Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Prodigal Son

Much 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 this story?"

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 context wrong.

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 [2].

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 theology.

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 [1]. 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 Old Testament:

  • The fatal rivalry of Cain and Abel.
  • The contest between Ishmael and Isaac.
  • The cheating of Esau by Jacob.
  • Joseph and Benjamin against the older brothers.

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 parable.

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" [1]. 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 traditionally made.

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 external sources.

  • 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 [1] they are concise; [2] only the necessary characters appear; [3] there is a single perspective, as in this parable where the entire story is told from the younger son's perspective; [4] feelings and motives are mentioned only when they are relevant to the story (compassion for the younger son, anger of the elder); [5] there is no conclusion; [6] only necessary events are described; [7] some direct speech is used, indicating a "live" context; [8] 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.

[1] Re-Imagine the World by B S Scott, 2001
[2] See The Great Divide and Belief

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