The Prodigal Son: "A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors"
If there is an award to be given for the best interpretation of a parable, Richard Rohrbaugh earns it for the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), a misnomer actually, since it isn't really about a prodigal son but rather a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons. The essay is called "A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors", found in the collection edited by V. George Shillington, Jesus and His Parables. Rohrbaugh offers a reading that's so compelling you could believe he travelled back in time to mine the cultural cues, then came back and consulted a screenwriter to flesh out the story with them.
Most of us assume that the younger son is the star of the plot, the lone tragic figure who repents of his transgression to be forgiven by the father. The theological allegory then becomes obvious: God forgives repentant sinners. But "repentance" is never mentioned in the parable; the younger son comes home because he's hungry. The father is actually the story's main character, struggling (however foolishly) to reconcile everyone so that the family can survive. Rohrbaugh begins by noting that
"Much more is at stake here than losing and gaining an errant son, traumatic as that event would be. The well-being and future of an entire extended family is at stake. Its honor and place in the village, its social and economic networks, even its ability to call on neighbors in times of need are all at issue. If the family were to 'lose its place', no one would marry its sons or daughters, patrons would disappear, and the family would be excluded from the necessary economic and social relations. Families that do not maintain solidarity with neighbors are quickly in trouble." (Jesus and His Parables, p 149)Why is such solidarity threatened? Because the family members, all of them, participate in an outrageous act. The younger son declares his father dead by asking for his share of his inheritance, and quitting home for the city (v. 12a). The older son, silently and without protest, takes his own share when the father divides the money between them (v. 12b). The father, incredibly, gives in to all of this, in a culture where inheritances are village as much as family property. Rohrbaugh continues:
"What kind of family is this? [Hearers] would be wondering if the family could even continue to function... More than internal family relations are at stake here. Even if this shameful episode took place in private, it would only be a short time before the whole village knew what happened... Village gossip networks are very effective in spreading stories about those who break the rules. What the shameful behavior of the father and his two sons would signal to other villagers, therefore, is the need to close ranks against this family quickly lest the contagion spread." (p 151)When the younger son later decides to come home after squandering his wealth in the city, it's not because he's repentant, but because he's starving (v. 17). He's a classic case of unexperienced peasants who migrate to cities and blow all their money, left with little choice but to eat crow and come slinking home. If his father hasn't disowned him, he will at least beat him publicly, and plenty of villagers will want to do him harm too. In this light the father's reaction -- running to the son, and embracing and kissing him (v. 20) -- signals something unexpected:
"As Kenneth Bailey points out, in the Mediterranean old men do not run. It is not only shameful (ankles show), it also indicates lack of control. They certainly do not run to meet or welcome anyone, and especially not their children. But if an emergency exists, perhaps that is another matter. This makes sense of the unique Greek term used here [in v. 20]: dramon means to exert oneself to the limit of one's powers. It implies straining to the utmost. Obviously the father acts in this way because the boy is in trouble. The villagers would be angry and the father's 'compassion' is well placed... The embrace and kiss are not first of all signs of welcome, they are signs of protection." (p 156)So the father hasn't disowned his son. He attempts reconciliation, without beatings, and shames himself in the process. But his next step is even more difficult: appeasing the villagers. He does this by throwing a party for them. As Bailey/Rohrbaugh note, the fact that a calf is slain (v. 23) (rather than a goat or sheep) means that the entire village is invited to the party (p 157). Indeed the calf is more for the villagers than the prodigal himself; it's a peace offering aimed at the community. And the music and dancing (in v. 25) shows that the father's gesture is successful: the villagers accept the son back into the community.
Or half-successful: the older son defies the father. As the eldest his proper role (as Bailey explains) is to stand barefoot at the door, greet all the guests, and supervise the entertainment. Instead he insults his father (and everyone present) by refusing to enter the house and accept the reconcilation. And once again, the father acts as one feebleminded, by begging instead of harshly ordering his son to comply (v. 28). But the eldest remains disloyal, even cooking up false accusations against his brother -- that he spent the money on harlots (v. 30) (the earlier part of the story said nothing about this). His resentment is obviously understandable -- his brother's waste of family money means that he will be the one supporting the father in old age, and probably the prodigal too (p 159) -- but his open disloyalty is intolerable. The parable ends with the father still faced by a challenge.
Why would Jesus have told such a story? Because, as Rohrbaugh says, it's something peasants could identify with and understand, "commending the valiant struggles of a beleaguered if foolish father" (p 163). The story affirms responsibility to both kin and village, even in the face of outrageous disloyalty. But it does so in a bizarre way: the father counters shamelessness (disloyalty) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. He could have gone the route of beating the prodigal to set an example, and railroading the elder for his insults. But he makes an ass and fool of himself on both accounts. Is this the sort of thing Paul had in mind by being a fool for the Lord (II Cor 11-12)?
Jesus' parable isn't the repentance/forgiveness story taught in modern Sunday schools. Neither is it an obtuse allegory of Israel's return from exile (Tom Wright), nor even an abstract metaphor for accepting all people (Brandon Scott). It's exactly what it describes. The key is to resist parallels between the father and God. As William Herzog would say, this isn't an "earthly story with a heavenly meaning, but an earthy story with a heavy meaning". In view of the imminent apocalypse, Jesus thought people were called to change their behavior radically, like this father, to become asses and fools for the sake of the kingdom.
Bailey, Kenneth: Peasant and Poet: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Eerdmans, 1976.
Rohrbaugh, Richard: "A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors", in Jesus and His Parables (edited by V. George Shillington), T&T Clark, 1997, pp 141-164.
The complete series
The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Dishonest Steward