THE PRODIGAL INFLUENCE OF THE PRODIGAL SON PARABLE
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.