Reflections on Bible verses

Analysis of The Prodigal Son by Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey

Luke 15: 11 – 12  - The Prodigal Son
And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons.” And the younger of them said to his father, “Father give me the share of the property that falls to me.” And he divided his living between them.

The three parables—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Sons (prodigal) —  parables
are told together by Jesus. When he tells these parables, Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem where he knows he will be killed. He tells these parables about himself (as the good shepherd, the woman, and the father) to explain his purpose.

It’s important to know that Jesus is talking to an audience (the Pharisees) who thought of themselves as righteous because they followed the law very carefully, and they looked down on the “sinners,” the ordinary people of the land. In the Prodigal Son, the older son represents the Pharisees and the younger son represents the “sinners.” In these three parables, Jesus is answering the Pharisees’ question about why he eats with and accepts “sinners” at a deep level.

Bailey's analysis of the parable of The Prodigal Son determines that the verses you just read have a particular meaning in the Middle East. If a son were to ask for his inheritance before the father’s death, the son would be wishing his father dead. Bailey lived in the Middle East and researched the culture—a culture that in some areas has not changed much since the time of Jesus.  With Ken Bailey’s living in this culture for more than 40 years, he has never found one example of such a request.

Jesus agrees with the Pharisees that the “sinners” are far from God. In fact, he paints a picture in which we wish God dead—living our lives extravagantly with friends, not thinking of God. If we consider the son’s words, the son is careful not to use the word inheritance. In the Middle East, accepting the inheritance means accepting responsibility to carry on providing for the family. The son is not looking for responsibility but for the money and the easy road.

Middle Eastern parables are packed with emotion, they speak truth. To leave out the intended, inherent emotion is to miss the rich content. Middle Easterners would anticipate that the father’s (God’s) response to the son’s request would be to explode with ANGER and refuse the request. His son is wishing him dead. He would have to sell much property because wealth was held in land, not a bank account. There would be shame because of the community’s reaction. However, the father’s (God’s) actual response is to grant this request. The father knows that punishing the son would only further alienate the son from himself. As Bailey points out, the father had two choices. He could protect himself by writing the son off no longer considering him a son and banishing him from his thoughts. But the father chooses the second way of suffering. The son had severed the relationship, and now the father holds this broken rope out to the son in hope of reconciliation.

Luke 15: 13 – 19 - The Return of The Prodigal Son
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.  So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate: and no one gave him anything.

When he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son; treat me as one of your skilled craftsman.’”

The return of the Prodigal Son: When the son spent all his money and a famine strikes the distant land, he is forced to work for a foreigner feeding pigs (a detestable animal to Jews.)

The son is starving. He would gladly eat the pods for the pigs but he cannot digest them. He thinks of the one place that there is bread. This next point that is being developed may seem subtle, but it highlights the difference between a God who is good and a God worth dying for … The son’s reason for going home is TO EAT, not to reconcile with his father. The son is not repentant. He crafts a speech that he feels might work to get him food and to save face. The Pharisees know the scriptures well and known that the speech is a speech crafted to manipulate, not to repent. This son’s wording is taken from what the Pharaoh said to Moses after the first nine plagues in Egypt. Pharaoh said anything to placate Moses to stop the plagues. Moreover, the son is not asking to become a slave, he wants to become a craftsman so that he can pay his own way.

The father (God) understands that we don’t return to him with right motives but simply want to get something -- to eat, to be healed, to be financially blessed.  He understands that the only things that we can offer him are the dirty rags on our back and our dirty motives. It is in this situation that the son starts his journey back to the father -- literally with only dirty rags and a contrived speech.  (You can read more on this topic in Kenneth E. Bailey’s The Cross & the Prodigal).

Luke 15: 20 – 24 The Father Runs
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. “ And they began to make merry.

In Ken Bailey's analysis of The Prodigal Son: As the son comes closer to his home, he would likely be feeling fear and shame. He wished his father dead, left family and community, and now he has lost everything. He expects to face his father’s and brother’s anger and rejection. Besides the family, the close knit community would also reject and banish him, as was the custom. Any Jew who loses his money among foreigners will face the Kezazah (literally “the cutting off.”) The Kezazah would be performed by breaking a clay pot at the feet of the prodigal as visual symbol to the prodigal that the community rejected him forever.

I would imagine that when the son saw his father (God) running to him at a distance, he would be struck with fear. In the Middle East, it was considered humiliating for men over age forty to run. As the father ran, he would have had to lift his robe--another humiliation. As the father drew closer, the son would see not anger -- but joy. And when the father reached him, the father kissed him over and over.

After experiencing the father’s visible, costly love for him, the son’s manipulative speech was gone, and all he could say was that he is not worthy to be the father’s son. But the father restored the son: put shoes on the son (sons, not slaves, wore shoes); put his best robe on him; and put the ring on his finger (a signet ring would give him the power to transact business).

