Bailey on the Prodigal Son

Kenneth Bailey’s recent monograph on the prodigal son, Jacob and the Prodigal (IVP), is full of stimulating insights. A long-time Christian teacher in Arabic and Syriac-speaking countries, Bailey always brings to his interpretations a wealth of knowledge of the cultural background and attitudes of men of the Near East. Also, he has a good eye for literary structure and for narrative and symbolism. That said, a few specific insights are worth noting:

1) He points out the parallels between the first parable of Luke 15 and Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23, and Ezekiel 34. There is a common narrative structure to each of these stories that helps to broaden out the story of a lost-and-recovered sheep into a story of lost-and-recovered Israel. More, putting Luke 15 into this sequence highlights the fault of the shepherd in Jesus’ story: He LOST a sheep, and thereby becomes a failed shepherd. In the prohpetic passages, the failure of the bad shepherds is overcome by Yahweh’s intervention (or David’s) as good shepherd; in Jesus’ telling of the story, the failed shepherd and the good shepherd are folded into a single character. This makes good theological sense: Jesus as shepherd does what Israel (and specifically Israel’s king/shepherd) failed to do.

2) On Psalm 23, Bailey points out that the phrase “he restored my soul” uses the Hebrew verb SHUB, the common word for “repent.” The verb is in the causative aspect in the Psalm, and thus should be translated as “caused to repent.” This makes good contextual sense: Yahweh has given David pleasant pastures and put him beside clear streams, but (implicitly) David went astray until Yahweh brought him back to the “paths of righteousness” so that he could go through the “valley of the shadow of death” toward the banquet of the resurrection. Murmuring in the background of the story of the lost sheep, the Psalm helps to explain how Jesus’ parable is a story illustrating the joy in heaven over a REPENTANT sinner. After all, Jesus’ story itself does not include any moment of repentance on the part of the sheep (much less the coin in the following parable!). What Jesus has done is adopt the notion of “repentance” implicit in the Psalm: Repentance is not so much turning as being turned; not so much finding myself as being found of Him.

3) Once this phrase is translated correctly, we can see that the story-line of the Psalm is closely parallel to that of the prodigal: Both involve being “turned”; both involve “death and resurrection,” exile and return; both end with a feast. The prodigal thus takes on royal connotations, fittingly since Israel is Yahweh’s prince. When Jesus retells Psalm 23 in the first of his three parables in Luke 15, he’s already preparing ground for the story of the prodigal.

4) Bailey outlines the ‘second act’ of the prodigal son story (the part about the elder son) as an incomplete chiasm. Thus the parable structurally underscores what is evident in the story itself: that the fate of the elder son is in doubt, left untold. That opening in the story is an invitation and challenge to Jesus’ critics, the scribes and Pharisees who attack him for his table fellows. Bailey also points out that this technique is evident already in the first story, because we hear nothing about the fate of the “ninety-nine” sheep who are not lost and therefore not found.

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