traditions of the elders—and, well, I can’t believe it isn’t partly that.”

Joseph raised an eyebrow, and I said hurriedly, “But not just that.  You were the one who mentioned forgiveness, all that time ago.  Repentance and forgiveness.  Like the Jubilee Year, when all debts were to be forgiven.[61]  I suppose the kingdom of heaven is his power manifested on earth, more than it is this Israel.[62]  And the power comes from being forgiven by the Holy One, by which forgiveness we can forgive others.  And then…”

I used to imagine with the Pharisees what the kingdom of heaven would look like.  Everyone would be clean and look something like me, and there wouldn’t be any harlots or tax collectors or thieves or idolaters because they had been evicted to Gehenna or some such place.  Now I had a vision of it again, and it was similar but also very different.  Everyone looked like themselves, but everyone also had something about them that reminded me of Jesus—something a little dangerous and uncomfortable, but glorious, like forgiveness.  There were no harlots or tax collectors or thieves or idolaters, not because they had been evicted, but because they had stopped being those things.

The harlot who had interrupted my banquet was received into a community that loved her.  The local tax collector was kissed on both cheeks in greeting.  The thief was taught to earn his bread, and the idolaters were so overwhelmed by these genuine displays of repentance and forgiveness that they saw their idols were worthless and accepted the yoke of the Holy One.

I did notice, to my disappointment, that there weren’t very many Pharisees.  But Jesus had not finished telling his last story.  The Day of the Lord had not arrived yet, even if the kingdom had, and the elder brother could still decide[63] to join the celebration.[64]  The joy of the kingdom of heaven is that the elder brother can celebrate with the younger.  The kingdom of heaven is not about the sort of person who deserves to enter it.  The only sort who can enter are the forgiven ones, and they can come from anywhere.  But it happens slowly and quietly, like a mustard seed growing into a tree.

The Prodigal Son - Rembrandt

The Prodigal Son – Rembrandt



Aland, Kurt, ed.  Synopsis of the Four Gospels.  New York:  American Bible Society, 1982.

Bailey, Kenneth E.  Through Peasant Eyes, ix-xxiii; 1-21.  Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1980.

Blomberg, Craig L.  Interpreting the Parables.  Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1990.

________.  Jesus and the Gospels.  Nashville:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997.

Carter, Warren.  “Resisting and Imitating the Empire:  Imperial Paradigms in Two Matthean Parables.”  Interpretation 56 no. 3 Jl (2002):  260-272.

Crossan, J. Dominic.  “Parable.”  Anchor Bible Dictionary:  O-Sh, vol. 5, ed. (in-chief) David Noel Freedman, 146-152.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992.

Goss, James.  “Eschatology, Autonomy, and Individuation:  The Evocative Power of the Kingdom.”  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 S (1981):  363-381.

Heil, John Paul, “Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant in Matthew 18.21-35.”  In Matthew’s Parables,  96-123.  Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1998.

Hendrickx, Herman.  The Parables of Jesus.  London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1986.

Hill, David, ed.  “On Forgiveness.”  In New Century Bible:  The Gospel of Matthew, 277-278.  London:  Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972.

Linneman, Eta.  Parables of Jesus:  Introduction and Exposition.  London:  SPCK.  1966.

Longenecker, Richard N., ed.  The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables.  Grand Rapids:  Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.  2000.

Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew:  Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 3.  New York:  Doubleday, 2001.

Nouwen, Henri J. M.  The Return of the Prodigal Son.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992.

Ryken, Leland.  How to Read the Bible as Literature, 139-153, 199-203.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1984.

Scott, Bernard Brandon.  “The King’s Accounting:  Matthew 18:23-34.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 104 S (1985):  429-442.

Snodgrass, K.R.  “Parable.”  In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 591-600.  Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Song, Choan-Seng.  Jesus and the Reign of God.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Theissen, Gerd.  The Shadow of the Galilean.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1987.

Young, Brad H.  Jesus and His Jewish Parables:  Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching.  New York:  Paulist Press, 1989.

               [1] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997), 47.

               [2] Herman Hendrickx,  The Parables of Jesus (London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1986), 11.

[3] Blomberg, Jesus, 233.

               [4] Ibid., 386.

               [5] Ibid., 263.

