I was stunned! It was 1958 in Jerusalem. A British scholar and churchman, Dr. Kenneth Cragg, was lecturing on the Muslim-Christian debates of the Middle Ages. He had just pointed out that the Muslim scholars of the period loved to quote the parable of the Prodigal Son as evidence against Christians. The reason was that, in the story, a son who leaves his father (God), goes into a far country, gets into trouble, decides to return home, is on his arrival welcomed, and his return is celebrated. He needs no incarnation and no atonement, no cross, and no salvation. There is no mediator between the two of them. He simply returns home and his father accepts him. Ergo: Jesus is a good Muslim.
After 40 years, the shock of that speech is still with me. In fact, that lecture inaugurated my personal pilgrimage into the mind of Jesus of Nazareth with this famous text as a road map. Was there any response to this centuries-old Muslim challenge?
This story badly needs to be rescued from familiarity and from its traditional cultural captivity. For centuries, we in the West have read the story in the light of our own cultural presuppositions, which have dulled its cutting edge.
I spent most of my childhood in Egypt, and from 1955 to 1995 our family lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, where I taught New Testament in seminaries and institutes. For all of my adult life, it has been my privilege to study the New Testament while living and teaching in the Middle East. Indeed, when I began to take seriously the traditional Middle Eastern culture of which Jesus was a part, the parable of "the father and his two lost sons" began to unfold for me in a new and exciting way. In the light of that culture, available through early Jewish and Eastern Christian sources, answers can be found to the original challenge with which my pilgrimage began. In short—are the Incarnation and the Atonement a part of this crucial parable? Yes, they are. I will try to explain why.
This parable must be seen as the third part of a trilogy in Luke 15. The Pharisees challenge Jesus: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (quotations taken from the NRSV unless otherwise noted). The Babylonian Talmud makes clear that rabbis did not eat with the 'am-ha'arets (the people of the land) who did not keep the law in a precise fashion. Luke records, "So he told them [the Pharisees] this parable [singular]." What follows are the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons (the Prodigal Son).
Thus we see that Luke understood them to be three parts of a single parable. A shepherd pays a price to find and restore a lost sheep. The woman does the same for her coin. In these two stories it is clear that Jesus is the good shepherd and he is the good woman. Which raises a question about the third story: Is he also the good father? And does this third story parallel the first two stories by having the father pay a high price to find and restore his son(s)? To answer these questions, which point to the larger issue of atonement and incarnation, at least 14 aspects of the parable need to be rescued from their traditional interpretation.
1. The request. The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health. In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means, "Father, I am eager for you to die!" If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern father, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. Surely anywhere in the world this is an outrageous request. The Prodigal is not simply a young boy who is "off to the big city to make his fame and fortune." Rather, this young son makes a request that is unthinkable, particularly in Middle Eastern culture. The father is expected to refuse—if he is an oriental patriarch! In fact, he is not, which brings us to the second point.
2. The father's gift. The father grants the Prodigal the freedom to own and to sell his portion of the estate. Five times in the parable the father does not behave like a traditional oriental patriarch. This is the first instance. The inheritance is substantial. This is a wealthy family that has a herd of fatted calves and a herd of goats. House servants/slaves appear. The house includes a banquet hall large enough to host a crowd that will eat an entire fatted calf in one evening. Professional musicians and dancers are hired for that banquet. The father is respected in the community, and thus the community responds to his invitation. Transferring the inheritance is a serious matter that should only be dealt with by the father as he approaches death.
Furthermore, the Prodigal "gathered all he had," or as the New English Bible puts it, "turned [it] into cash." This means that he is selling his part of the family farm. As that happens, this horrendous family breakdown becomes public knowledge, and the family is shamed before the entire community. Jewish law of the first century provided for the division of an inheritance (when the father was ready to make such a division), but did not grant the children the right to sell until after the father's death.
In a second departure from the expected norm, the father grants the inheritance and the right to sell, knowing that this right will shame the family before the community. Thus, from the opening lines of the parable, it is clear that Jesus does not use an oriental patriarch as a model for God. In the contemporary West, Jesus is often accused of having done so. Such is not the case. Rather, he has broken all the bounds of Middle Eastern patriarchy in creating this image of father. No human father is an adequate model for God. Knowing this, Jesus elevates the figure of father beyond its human limitations and reshapes it for use as a model for God.
