Saturday, September 5, 2015

NT Parables as Perlocutionary Acts: A Prodigal Son Returns

I have recently begun a discussion of how Jesus' parables place their characters within a type of vision, a type of seeing, which can open upon the saturated phenomena of the idol and the icon. By identifying the parables and parabolic language as an example of Marion's 'perlocutionary act,' this NT rhetoric can enter a phenomenological moment in the erotic reduction and then the reduction to givenness. The parables become songs of love that give themselves to the 'gifted' (or perhaps the 'devoted'-to-be). I will present the well-known 'parable of the two sons' through the lens of Marion's work to demonstrate how his phenomenological approach can release the event harbored in this familiar rhetorical device of the parable.

The parable of the 'Prodigal Son,' unique to Luke's Gospel (15:11-32), contains several elements that constitute the perlocutionary act.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’” [NIV]

In the previous chapter (Luke 14), the evangelist had just presented a somewhat uncomfortable meal with some Pharisees in which Jesus was under intense scrutiny. At the meal, he spoke of healing on the Sabbath, and saving an ox or a child fallen in a well. His healing of someone meets silence. Who will break the tension? Finally,  "one of those at the table"(14:15, my emphasis) responds joyfully to the advice Jesus gives his host about hospitality. The grammar of the parable already leads back to what might be going on in the 'one.' Afterwards, when he is with the crowds, and again with the 'tax collectors and sinners' (Luke 15:1) Jesus discusses the needs of the one over the many (4-7; 8-9) through a reduction, and finally illustrates the event: the 'rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents' (7;10). 

The 'Prodigal Son' (through the prodigal 'one') speaks to the event of an inversion of reward, of what is due, and when it is due. In Luke 14, hospitality, outside the economy of reciprocity, had its reward in another order, the order of resurrection (Luke 14:14). The father's gift of hospitable reward in this parable is displaced from the order of expectation. Here, a change of heart is a matter of life and death, and a 'coming-back-to life' warrants the event of celebration and rejoicing. The father's hospitality can in no manner require reciprocity, for the prodigal has nothing because of his sin against God and his father (15:19;21).

Marion's own reading of this Lucan pericope focuses on property (and indirectly, expectataion) as instantiation of ousia (15:12-13). While his task in God Without Being is to displace metaphysics and being itself, he links the displacement of ousia with property in the prodigal's demand for cold cash (pp. 95-100). This is precisely how ousia works parabolically: as expectation, great expectations (pace Dickens and Pip), and an eye that looks to dispose of an inheritance. Indeed, a large portion of the family goods and property, translated into currency, is disposed of rather quickly as the very ousia that brackets itself into epoche is dissipated. These great expectations are the same for both sons, though one seems to prefer to wait a bit longer for the will to be read, even if he will complain that a little breaking of the family treasure would be welcome.

The second displacement of expectation begins in the fascinating verse in which the father recognizes his son from a distance. Makran (μακρὰν) often suggests very great distance (especially as it is appears in Luke-Acts) that would make such a recognition difficult, yet here it seems to describe a running distance, though a parabolic running distance. Given the situation, the father might not recognize his son, for example, by some article of clothing, as the son has become destitute, disfigured by ousia. He must have looked to the horizon every day in hope that his son would come over it so poised and ready he was to receive that moment, that gift; and so he does recognize him---see him--- from afar as his son returned, returned from the dead. Through overflowing emotions of hope and joy masked as a 'gut feeling,' esplangchnisthe, (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη), the prodigal son comes into view. Seduced by the very horizon of love, the father is overwhelmed, overcome in his very bowels, which constitute his reception of the gift that is the his son brought into being through love: the father's expectant hope and love produces the appearance of his lost son on the horizon of love---he comes into view as love pulls him into existence, from the dead into new life and new being. The existential horizon of the parable (itself pulled into being by love), the horizon of being and the horizon of love meet in the event.

Premonition or very good vision brings a saturated phenomenon into the experience of not only the father but also the auditor of the story. The devoted 'gifted' sees the 'return' as metanoia, and therefore as iconic. Clearly this is not the only response, as the older son responds with incredulity and perplexed anger. The splendor of his robed and ringed brother presents to his gaze as the bedazzling idol of ousia, and reflects his gaze back onto himself, and only onto his own bedazzled perception of deprivation and an experience of injustice. He presents his brother to his father as 'this son of yours' as not only a disowned brother, but as the faceless other, a face defaced and erased by wanton living and sin against the father. The elder brother still sees the younger as 'dead' and not 'alive again.' Metanoia is invisible to him, and his gaze has foreclosed on the icon that presents an offer, an unconditional gift, to see him---that he be seen by a change of heart, that a change of heart sees him as the accused direct object of the 'to see,' the refracted gaze bending back, leading back, toward him. The father says, in effect, 'look at yourself, everything you see is yours.' He then reorients his elder son toward the icon, inverting the elder son's rhetoric of distance and expectation: "this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." The father directs his elder son to the face of the [br]other. In this reading, ousia can ride behind the chant of love, at least for a time, a time for celebration and the fatted calf. Ousia is reborn and rewritten after the song of the parable is sung, and love has uttered its lyric. Being always follows love.

The parable has therefore the same rhetorical thrust, the same perlocutionary (performative) action as the parable of the sheep and goats. It is an invitation to placing the self within view of metanoia, the pure gift, and within the phenomenological moment that releases the event of seeing the face of the other in love, with a gut feeling of compassion that sees the other viscerally, that sees the other as if it were within its very flesh, as if the gaze were coming from that flesh. This self is not only the self of  the elder brother who receives the invitation to the icon, but to Jesus' hearers of his words, those who stand in relation to the parable and its actors.

1 comment:

  1. It occurs to me that in a synthesis of Marion's reading of the Prodigal and my own, being-as- *ousia*, becomes the *ancilla domini* of love in the event. That would be an interesting lens through which to view the annunciation scenes, not just in Luke but in Matthew's version as well, where it might play out in unexpected ways.