               [6] Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables:  Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching, (New York:  Paulist Press, 1989), 210.

               [7] Blomberg, Jesus, 263.

               [8] K. R. Snodgrass, “Parable,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1992), 599.

               [9] Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1980), 4.

               [10] Blomberg, Jesus, 207.

               [11] Bailey, Peasant, 11.

[12]Ibid., 5.

              [13] H.B. Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands, (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1894),  36-38; quoted in Ibid., 4.

               [14] J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 48ff; quoted in Ibid., 3.

               [15] Ibid.

               [16] Ibid., 14.

               [17] Ibid., 9.

               [18] Hendrickx, Parables, 11.

               [19] Blomberg, Jesus, 262.

               [20] Bailey, Peasant, 16.

               [21] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew:  Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 3 (New York:  Doubleday, 2001), 79ff

              [22] Bailey, Peasant, 18.

               [23] Bailey, Peasant, 14ff.

               [24] Young, Jewish Parables, 189.

               [25] Song, Choan-Seng, Jesus and the Reign of God (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 5.

               [26] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1990), 291.

               [27] Young, Jewish Parables, 197.

               [28] Blomberg, Interpreting, 302.

               [29] James Goss,  “Eschatology, Autonomy, and Individuation:  The Evocative Power of the Kingdom,”  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 S (1981):  365.

               [30] Blomberg, Interpreting, 296.

               [31] Hendrickx, Parables, 2.

               [32] Eta Linneman, Parables of Jesus:  Introduction and Exposition (London: SPCK, 1966), 39.

               [33] Meier, Marginal, 321.

               [34] Bailey, Peasant, 14.

               [35] Ibid., 13.

               [36] Ibid., 18.

               [37] Blomberg, Interpreting, 317.

               [38] Blomberg, Jesus, 410ff.

               [39] John Paul Heil, “Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant in Matthew 18.21-35,” in Matthew’s Parables,  (Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1998), 96.

               [40] Blomberg, Jesus, 47.

               [41] Bernard Brandon Scott, “The King’s Accounting:  Matthew 18:23-34,”  Journal of Biblical Literature 104 S (1985):  342.

               [42] Heil,  “Servant,” 120.

               [43] Blomberg, Interpreting, 293.

               [44] Scott, “ Accounting,”  429.

               [45] Warren Carter, “Resisting and Imitating the Empire:  Imperial Paradigms in Two Matthean Parables,” Interpretation 56 no. 3 Jl (2002):  262ff.

               [46] Heil,  “Servant,” 116.

               [47] Carter, “Resisting,” 262.

               [48] Heil, “Servant,” 121.

               [49] Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature,.(Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1984), 143ff.

               [50] Bailey, Peasant, 11.

               [51] Kurt Aland, ed., Synopsis of the Four Gospels, (New York:  American Bible Society, 1982), 347.

               [52] Young, Jewish Parables, 197.

               [53] Hendrickx, Parables, 151.

               [54] Ibid., 152.

               [55] Ibid., 154.

               [56] Ibid., 155.

               [57] Snodgrass,  “Parable,” 599.

               [58] Hendricks, Parables, 157ff.

               [59] Linneman, Parables, 40.

               [60] Young, Jewish Parables, 198.

               [61] Blomberg, Jesus, 233.

               [62] Ibid., 384.

[63] Linneman, Parables, 39.

[64] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York:  Doubleday, 1992), 70ff.

9 thoughts on “The Elder Brother on the Doorstep

  1. This is amazing. Also, it seems pretty biblical to put theology in story form. I really liked reading it. And I’m impressed with how you can write a paper in such a form. I can see why this would be one of the favorite things you’ve written. Also, I hoped the grade matched the quality of the piece (seen from my far from expert eyes).

    • Thanks, Bas. I think you’re right about theology and story. They go together pretty naturally when you think about it. And . . . the Bible. 🙂 (One big story, full of theology.) Too bad more people don’t do it well.

    • PS Yes, the grade was quite what I had hoped. 🙂 Interestingly, that professor became so enamoured of my writing that even after I left the seminary, he “followed” me (in the way one follows someone on twitter) and has recently become my long-distance mentor for the seminary I now attend. He also provided an initial critique on Favored One . . . if that ever sees the light of day . . .

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