Father of the Prodigal Son: “The Pursuing Father”

by Kenneth E. Bailey

(Christianity Today, October 26, 1998)

Kenneth E. Bailey writes: “This parable must be seen as the third part of a trilogy in Luke 15. The Pharisees challenge Jesus: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ … What follows are the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons (the Prodigal Son). … A shepherd pays a price to find and restore a lost sheep. The woman does the same for her coin. … And does this third story parallel the first two stories by having the father pay a high price to find and restore his son(s)?

“The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health. In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means, ‘Father, I am eager for you to die!’. … The father grants the Prodigal Son the freedom to own and to sell his portion of the estate. Five times in the parable the father does not behave like a traditional oriental patriarch. This is the first instance.

“In a second departure from the expected norm, the father grants the inheritance and the right to sell, knowing that this right will shame the family before the community. … No human father is an adequate model for God. Knowing this, Jesus elevates the figure of father beyond its human limitations and reshapes it for use as a model for God.

“From the Jerusalem Talmud it is known that the Jews of the time of Jesus had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles. It was called the ‘qetsatsah ceremony.’ … The villagers would bring a large earthenware jar, fill it with burned nuts and burned corn, and break it in front of the guilty individual. While doing this, the community would shout, ‘So-and-so is cut off from his people.’ From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with the wayward lad.”

Bailey then compares the messages of the three parables: “In the first story, the lost sheep is a symbol of repentance, and repentance is shown there as ‘acceptance of being found.’ [The story of the woman's lost coin] confirms this definition. But if the Prodigal truly repents in the far country and struggles home on his own, then Jesus contradicts himself. … By telling the parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus invokes Psalm 23, which also has a lost sheep and a good shepherd. The key phrase appears in verse 3, which is traditionally translated, ‘He restores my soul.’… But the Hebrew … literally means, ‘He brings me back,’ or ‘He causes me to repent.’ Clearly, the psalmist is lost, and God, the good shepherd, brings him back to the paths of righteousness.

“When the Prodigal's speech is read in this light, a new meaning emerges. … The prepared confession reads, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you.’ … Jesus' audience, however, is composed of Pharisees who know the Scriptures well. They recognize that confession as a quotation from the pharaoh when he tries to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. … Everyone knows that Pharaoh is not repenting. He is simply trying to bend Moses to his will. The Prodigal is best understood as attempting the same.

“The father realizes full well how his son will be welcomed in the village when he returns in failure. Thus, the father also prepares a plan: to reach the boy before the boy reaches the village. … [O]ut of his own compassion he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant, and runs to reconcile his estranged son. Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. To do so is deeply humiliating. This father runs.

“As the father comes down and out to reconcile his son, he becomes a symbol of God in Christ. ‘Father,’ a symbol for God, ever so quietly evolves into a symbol for Jesus. … Once reconciliation is assured, the father … says, ‘Let us eat and celebrate; for … this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ The father does not say, ‘He was lost and has come home.’ Instead, we read, ‘He was lost and is found’ So who found him? The father did!

“Is the banquet in honor of the Prodigal or in honor of the father? Is it a celebration of the Prodigal's successful efforts at reaching home (on his own), or is it rather a celebration of the success of the father's costly efforts at creating shalom? … The banquet fore-shadows Holy Communion. Surely we know that Jesus is the hero of that sacred banquet and that sinners are not the center of attention.”

Finally, Bailey turns to the elder son: “For a son to be present and to refuse participation in such a banquet is an unspeakable public insult to the father. … For a fourth time, the father goes beyond what a traditional patriarch would do. … n painful public humiliation, the father goes down and out to find yet one more lost sheep/coin/son.”

“If the older son accepts the love now offered to him, he will be obliged to treat the Prodigal with the same loving acceptance with which the father welcomed the pig herder. The older son will need to be ‘conformed to the image’ of that compassionate father who comes to both kinds of sinners in the form of a suffering servant….”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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