3. The hurried sale. The Prodigal sells quickly ("A few days later"). He is obliged to do so. Anger in the village rises against him because he has shamed his father and his entire extended family by offering a large portion of the family farm for sale with a healthy father still farming it. He has to conclude the sale and get out of town as quickly as possible. As noted, Jewish law did not permit such a sale. The Prodigal does not care.
4. The qetsatsah ceremony. From the Jerusalem Talmud it is known that the Jews of the time of Jesus had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles. It was called the "qetsatsah ceremony." Horror at such a loss is also reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a violator of community expectations would face the qetsatsah ceremony if he dared to return to his home village. The ceremony was simple. The villagers would bring a large earthenware jar, fill it with burned nuts and burned corn, and break it in front of the guilty individual. While doing this, the community would shout, "So-and-so is cut off from his people." From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with the wayward lad.
From the various references to this ceremony, it appears that the ban was more comprehensive than the Amish "shun." When shunned, an Amish person can at least eat at a separate table. The first-century Jewish shun appears to have been a total ban on any contact with the violator of the village code of honor. As he leaves town, the Prodigal knows he must not lose the money among the Gentiles. He does. In the far country he lives among Gentiles. They own pigs!
5. Expensive living. Many times the Prodigal is accused of "loose living" or "riotous living." The Greek adjective in this phrase, however, does not imply immorality. (Syriac and Arabic translations in the Middle East have for 18 centuries preserved this finely tuned detail.) Jesus gives no hint as to how the Prodigal wasted his money. We are only told that he was a spendthrift. At the end of the story the older son publicly accuses his brother of spending the money on harlots. But he has just arrived from the field and knows nothing. He clearly wants to exaggerate his brother's failures. This tension in the story disappears when words such as "riotous living" (KJV), "loose living" (RSV), or "dissolute living" (NRSV) appear in the text.
6. The search for employment. When his money is spent, the Prodigal would naturally return home. But he has broken the rules. He knows that the qetsatsah ceremony awaits him if he returns to the village. He is thus desperate to somehow recover the money. For this he needs a paying job. Twice he tries to obtain one. The first attempt is feeding pigs in the far country. The second is the game plan he vocalizes on the eve of his return home. These two plans must be looked at with some care.
The first plan, becoming a pig herder, does not work. The text deliberately affirms, "No one gave him anything." Like Lincoln's Gettysburg address, this parable contains no excess verbiage. Each phrase is carefully crafted to carry precise meaning. As a pig herder, the Prodigal is fed but not paid. The first-century Jewish reader knows the Prodigal must earn back the money he wasted if he is to avoid the qetsatsah ceremony.
Having failed at his first try, he plans one last roll of the dice—he will go home, get job training, and earn his way. To be accepted for that job training, he will need his father's endorsement. But how will he convince his father to trust him one more time?
7. The self-serving plan. Perhaps the most theologically damaging traditional misunderstanding of this parable is in the popular perception of the phrase, "He came to himself." This has long been interpreted as meaning "he repented." This reading of the text dulls its cutting edge and breaks up the theological unity of the chapter. The good shepherd must traverse the wilderness to find his sheep. He does not return to the village and wait for the sheep to wander home and bleat at the door of the sheepfold. The good woman lights a lamp and searches diligently to find the lost coin. She does not resume her chores expecting the coin to flip itself out of a crack in the floor and land on the kitchen table.
In short, the first two stories are Augustinian. The sheep and the coin must be rescued. But if the Prodigal manages to make his way home by his own efforts, then the third story is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian. That is, it teaches that people are not impeded by original sin or depraved wills and can by their own effort, without divine grace, take steps toward salvation.
In the first story, the lost sheep is a symbol of repentance, and repentance is shown there as "acceptance of being found." The second story confirms this definition. But if the Prodigal truly repents in the far country and struggles home on his own, then Jesus contradicts himself. As traditionally understood, the third story affirms the opposite of the first two. Either Jesus is theologically confused or repentance is an elastic concept that is open to both an Augustinian and a Pe-lagian interpretation. I find both options unacceptable. Is there an alternative?
By telling the parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus invokes Psalm 23, which also has a lost sheep and a good shepherd. The key phrase appears in verse 3, which is traditionally translated, "He restores my soul." This statement has come to mean: I was downcast, and the Lord restored my spirits. That understanding is, no doubt, a part of the psalmist's intention. But the Hebrew reads "yashubib nefshi," which literally means, "He brings me back," or "He causes me to repent." Clearly, the psalmist is lost, and God, the good shepherd, brings him back to the paths of righteousness.
