|The Historical Jesus
The Prodigal Son
of the effort directed towards this parable by those interested in what
Jesus said usually goes towards trying to interpret it - to discover and
explain its meaning. "What," we ask, "did Jesus intend to tell us through
I'm not here much concerned with this or
that particular interpretation. Rather, I want to find out if there exist
any factors which, if I knew about them, would direct or limit what I
think Jesus meant.
For a start, an important observation is
that the Prodigal parable is one of a group of three: a lost son, a lost
sheep and a lost coin. The group has been purposely arranged that way by
the author of Luke's Gospel.
An important thing to know about the
Gospels is that they were not meant to record history. That is, the
sequence of events in each was constructed by their authors in terms of
the theological scheme they wanted to communicate.
So the author in this case places the
three parables together after a short piece which tells of some Jews
complaining about Jesus hobnobbing with unclean people. (Contact with
taxpayers and sinners would have forced the ordinary Jew to undergo
cleansing rituals, which may have been inconvenient and perhaps costly.)
The author of Luke's Gospel was almost
certainly of Greek extraction. He may not have fully understand the ins
and outs of Jewish religion and customs. So he may have had little
sympathy with a complaint which would have been important to the
well-meaning, devout Jew.
Despite this, the author of Luke appears
to think he should stress that Jesus wanted to make a point about
excluding certain people from God's redeeming care and concern. He stuck
with that even though he could have inserted a very different context to
introduce the parables.
So right from the start we should
recognise that the author of Luke's Gospel has his own interpretation of
what the Prodigal parable meant. This important fact should be taken into
account whenever we try to work out for ourselves what it means. It may be
that Luke's context is the right one. But it's just as possible that,
writing as he did some 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, he got the
If the parable was edited by the author
of Luke, perhaps he used other documents to guide his changes. We know
that the Old Testament was used by the early Church to prove that its
teachings about Jesus were correct. It did this because, like almost
everyone of the time, it looked to past authorities for the final word on
what was right or wrong, true or false
Paul's letters (written 20 to 30 years
before Luke's Gospel), for example, reveal that he looked at the Jewish
Bible (the Old Testament) for predictions and affirmations of the
importance of Jesus. Like other contemporaries he and Luke (in the Acts of
the Apostles) used "proof texts" from the Old Testament to back up their
So when considering the meaning of the
Prodigal parable, it's useful to check if it's paralleled in any way by an
Old Testament story. If it is, we might have to look at the parable
differently. It could be that the Gospel author has altered the parable in
terms of what he perceived as God's revelation from the Old Testament.
So, for example, there are a number of
occasions in the books of Exodus and Numbers when the people of Israel
complained about Moses.
Some parts of the early Church, it seems
(Matthew 17.3 and Mark 9.4), thought of Jesus as a second but greater
Moses or Elijah. Perhaps the author of Luke is deliberately echoing the
Jewish complaints against Moses when he tells the story of the scholars
and Pharisees complaining about Jesus keeping company with unclean people.
This may or may not be important - but it has to be taken into account
when we try to work out what Jesus was saying in these three parables.
Another relevant question arises when it
is asked if the Prodigal parable has parallels in well-known stories of
the day. If another very similar story can be attributed to someone around
the time of Jesus, it might be that the author of Luke built the parable
upon it. After all, he didn't intend his Gospel to be an historical record
and wasn't much concerned about creating good history as we know it today.
For him, putting a contemporary tale into the mouth of Jesus would have
been a perfectly legitimate device.
As it happens, early Jewish Midrash
documents (around the year 200) do present a story about a king and two
sons - one older and one younger
. It's possible, and indeed
likely, that this tale would have been extant in some form two centuries
earlier at the same time Jesus was moving around Palestine.
More important, however, is the
occurrence in the ancient world of many stories across many cultures
containing an older/younger sibling theme. The same theme is still common
in modern literature and occurs with minor variations several times in the
- The fatal rivalry of Cain and Abel.
- The contest between Ishmael and
- The cheating of Esau by Jacob.
