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Scripture and society

—a discussion at churchwide assembly

by Stephanie Olson (WordAlone board member)

News: December 16, 2005

Interesting conversations occur randomly at meal times at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assemblies. Sitting down at a table for lunch one day this past August, I joined a conversation about the parable of the prodigal son.

A clergy person (boldly wearing one of the short rainbow shawls, which showed support of the homosexual agenda) was talking about how societies in different parts of the world see this parable differently. She was specifically talking about the sad state of the younger son, alone in the far off land, who, after taking his share of his inheritance from his father, and squandering it on loose living, was starving. photo of Stephanie OlsonNow the son, with nothing left, was forced to work with pigs, and, when famine came to the land he was in, he was reduced to the temptation of eating the pig’s food to survive. This section of the parable was the focus of the conversation.

I found the conversation stimulating and expressed my personal awe that Jesus was such a powerful preacher and teacher that what He taught more than 2,000 years ago still clearly spoke to us, and to societies around the world, with the same powerful message. I interjected the perspective from the original culture within which Jesus was speaking, Middle Eastern, citing Kenneth Bailey’s work, “Poet and Peasant,” a book on the literary cultural approach to the parables in Luke. Jesus’ parable would have shocked people in that culture. First, that a son would even make the request for his share, in effect wishing that his father was dead, and then secondly, that the father would welcome him back. I listed, briefly, how the core meaning was unchanged. A young man made horrible decisions, he suffered because of them, recognized what he had done wrong and returned to his father with repentance and apology. And the core messages were the father’s joy upon the son’s return, his forgiveness and acceptance of the son back into the family.

Unfortunately, this is where the table conversation became disturbingly divisive.

The clergy person disagreed with me on this key point. This clergy person then presented three examples of how different societies would view the young son who was so hungry he was tempted to eat pig’s food:

  1. Our (American) culture would have looked down on the young man and seen him as getting what he deserved for his poor decisions and hoped he would learn from his mistakes;
  2. In another culture (I believe it was an African culture), the people would have been ashamed that society let a young man, even one who had made poor decisions, starve;
  3. In a third (I believe it was Irish), the whole country must have been starving (which according to the text in the Bible was true) for anyone to allow a person to starve, even someone who had squandered his own riches.

“Okay,” I agreed, “I can see how these different cultures could see the wasteful son with these different viewpoints, but,” I countered, “they still do not change the essential message of the parable Jesus told.”

“Yes, they do,” the rainbow-wearing clergy countered. “Now we use society to interpret Scripture, not Scripture to interpret society.”

She continued the conversation with the focus on how society fails to “do enough” for those such as the prodigal son who have made poor decisions in life. Sadly, I believe, in this focus she throws away the best of this parable — the grace and forgiveness of the father for the son — and leaves the poor lad to the pale, weak “help” of society.

I still believe the key meanings of this parable and all Jesus’ teachings are trans-generational and trans-cultural. I believe all cultures would agree on the following key points of this parable:

  1. The young son’s demand for his share of the inheritance before his father died was selfish;
  2. The father gave the son the money and let him make a bad decision;
  3. The son was foolish in how he used the riches given by his father and the son wasted it;
  4. The consequences of his decisions — his emptiness and hunger — helped him remember the father and how much his father had provided for him;
  5. The son repented and admitted his wrong to his father;
  6. The father forgave the son, and rejoiced at his return home.

Sadly, the rainbow clergy person at churchwide assembly had lost this, reducing the parable to a social perspective on how poorly American society treats those who have made poor decisions in life. In so doing, the key message of what God offers for each of us was lost.

Yes, some may chose to use society to interpret Scripture, but at least they ought to use the whole context of Scripture. If this is not done, that which is of true value is lost.

Unfortunately, there are some in the ELCA who do not see it this way and are choosing to ignore the whole of Scripture in order to lift up a single social point or idea — such as social justice or unity — above the rest of the message God gives us. This type of exegesis must be challenged and rejected.

We, as Christians have one thing and one thing only to offer others, that is Christ and Him crucified. We are all selfish, prodigal children — all sinners who daily squander the riches God gives us on wasteful, empty things — missing out on the best gift, His Son, Jesus, God with us.

This Christmas season let us truly rejoice and be glad. Let us remember we have a God who waits for us, who — when we repent — forgives us, and wants us to thank Him and love Him in return. This message speaks clearly to all ages, to all cultures and to all societies.