The Prodigal Influence of the Prodigal Son Parable

The Prodigal Influence of the Prodigal Son Parable October 31, 2017



One of the problems with some Biblical stories is that they are too familiar, and have gone through a myriad of adaptations and interpretations. Certainly one such story is the parable of the prodigal son. Recently, in working through the classic Methodist sermons of C.K. Barrett, my mentor, a not very surprising outcome was observed. Of the some 5,000 times Barrett preached over seven decades, the sermon he preached most often, some 60 times between 1932 and 2009, was the parable of the prodigal son. If it is true that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least tone-deafness to the meaning of the original passage, then the parable of the prodigal son, like the parable of the Good Samaritan has too often been a victim of over-reading and misunderstanding. And sometimes it is not merely the preaching but even the artistic representation of the story that has led us astray.

Consider for example the famous Rembrandt painting of this parable. In the light, and at the center of the painting is the forgiving father, with his huge hands on the kneeling younger son. In the shadows stands on the right the elder son looking askance at the whole scene, and the mother with a bit more compassionate look on her face. But as my friend A-J Levine points out, the elder son and his ‘lostness’ is just as much a part of this story as the more familiar part. Certainly, one of the main keys to giving this story a fair hearing in its original settings (in the ministry of Jesus, and in the Gospel of Luke) is ongoing contextual study of the parable. What did it mean in its original Jewish setting, and what it come to mean for Luke and his audience? The value of detailed knowledge of the original contexts is that it makes clear that certain interpretations can be ruled out rather quickly.

For example, this parable is not about critiquing the Pharisees, masquerading as the older brother. Nobody in Jesus’ context would have understood it that way. This parable deals with family troubles, not ethnic prejudice. Or an adventure by a Jewish young man in the Diaspora where he squanders his inheritance on ‘riotous living’ should not be turned into a critique of how immoral his apparently Gentile hosts and employers must have been. The parable is simply not about that. It is indeed about repentance, or turning around, as when the younger son ‘comes to himself’ and returns home and admits his sin and errors of judgment. I agree with A-J that too often in the history of Christian interpretation these parables have been wrongly used to bolster anti-Semitic polemics. They have also been ‘spiritualized’ out of all recognition of their original thrusts which are not simply spiritual in character.
There is a social bite and critique to many of Jesus’ parables, and this is one of them. The God of the Bible is gracious and forgiving, and so should human parents be as well. There are many possible valid lessons to be learned from this story. And just because the parable has often been abused and misused to bolster bad, and even anti-Biblical agendas, doesn’t mean that such interpretations are either correct or inevitable. As the old dictum goes ‘abusus non tollit usum’— the abuse of something does not rule out its proper use. Interpreters of this story should not go silent just because it has been misused in the past. It is too important a parable for that. But what is necessary is: 1) better contextual study of the parable; 2) familiarity with the range of possibly valid readings of the parable, and 3) better teaching and preaching based on 1) and 2).

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