Friday, March 12, 2010

Jesus explodes the patriarchy

In this post, I want to quote from a book my friend Becky read on the airplane from Virginia to Texas as she came to stay with us the weekend before last.  (Note the material detail I'm giving you because I want this stuff grounded for us, for you and for me).

One of her friends had lent Becky the book by Timothy Keller entitled, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, and then she lent it to me, and so I read it in the rare down-time moments over the busy two days she was with us.  (So what, you might yawn).

Becky is a woman.  (Okay, you acknowledge.)  She is a daughter, and she's a mother, and her children are all daughters.  (Yes, you say.)

Well, Keller's book is a seven-chapter exposition of "the parable [of the prodigal son in] Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (Based on the New International Version, with some verses translated by the author)." The author says it's about a father who represents God and about his two sons who represent two types of humanity.  Of course, it's the parable told by the man Jesus to other men, as translated and transcribed by the man Luke for a reader who is a man he calls Theophilus.  (Sure, it's a familiar story, you recognize, getting a little annoyed, maybe, at how I'm marking all the male-gendered terms like 'son,' 'father,' 'God,' 'his,' 'sons,' 'hu-man-ity,' 'man,' 'Jesus,' 'men,' 'man,' 'Luke,' 'man,' and 'Theophilus.')

We'll, there's the issue.  (Huh, you complain.)  How does this 'man' story mean much to Becky, the woman, daughter, and mother of daughters?  Her body's sexed female, and that makes her and her children different from the main man of the story and his two sons.  The story Luke translates into Greek for his buddy TheoPhilus [or GodKisser] is the story that Jesus tells in Aramaic Hebrew for his male only disciples and his man only critics.  Becky is not their intended audience.  Nor are the characters in the story ones she's meant to identify with.  (Hmmm, says you.)

But I want to suggest something different.

Jesus explodes the patriarchy.  There's a very different sort of parent as the protagonist of his tale.  Keller touches on this a couple of places in his book.  I'd like us to consider them.  And let me just warn you that I really wonder whether Jesus was stressing this or his audience were catching it or Luke was trying to convey it along like some Relevance Theorist bible translator might so that his pal who was named God's Pal would get the message loud, clear, unmistakably more or less, and in a way it could be packaged in a sermon or a book or a podcast or something.  So here are good twenty-first century reflections that show (however late in human history it might be) a kind of love that could infect any of us of any culture and any sex.  The Patriarchy is disrupted worse than it is when Matthew starts listing Jesus's genealogy and puts in four questionable women.  The first explosion is noted on Keller's pages 18 and 19:
      The father's response is even more startling than the request [of his second born son, who asked for the inheritance which rightly belonged to the first-born boy].  This was an intensely patriarchal society, in which lavish expressions of deference and respect for elders and particularly for one's parents were of supreme importance.  A traditional Middle Eastern father would be expected to respond to such a request by driving the son out of the family with nothing except physical blows.  This father [in contrast to expectations] doesn't do anything like that.  He simply "divided his property between them."  To understand the significance of this, we should notice that the Greek word [Luke uses to translate Jesus's spoken Hebrew Aramaic word is in English] translated as "property" [and this Greek word] here is the word bios, which means "life."  A more concrete word to denote capital could have been used but was not.  Why not?
If you too read Keller's book, then you get his answer to his question, "Why not?".  It has to do with natural law of males and property ownership and division and inheritance and such.  Jesus has put a word of request in the prodigal son's mouth that Luke translates with bios.  This is a startling little detail making us wonder who is really in control of this story, and yet when the protagonist (i.e., the prodigal parent) acts so unlike what men really act like, well then.  The whole thing's blown up.

But as Theophilus, and Luke, and the men listening to Jesus further consider this un-patriarchal father, they get even more difference.  So here's that second bit from Keller I promised you:
      We come to the dramatic third and final scene of Act 1.  The younger son comes within sight of the house.  His father sees him and runs--runs to him!  As a general rule, distinguished Middle Eastern patriarchs do not run.  Children might run; women might run; young men might run.  But not the paterfamilias, the dignified pillar of the community, the owner of the great estate.  He would not pick up his robes and bare his legs like some boy.  But this father does.  He runs to his son and, showing his emotions openly, falls upon him and kisses him.
Now, I don't know where you are with all of this.  (Hmm, you might still be saying).  So let me just tell you where Becky is with all this.  This is her favorite moment in Keller's book, she tells me.  And I tell her it's mine too.  And Becky laughs.  She laughs because she has a very good sense of humor and because she's a very good runner and because she's visiting to see me (a fledgling first-time marathoner) run.  And how undignified this is, how explosive to dignity (as I struggle, as my spouse who trained me and our children and our parents are watching, to run on and just to keep running on).   How undignified (who really cares now) the many ways we love each other with emotions and without male-on-top hierarchies.  Is anyone frowning now?  (How un-dignified, say the story's listeners.  How so very un-Father-God like.)  Well, there may be other places in other books where Jesus's behavior and words and that of his own followers and translators seem to prop men up in their status quo positions of power over women and children.  But I'm glad Becky while visiting doesn't need to be reminded of them.  In fact, there are these two places in this one parable as Keller tells Luke telling it that are places where Jesus explodes the patriarchy.


Katherine said...

This has got to be the best blog post title. :-) I love it. Just the title alone is encouraging and exciting (and the rest is great, too!). Many posts have been very depressing to me, here and elsewhere, during this month which is supposed to celebrate the accomplishments and history or whatever of the gender/sex I belong to, but has, to me, been more of a litany of "yeah, it sucks. It used to suck more, and it still does in too many ways in too many places." But this...this is good. This opens a window, and I can feel the breeze and the sunshine.

JasonK. said...

Great post, Kurk. It's great to find you blogging again.

J. K. Gayle said...

Katherine, Thank you very much for those kind words and especially for your exclaiming, so importantly, how there's "a window" opened and "breeze and sunshine." That encourages me, very deeply, to want more of that myself. History can be so closed up, and history as it's written (especially with respect to our genders) can be stale and dark.

Jason, Thanks for coming back to the blog and for your comment. Hope you and yours are well.