When the Prodigal's speech is read in this light, a new meaning emerges. The psalmist believed God brought him back (to God) and caused him to repent. The Prodigal is going to solve his own problem—he came to himself. The verb for return does not appear! The long, rich history of Arabic versions contains a number of interesting translations of this key phrase. Some read, "He got smart." Others translate, "He took an interest in himself" or "He thought to himself." None of these translators saw the Prodigal in the far country as repentant. Ah—but what of his "confession"?
The prepared confession reads, "I have sinned against heaven and before you," and this is (understandably) usually seen to indicate heartfelt repentance. Jesus' audience, however, is composed of Pharisees who know the Scriptures well. They recognize that confession as a quotation from the pharaoh when he tries to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. After the ninth plague, Pharaoh finally agrees to meet Moses, and when Moses appears, Pharaoh gives this same speech. Everyone knows that Pharaoh is not repenting. He is simply trying to bend Moses to his will.
The Prodigal is best understood as attempting the same. Hoping to soften his father's heart, the Prodigal plans to offer his solution to the problem of their estrangement: job training. He will work as a paid craftsman and be able to save money. He will not live at home for the present. But after the lost money is recovered, he can discuss reconciliation. Having failed to get a paying job in the far country, he will try to get his father's backing to become gainfully employed near home. He will yet save himself through the law. No grace is necessary. He can manage—or so he thinks! But is the lost money the real problem?
In his soliloquy in the far country, the Prodigal opens his mind and spirit to the listener/reader. Wanting to eat, he says, "I am dying of hunger!" He thinks that if he can only recover the lost money, everything will eventually be solved. In the interim, he will be able to eat, and once the money is returned, the village will accept him back. He does not consider the father's broken heart and the agony of rejected love that his father has endured. While talking to himself in the far country he evidences no shame or remorse. If he is a servant standing before a master, his plan is somehow adequate. If he is a son dealing with a compassionate and loving father, his projected solution is inadequate.
8. The point of turning. The Prod-igal steels his nerves for his humiliating entrance into the village. He remembers the qetsatsah ceremony and braces himself to endure its shame. The painful interview with his father will not be any easier. His one hope is that his "humble speech" will touch his father's heart and that he will win his father's backing for the training he needs to become a wage earner. The Prodigal is expected to return with generous gifts for the family. Not only does the Prodigal return home empty-handed, he returns in failure after insulting his family and the village at departure. This painful road back is endured for one reason: he is hungry. The bottom line is, "I am dying of hunger!"
But what of his father? The father knows his son will fail. He waits day after day, staring down the crowded village street to the road in the distance along which his son disappeared with arrogance and high hopes. The father realizes full well how his son will be welcomed in the village when he returns in failure. Thus, the father also prepares a plan: to reach the boy before the boy reaches the village. The father knows that if he is able to achieve reconciliation with his son in public, no one in the village will treat the Prodigal badly. No one will dare suggest that the qetsatsah ceremony must be enacted.
The father sees him "while he was still far off." The "great distance" is more spiritual than it is physical. If the Prodigal thinks he can earn money and with it solve the problem of their relationship, he is yet very far away! The language is borrowed from Isaiah 57:19, where God affirms peace to those who are "far off" and peace to those who are "near." This is precisely what the father sets out to do. Through a great, dramatic action, he will offer peace to the one who is far off and then concentrate on creating peace with the one who is near (the older brother).
And so, for the third time, the father breaks the mold of Middle Eastern patriarchy. He takes the bottom edge of his long robes in his hand and runs to welcome his pig-herding son. He falls on his neck and kisses him before hearing his prepared speech! The father does not demonstrate love in response to his son's confession. Rather, out of his own compassion he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant, and runs to reconcile his estranged son. Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. To do so is deeply humiliating. This father runs. The boy is totally surprised. Overwhelmed, he can only offer the first part of his prepared speech, which now takes on a new meaning. He declares that he has sinned and that he is unworthy to be called a son. He admits (by omitting the third phrase) that he has no bright ideas for mending their relationship. He is no longer "working" his father for additional advantages. The father does not "interrupt" his younger son. Instead, the Prodigal changes his mind, and in a moment of genuine repentance, accepts to be found.