The imagery here is that of the son returning with dirty rags and a contrived speech. But it was the father’s costly outpouring of visible love that turns the son’s heart toward him -- perhaps for the first time. The son’s work (repentance) is SIMPLY ACCEPTING BEING FOUND.

Told in conjunction with The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep provides vivid imagery of this as well.  The lost sheep is lost in the wilderness. Once a sheep realizes that it is lost, it freezes, shakes, and can only bleat (cry out).  For the shepherd, the act of finding and restoring the sheep often takes two or three days. The good shepherd (God) takes the responsibility to find and restore the sheep. He does this with joy. The shepherd must carry the sheep—50 to 70 lbs. for an adult sheep--because, even when the sheep hears the shepherd’s voice, it cannot move because it is too scared. Here too the sheep is not able restore (repent) itself. The only thing the sheep can do is accept being found and have the shepherd restore it.

God joyfully takes the responsibility to find us and restore us. We too simply need to accept being found. Throughout the Bible, grace is proclaimed. In these parables, Jesus explains why God came to us in Jesus, and why he chose to die. We, like the prodigal, want to run our lives ourselves--even if we starve. On the prodigal’s return home: he didn’t want to be reconciled with the father: he wanted to get food and pay back the money himself. This is true for us as well. Even when we return to him with wrong motives, God wants to restore us as his sons and daughters.

The following quote is taken directly from The Cross & the Prodigal,“The father’s suffering at the beginning of their estrangement has no effect on the prodigal. He is not even aware of it.
A demonstration of the father’s suffering for him must be witnessed by the son. Without this the son in his callousness will never discover the suffering of his father and will never understand that he is its cause. Without this visible demonstration the prodigal will return to the house as a servant. Quite likely he will gradually take on more and more of the characteristics of his older brother. (Please see below.) Without this visible demonstration of costly love, there can be no reconciliation. Isn’t this the story of the way of God as he deals with the sin of the world on Golgotha (location of the cross)?”

How we personally define repentance in large part defines how we interact with God and others. When we feel responsible for our own repentance (like the Pharisees), there is tremendous pressure to be “good.” The problem is that, when we focus on being “good”, we forget the importance of the relationship with God and endlessly oscillate between self-righteousness and guilt. We then project this thinking onto others. Yet, when we realize that God takes the responsibility (with joy) to find and restore us, we can release much of what controls us. 

Luke 15: 25-32 - The Older Son
Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the young boys and asked what this meant.  And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him with peace.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him.

But he answered his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed the fatted calf!”

And he said to him, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

Throughout this parable, Jesus is defending his position of accepting the “sinners” at a profound level. As noted earlier, the father represents God, the younger brother represents the “sinners,” and the older brother represents the Pharisees.

In the beginning of the story, when the younger son asks his father for his portion, it was the custom in the Middle East for the older son to mediate between the father and the younger son. Yet the older son remains quiet. Behind his quiet response lurks anger which does not become apparent until later in the story when the father accepts with peace the younger son and holds a celebration. Customarily, it was the responsibility of the older son to serve the guests at an important banquet. The guests would be made to feel so special when the father’s oldest son served them. But in this parable, not only did the older son not accept this responsibility; he didn’t fulfill the minimal requirement of greeting the guests. He stayed out in the courtyard.

Earlier that day, the father demonstrated costly, humiliating love by running to the younger son. The father shows costly love once again by leaving the banquet - a humiliating act in the Middle East - to find his older son. The older son points out how he has served the father as a slave never disobeying his commandments. Yet even in this moment, the older son refuses his responsibility at the celebration as he earlier refused to mediate when the younger son was leaving for the far country. Anger blinded him.

In The Cross & the Prodigal, an insightful contrast is drawn between how the older son and the father approach each situation. When the older son called on one of the boys after returning from the fields, the Greek preposition suggests that they were “facing one another,” in an adversarial position. Yet, the father (as the preposition suggests) asks the older son to “stand parallel to him”—not in an adversarial position, but asking the older son to see the situation from the father’s perspective.

Furthermore, when the father addresses the older son, he does so with the Greek word teknon, a special word for son that indicates love and affection. It is the word Mary uses when Jesus is found in the temple and she says, “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Luke 2:48) The father goes on, gently reminding the older son that the prodigal is “your brother.” The rest of the speech is a defense of joy.

There is no response to the father by the older son--the end of the story is missing. This parable, like most of Jesus’ parables, uses inverted step parallelism but the last section is missing--on purpose. (If you want to find out more about Hebrew step parallelism please see Ken Bailey’s Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.) The last missing section is to be written by the Pharisees who have been drawn into the parable. How would the Pharisees complete this story? The father (God) would wish that the two brothers would embrace and enter with joy into the celebration.

However, just like the older son, the Pharisees felt seething anger toward Jesus throughout his ministry. And ultimately their answer was to crucify Jesus. And just as The Prodigal Son talks about the father’s (God’s) costly, visible love for the younger and older son, so Jesus died in a costly, visible way so that we might see the heart of God.  

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