A Prodigal Son, An Undignified Dad: Reflections on Luke 15:11-32
March 10, 2013
You can tell what an interpreter thinks a parable means by the name she gives it. So what about this one? The Prodigal Son? The Lost Sons? The Waiting Father? The Enabling Father? The Undignified Dad?
This parable, the best loved of Luke's parables, falls into two parts: the first focuses on the younger son, the second on the older son. The father is the protagonist throughout the parable. The younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, probably a third of his father's estate as the younger of two sons (Dt. 21:17). The essence of a man's inheritance in that time was land and the only way it could be received was upon the father's death. Thus, his request was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead." Even though the father could divide the land before his death, he retained rights to the use of the land. The younger son, in selling his portion, left his father without rights to the land's use (Stiller, 111). A person's property is his until death, and the family's property was meant to maintain its oldest members until their death. So to demand his share early and then to dissipate it rather than to manage it responsibly for his parents' sakes, is to say to his father, in effect, "You are already dead to me" (Duke, 90).
He goes into the Greco-Roman world, as many Jews did to seek their fortunes in the lands around Palestine. His goal is to find himself, but he ends up by losing himself, reduced to working with unclean animals (Lev. 11:7). The parable tells us that he "came to himself," (Lk. 15:17). At this point, the parable's emotional richness begins to draws us in, so that we identify first with one then another of its characters. The boy is hungry. He is humiliated. He knows he has made a mistake and is desperate to survive. Does this mean he genuinely repented? We can't be sure. The narrative shows him sitting among the pig pods rehearsing what he will say to his father. Can we trust his sincerity? Is he just saying whatever it takes to fill his stomach? The story doesn't fill in this gap for us.
The culture of Palestinian villages was one of honor and shame. Honor was connected to how one was perceived in the community. The son has brought shame on his father and his whole family by his behavior. He can expect to be shamed by the village. His decision has affected the whole village. It has put his family's future means of making a living at risk. It has undermined their honor and place in the village and soured their relationship with their neighbors (Stiller, 112).
The younger son could expect that the townspeople would conduct a gesasah ceremony on his return. This is not a reception in the fellowship hall with a "Welcome Home" banner and a sheet cake. This is a ceremony for a son of the village who had lost his money to Gentiles or married an immoral woman. They would gather around him, breaking jars with corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village. His entry into the village would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions (Stiller, 111).
When the father sees his son, his compassion is inspired and he moves toward him. We are reminded of the sequence in the Good Samaritan of seeing someone suffering, having compassion, and taking action (Lk. 10:33). He may have been seeking to protect his son from the insults of those he must pass by on the way home. His behavior is strange. Fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated. His behavior is strange; it is not the way the male head of a household would act in Jesus' time. He is the patriarchal head of the household. His running to meet his son is an expression of a love so strong that one is willing to cast one's dignity to the winds, to put aside one's power and position for the good of another (Stiller, 110).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.