This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.
Let’s start at the end
I’ve recently become fascinated by story endings and epilogues, conclusions and codas, post-scripts and denouements. A good storyteller knows how to end a story well. We may gasp in shock or sigh with satisfaction, but we know intuitively that a well-crafted ending is a powerful thing.
How did the narrator or their story survive?
Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale give some interesting options.
What eventually happened to the protagonists?
Animal Farm tells us how low the pigs really go.
Did she marry him?
Readers of Jane Eyre will understand.
Is there going to be a sequel?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ends on a cliff-hanger, with the death of a beloved character.
Is there a reveal or twist?
Max’s supper is still hot in Where the Wild Things Are – why is that?
What about Jesus as storyteller?
The purpose of the stories Jesus told was not in entertaining his listeners, although parables could certainly do that. On the surface level, these short tales work to amuse and stir up the imagination. On a deeper level though, they act to challenge people about God’s kingdom and their own actions, communicating truths gently and memorably. The parables of Jesus are great models for connecting with people.
Biblical narratives can be considered in terms of two dramatic structure shapes according to literary theorist Northrop Frye. There is the U shape of comedy and the inverted U shape of tragedy. A tragedy begins with a protagonist’s rise from rags to riches, but ends with a descent into disaster or adversity. Think Romeo and Juliet: sad… happy… sad.
A comedy, on the other hand, begins with a positive state which is disrupted by the narrative events until a point at which the protagonist awakes or is delivered. Things take an upward turn, finishing with equilibrium again: happy… sad… happy.
The resolution may be brief, but if the story ties up the plot lines with a happy ending, we feel satisfied. Despite all the adventures along the way, there is a comfortable or just conclusion. The Bible as a whole can even be shown to follow this broad arc: Eden… sin… sacrifice… Heaven.
Frye uses Luke 15:11-24 to illustrate the comedy structure. The story is a familiar one. A younger son asks for his share of his father’s wealth, but squanders his money in a distant country. When famine comes, he is reduced to eating with pigs. He recognises his need of his father and returns home, where he is reconciled. Wonderful.
Except that this is not a whole parable.
The prodigal coda
The parable is not about one son, but two. Kenneth E. Bailey wrote about the literary style in the story, which he called ‘The Father and the Two Lost Sons’. Bailey was an astute and knowledgeable writer on Middle Eastern settings and customs and how they help us understand the Bible. Some of his cultural insights are eye-opening to a Western reader (see especially Poet and Peasant).
Bailey reasons that this is a double story, following a parabolic ballad shape for each brother. The first story tells of the younger brother and the literary structure shows the U shape as the boy leaves and comes home.
A A son is lost
B Money wasted extravagantly
C Everything lost
D Sin – feeding pigs for Gentiles
E Total rejection
F A change of mind – he came to himself
F’ Initial repentance – make me a servant
E’ Total acceptance
D’ Repentance – no longer worthy
C’ Everything (sonship) gained
B’ Extravagant celebration
A’ A son is found – was dead and is alive
This not only fits a beautiful chiasmus pattern but resolves the story of the younger son. Much like the wandering sheep, the God figure rejoices at finding what was lost.
The second coda however is a little different.
A A son comes near
B Feast for a brother now safely home
C Father comes to reconcile
D Complaint (how he is treated)
D’ Complaint (how his brother is treated)
C’ Father tries to reconcile
B’ Brother is safe – come to the feast
There is no A’.
It is a missing coda.
The audience, including Pharisees who were complaining about Jesus socialising with tax collectors and other ne’er-do-wells, are left with half a tale. Fill in the missing gap, Jesus is hinting. You are the older brother. What do you do next?
The expected story resolution is missing, but this is no mistake. The master storyteller is deliberately giving his listeners a challenge. It is possible to choose either direction. The characters are handed a stylus and to told write their own conclusion. Will they accept grace and be willing to reconcile, or resist God’s love in all its shocking manifestations?
Jesus had not read literary theory. He didn’t study Chekhov’s gun or feel the need to tie up all the strands – he already knew good storytelling gives the listener something to do. His ambiguity here is genius.
Much more can be said about Jesus’ genius in telling stories. Peter Williams has done an excellent job explaining this with reference to this parable elsewhere. Not unlike Pixar films today, ‘The Father and the Two Lost Sons’ works at more than one level for different audiences. The surface story is compelling enough for the wider crowd. The details in the precise words and phrases mean more to the listening scribes however, triggering specific stories in Genesis. They cannot have missed the moral challenges Jesus was quietly setting them while they judged him and his choice of friends.
The echoes of Old Testament stories are extraordinary – all the more so when you see how tightly written the parable is.
The coda did not go missing. The whole story is an invitation. A well resolved comedy-arc for a younger son and an invitation for the son who was lost while he remained at home which only the listener can complete.
Image taken from Pixabay.