Beyond the Buff Jesus: Clear eyes, full heart
by Sarah-Dianne Jones
My favorite classes that I have taken at Maryville College are New Testament World and Culture and Hebrew Bible World and Culture. Yes, two one-hundred-level, required courses. Taking Dr. Meyer’s New Testament class my first semester of freshmen year made me rethink my major, switching from English to religion. I was fascinated by closer readings of texts that I had been around all of my life, noticing new things each time I read something that I would typically brush off, thinking that I knew it well enough. At the end of the class, I found myself wanting so much more.
One of the motivating factors in my decision to change my major was the realization that I could take Hebrew Bible as my elective, a realization that I admit I had never thought would be as exciting as it was. Last spring, I lived for Hebrew Bible. For seventy five minutes on Tuesdays and Thursday’s, I was able to learn about the texts in the Bible that I didn’t know as well, reading them in new ways, finding comfort in the texts that I was reading for homework. But one semester and one hundred pages of notes later, Hebrew Bible was finished, and I was still aching for more. But what could I do?
PCC, or Progressive Christian Community, a group that meets on Thursday evenings in the CCM, is doing a Lenten Bible study on forgiveness. After two weeks of being postponed, it was with great excitement (at least on my part) that we were able to get started on our first Thursday back after the snow day.
Or at least, I was excited. Then I found out that the text that we were looking at was the parable about the prodigal son. It is a well-known parable: the younger son asks his father for his portion of his inheritance, goes away to a foreign country, squanders away the money on a life of debauchery, is forced to work a horrible job, realizes that his father is so much kinder to his servants than the son’s boss is being to him, goes home, asks forgiveness and is granted it. The father throws the younger son a huge party, kills the fatted calf and welcomes him with open arms. Good story, right?
But there’s also an older son. He is the son who stays, and his anger about his father’s acceptance of the younger son is obvious. He does not understand how his father could welcome back this son who disrespected him, the son who did not care enough to stay. The story ends with the father telling his oldest son, “This brother of yours was dead and is now alive.” He must be celebrated, because he has come back to the family after so much time away.
I struggle with this parable because I identify with the older brother, the one who followed all of the rules and did what was expected, tried to live up to the idea of what he should be. And yet, it doesn’t seem to do him any good. He is still not worth any more than his younger brother, the brother who majorly screwed up.
But I was excited about this Bible study, and I certainly couldn’t boycott because I didn’t like the text we were reading. Imagine my surprise when I found that looking at the text that I’ve disliked for so long in a new way, a way that involved reading it closely, something that I longed for, actually made me think about it differently than I always have. This story is about forgiveness. This story isn’t about the older brother being shunned because he wasn’t enough for his father, but instead that he is loved by a father who loves his children so powerfully that every child must be celebrated, even the child who screws up.
Looking at this story in a new way allowed my eyes to clear and my understanding to change. With a new understanding came the chance for my appreciation of the story to develop. In the words of my favorite fictional football coach, “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.”