9. The father acts like a mother. In the parable, a traditional oriental patriarch would be expected to sit in grand isolation in the house to hear what the wayward boy might have to say for himself. The mother could run down the road and shower the boy with kisses.
We know God is spirit and thus is neither male nor female. But God is also personal, and God is one. A 1,000-year-old, finely tuned sacred tradition is available to Jesus. The prophets called God "Father" and partially described that father in female terms. This language affirmed the personhood and the unity of God for all believers, male and female. In the Old Testament, God is already presented as a father who also acts with the tender compassion of a mother (Deut. 32:18; Ps. 131; Isa. 42:14, 66:13). The Dead Sea Scrolls describe God with the same imagery. More than 200 times Jesus calls God "Father," and in John's gospel, we find that the believer must be "born from above." In 1 John, the believer is "born of God." That is, God "gives birth" in the New Testament even as he does in the Old (Deut. 32:18). In this parable, too, the father appears on the road, demonstrating the tender compassion of a mother.
10. Christology. As the father comes down and out to reconcile his son, he becomes a symbol of God in Christ. "Father," a symbol for God, ever so quietly evolves into a symbol for Jesus. The same shift occurs in the story of the Good Shepherd. At three points in the Old Testament, God is a good shepherd who goes after his lost sheep (Ps. 23:3; Jer. 23:1-8; Ezek. 34). Jesus retells that classical story and introduces himself into it as its hero. The Pharisees complain, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Jesus replies with this story, which in effect says, "Indeed, I do eat with sinners. But it is much worse than you imagine! I not only eat with them, I run down the road, shower them with kisses, and drag them in that I might eat with them!" Jesus is clearly talking about himself. By the end of the story, the father does what Jesus does.
A famous eleventh-century Syriac scholar in Baghdad, Abdallah Ibn al-Tayyib, identified the father in his self-giving love on the road as a symbol for Jesus. The great New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias made the same identification this century. I call this "hermeneutical Christology." That is, Jesus takes a known symbol for God and quietly transforms it into a symbol for himself.
11. The meaning of the banquet. The banquet in the parable has three interpretations. The first is offered by the father, the second by a little boy in the courtyard of the home, and the third by the older son. The first two are in harmony with each other. The third is in sharp contrast to the first two. Contemporary readers usually only recall the third. All three interpretations must be examined.
Once reconciliation is assured, the father orders a banquet. He says, "Let us eat and celebrate; for [now comes his reason] this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" The father does not say, "He was lost and has come home." Instead, we read, "He was lost and is found." So who found him? The father did! Where did he find him? At the edge of the village! Thus, in the father's perceptions, the Prodigal was still lost and dead at the edge of the village. Even as the shepherd was obliged to go forth and pay a high price to find his sheep, and the good woman sought diligently to find her coin, even so the father went down and out in a costly demonstration of unexpected love to find and resurrect his son. The banquet is a celebration of the success of that finding and that resurrection.
Now for the little boy's interpretation. The older son comes in from the field and on hearing the music calls to a pais. This Greek word can mean three things. The first is "son," which does not fit this text. The second is "servant," which also does not fit, because all the servants are busy in the house serving the huge banquet. The third option is "young boy." Middle Eastern Syriac and Arabic versions have always chosen this third alternative. As the older son approaches his family home in the center of the village, he naturally meets a crowd of young boys who are not old enough to recline with the elders at the banquet, but are outside the house dancing in tune to the music and enjoying the occasion in their own boisterous manner. The young lad assumes the role of the chorus in a Greek drama. (We now know that there was a large Greek theater in Sepphoris, four miles from Nazareth.) The little boy tells the listener/reader the truth about what is happening in the story. The older son asks him what the party is all about and the lad says (as I would translate it), "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because (now comes the second interpretation) he (the father) received him (the Prodigal) with peace!" The word I translate here as "peace" is the Greek word hugaino. This means "in good health," and from it we have the English word hygiene. But in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), this same Greek word appears 14 times, and without exception it translates the Hebrew word shalom or peace. When a first-century Jew used the word hugaino, he or she mentally translated the Hebrew word shalom, which includes "good health" but means so very much more.