- Joseph and Benjamin against the older
The parallels can be quite close. For
example in Genesis 33.4 "Esau ran to greet Jacob and threw his arms about
him" reminding us of the way the father greeted his wayward son in the
So it's possible that this parable is
just one more example of an age-old theme dressed up in new clothes. If
so, perhaps its meaning concerns how parents sometimes feel more strongly
about one child than another and so spark sibling rivalry. Or perhaps it's
making the point that God approves more of some people than of others. The
point is that background and context can both make a considerable
difference to the way we interpret the parable.
The Prodigal parable is concerned with
an inheritance. So perhaps we should ask if it fits in with what we know
of rules of inheritance in Jesus' time.
It seems that the hearers of this
parable would have been disconcerted, and perhaps shocked, by the action
of the father. This was because a Jewish father was expected to not
hand out any inheritance until the very evening of his life.
Some later rabbinic advice is explicit
on this point. The Book of Sirach says, "At the time when you end the days
of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance"
. We can suppose, therefore, that
the general rule Jesus and his hearers would have known in their culture
was exactly the opposite of what happens in the parable.
Those listening to Jesus would, it
seems, most likely have thought the father recklessly foolish in doing
what he did. Moreover, the elder son was by Jewish law entitled to the
larger portion of the father's estate (Deuteronomy 21).
Not only did the younger son insult his
father by his behaviour, but in being welcomed back so easily, he put the
rights of his brother under threat. If the younger brother was to be
welcomed back without reserve, he might lay claim to a third of the
portion still remaining - which would otherwise have belonged to the elder
brother when the father died.
Anyone who's had to do with families and
the inheritance of estates will know the extreme conflicts which
disagreements can trigger off. This point, if relevant, might encourage an
interpretation on the Prodigal parable very different from that
A final question to be asked is whether
the construction of the parable indicates anything about its origins. Is
it the work of the author of Luke? Has he perhaps borrowed the story from
elsewhere and adapted it for his own purposes? Has he perhaps fitted into
it a few phrases he'd heard were said by Jesus? Or are there any
indications that Luke's version derives from an oral tradition going back
to Jesus himself?
An initial point has to be made. When I
say that a parable or saying goes back to Jesus, I'm not also saying it's
reproduced verbatim by the Gospel. This is highly unlikely, given the
inevitable distortions we know communications undergo when passed from
person-to-person by word of mouth.
But if a parable or saying shows
indications of a word-of-mouth saying and the kind of structure which
would have helped people recall it, then we can be more certain that what
Jesus actually said has been well reproduced.
In examining the form of this parable,
it's important to keep in mind that it occurs only in Luke's Gospel. A
passage in the Gospels is usually strengthened as "what really happened"
if it is supported by inclusion in the other Gospels. This is particularly
important because the Gospels are not supported as history by any
- The introduction to this group of
parables (the complaints) matches in form those in the rest of Luke and
the other Gospels.
- If a parable ends without an
application or explanation it's an indication that its content hasn't
been added to. The Prodigal parable is left to stand on its own merits.
Some parables (The Sower - Mark 4.3-8 and The Weeds - Matthew 13.24-30)
include a quite detailed interpretation, indicating that they may have
been extensively worked over.
- According to many scholars parables
are more likely to be accurate renderings of what Jesus said if  they
are concise;  only the necessary characters appear;  there is a
single perspective, as in this parable where the entire story is told
from the younger son's perspective;  feelings and motives are
mentioned only when they are relevant to the story (compassion for the
younger son, anger of the elder);  there is no conclusion;  only
necessary events are described;  some direct speech is used,
indicating a "live" context;  there are remnants of repetition (like
the prodigal's confession) indicating aids to memory in an oral
tradition. The Prodigal parable scores well on all these counts.
All-in-all the Prodigal parable survives
remarkably well against all the usual tests for "what Jesus really said".
The effects of Luke's editing are evident - but they are relatively minor.
I personally have little doubt that we have access here to something about
as close to "what Jesus really said" as it's possible to get.
 Re-Imagine the World by B
S Scott, 2001
 See The Great Divide