I am confident that Jesus used the word shalom in the story. The point is that the banquet is in celebration of the father's successful efforts at creating reconciliation—shalom—and the community has come to participate in that celebration. Rather than a qetsatsah ceremony of rejection, they are participating in the joy of a restoration achieved by the father at great cost. Thus the young boy confirms the father's interpretation. For both, the banquet is a celebration of the success of the father's efforts at reconciling his son.
The language of the young boy, "He received him . …" (and plans to eat with him), reminds the listener of the Pharisees' complaint, "This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them." The young boy's speech confirms that the father has clearly evolved into a symbol for Jesus. Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. In this parable, the father does the same.
We have yet the older son's interpretation to consider, which he offers after the father tries to reconcile this son to himself. He says, "You killed the fatted calf for him!" This claim is the exact opposite of what the little boy has just told the older son. It is also the opposite of the father's own declared purpose for the banquet. Noting that the older son contradicts the two previous interpretations of the banquet, the listener must choose between them. Is the banquet in honor of the Prodigal or in honor of the father? Is it a celebration of the Prodigal's successful efforts at reaching home (on his own), or is it rather a celebration of the success of the father's costly efforts at creating shalom? Will the guests congratulate the Prodigal or the father?
It is my 40-year perception that generally modern readers of the parable do not even discern these contrasts or observe that there is a choice to be made. The banquet foreshadows Holy Communion. Surely we know that Jesus is the hero of that sacred banquet and that sinners are not the center of attention. The older brother's self-righteousness becomes a pair of colored glasses through which he sees the world. All he can understand is that the Prodigal lost the money and that he has been reconciled to their father without having first returned the money. In short, grace has been offered and accepted rather than the requirements of law demanded and fulfilled by the sinner. The older son's interpretation represents the view of many, then and now. But the father's view of the banquet (supported by the young boy's speech) is the mind of Jesus. For many, grace is not only amazing—it is also unbelievable! How could it be true? After all, you get what you pay for, don't you?
12. The older son's anger. If the banquet were a straightforward celebration of the Prodigal's safe return, the older son would enter the hall immediately. It would mean that the Prodigal's position in the family has not yet been determined. The older son would be very anxious that his point of view be represented when the family discusses the matter. Of course, they are all (publicly) glad the Prodigal is home and in good health. It would be churlish not to rejoice at his safe arrival. But the young boy tells the older brother that it's all over! Their father has already reconciled the Prodigal son—and has done so without the Prodigal paying for his sins! This is why the older son is angry. He is so angry he takes the radical step of breaking his relationship with his father.
For a son to be present and to refuse participation in such a banquet is an unspeakable public insult to the father. A cultural equivalent might be the case of a son in the West who has a heated public shouting match with his father in the middle of a wedding banquet after a large family wedding. A shouting match is not unthinkable—but not in public at such a banquet. The older son's rejection of his father's reconciliation with the Prodigal leads that same older son to break his relationship with the father who achieved it.
13. The father's response. For a fourth time, the father goes beyond what a traditional patriarch would do. For the second time in the same day, he is willing to offer a costly demonstration of unexpected love. Only this time it is to a lawkeeper rather than a lawbreaker. Amazing grace holds true for both sons. Culturally, the father is expected to proceed with the banquet and ignore the public insult. He can deal with the older son later. But no! In painful public humiliation, the father goes down and out to find yet one more lost sheep/coin/son.
14. The older son's response. The younger son "accepted" to be found. He was overwhelmed by the costly love freely offered to him. The older son, in contrast, seems unimpressed. Instead, he mercilessly attacks both his father and his brother in public. The father is expected finally to explode and order a thrashing for the public insults. For a fifth time, patriarchy is transcended. This is not a remarkable father. Rather it is a symbol for God. As Henri Nouwen has written regarding this parable, "This is the portrayal of God, whose goodness, love, forgiveness, care, joy and compassion have no limits at all. Jesus presents God's generosity by using all the imagery that his culture provides, while constantly transforming it" (The Return of the Prodigal).
If the older son accepts the love now offered to him, he will be obliged to treat the Prodigal with the same loving acceptance with which the father welcomed the pig herder. The older son will need to be "conformed to the image" of that compassionate father who comes to both kinds of sinners in the form of a suffering servant, offering undeserved, costly love. Is he willing? We are not told. By this point the audience is on the stage and must decide for itself.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an active lecturer on Middle Eastern New Testament studies and professor emeritus of New Testament at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem. Author of Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (Concordia), he lives in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.