To find the lost (Part 3)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey, explaining some of the cultural background to the parable of the prodigal that may escape us.

  • The father behaves like a mother. An oriental patriarch would be expected to remain at home in stately dignity. Instead, he runs down the road and showers the son with kisses.
  • The father, as a symbol for God, evolves into a symbol for Christ. The father in the parable does exactly what Jesus was accused of doing: receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2).
  • The meaning of the banquet:
  1. According to the father: (Luke 15:23-24). The father does not say, “He was lost and has come home.” The son was lost and dead, and as a result of the father’s costly demonstration of love, he was now found and resurrected. The banquet is a celebration of the success of that finding and that resurrection.
  2. According to the little boy: (Luke 15:26-27).  This boy isn’t a servant because they’re inside the house making preparations. Additionally, a servant would have referred to the father as ‘my master’ not ‘your father’ (verse 27). The boy offers the community’s understanding of what’s happening:

Your brother has come, and you father has killed the fatted calf, because [now comes the second interpretation of the banquet] he [the father] has received him [the prodigal] with peace! (Luke 15:27, Kenneth Bailey’s translation)

For the community, the banquet is a celebration of the father’s efforts at reconciling his son.

  1. According to the elder son: (Luke 15:30). Is the banquet in honour of the prodigal or in honour of the father? Will the guests congratulate the father or the son? Note that the older son’s view, commonly accepted, conflicts with the other two.
  • The older son’s anger. He is angry not that his brother is safely home, but that he’s been reconciled—without having to pay for his sins! He insults the father by refusing to join in the celebration.
  • The father’s response to the older son. The father, for the second time, offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love. Grace is offered to both the law-breaker and the law-keeper.
  • The sons’ responses. The younger son accepts being found. We don’t know what the older son decides. The previous two parables end in joy; here the joy is missing.

♠The End♠

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

To find the lost (Part 2)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey, gives some helps for a culturally-aware reading of the parable of the prodigal.

  • “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17). This has commonly been taken to mean that he repented. But this clashes with the other two stories. If the prodigal makes his way home on his own, then this story is the exact opposite of the other two.

For the psalmist, God brings him back to God (see this post). The prodigal returns to himself, not to his father. The father is an instrument to get what he wants: something to eat.

But what of his confession in Luke 15:18? The scribes and Pharisees, well-acquainted with the Jewish scriptures, would have recognised this as Exodus 10:16 where Pharaoh is trying to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. Pharaoh wasn’t repenting. The prodigal was going to work (Luke 15:19) so as to recover the money and then be reconciled to his father. No grace necessary.

  • The running father. The father spots his son before the latter reaches the village (Luke 15:20). He runs to reconcile his estranged son. By running, he deflects the attention of the community away from his son and onto himself.

He kisses his son before hearing the speech. He doesn’t demonstrate costly love in response to his son’s confession. Rather, it is a prelude to his son’s remarks.

Why doesn’t the son finish? His father doesn’t interrupt him. The son changes his mind in genuine repentance, surrendering his plan of self-salvation. He accepts to be found.

He [the prodigal] did not complete what he was planning to say, which was “make out of me one of your paid craftsmen” … because he saw from the running of his father to him and the grace-filled way his father met him and embraced him that there was no longer any place for this request to be made into a craftsman. For if after such acts he had made such a request, it would have appeared that he doubted the genuineness of his father’s offered forgiveness.

–Abdallah Ibn al-Tayyib, Tafsir al-Mishriqi (The Interpretation of the Four Gospels), 2:272-75. Translated from Arabic by Kenneth Bailey and quoted on p. 109 of Jacob & the Prodigal. Ibn al-Tayyib was an eleventh-century Syriac scholar in Baghdad.

Why did he [the prodigal] not say to his father, “Fashion out of me one of your paid craftsmen” when he had planned to say it? The answer is that his father’s love outstripped him and forgiveness was everflowing toward him.

–Diyunisiyus Ja’qub Ibn al-Salibi, Kitab al-Durr al-Farid fi Tafsir al-‘Ahd al-Jadid (The Book of Unique Pearls of Interpretation of the New Testament), 2:157. Translated from Arabic by Kenneth Bailey and quoted on p. 110 of Jacob & the Prodigal.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

To find the lost (Part 1)

This post is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

Dr. Bailey gives the following pointers for a more culturally-aware interpretation of the story of the prodigal son:

  • The request. The younger son can’t wait for his father to die. The father, as an Oriental patriarch, should beat him and chase him out of the house. However, the father doesn’t.
  • The community. The family home isn’t a grand house isolated on a hill-top. Agricultural land is scarce in Israel; farmers reside in tightly compacted villages. So, at the end of the tale, the father runs in full view of the community. The community is invited to eat the fatted calf. Community-based musicians are hired. The community is assumed rather than being explicitly mentioned.
  • Jesus doesn’t use a Middle Eastern patriarch as the model for the father. While the shepherd and the woman don’t do anything extraordinary, the father breaks all bounds of Middle Eastern patriarchy. No human father or mother is an adequate model for God. Thus Jesus elevates the figure of father beyond its human limitations as He reshapes it into a metaphor for God.
  • The younger son liquidates his assets (Luke 15:13). This presumably meant selling his inheritance to people within the community. He does so “not many days later”, implying haste on his part—no doubt because anger within the community at his actions is rising.
  • Expensive or riotous living? How did the younger son spend his money in the distant land? The Greek is unclear. Syriac and Arabic translations avoid references to immorality, opting for ‘expensive’, ‘indolent’, ‘luxurious’ and ‘wasteful’. The elder brother, on returning from the field, accuses his brother of having wasted money on prostitutes, but how would he have known?
  • An attempt to earn back the lost money. The younger son seeks employment in order to recoup his losses so as to avoid a kezazah (the cutting-off) ceremony on his return to the village. Having lost his family inheritance to Gentiles, he was a candidate for the kezazah ceremony.

(To be continued)

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

The lost coin

Brooklyn Museum: The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue)

This post is based on chapter 8 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

Jesus often paired His parables: one story from the life of men and another from that of women. In Matthew 5:14-15, He says, “You are the light of the world,” and illustrates this by using city-building (men’s work) and lamp-lighting (women’s work) metaphors. On another occasion He says, “The kingdom of God… is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden” (Luke 13:18-19). He goes on to compare the kingdom to “leaven  which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal” (Luke 13:20-21). The double parable of the good shepherd and the good woman is another example of communicating with both men and women.

The woman loses her coin, accepts responsibility by lighting a lamp and looking for it. The coin cannot aid in its rescue. The friends rejoice with her; they don’t judge her for her efforts. Repentance, according to this parable, is being found.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

The parable of the lost sheep

Brooklyn Museum: The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur)

This post is based on chapter 7 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

There are connections between this parable and Psalm 23 (as well as Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ezekiel 34:1-34).

The KJV translates Psalm 23:3 as “he restoreth my soul”. The original Hebrew text contains the verb ‘shub’, which has the meaning of repent/return. Therefore a possible translation is “He brings me back” or “He causes me to repent”. Arabic versions of the Psalms contain the former.

In Jeremiah 23:1-8, ‘shub’ appears in verse 3: “I will bring them back” (NRSV).

In Ezekiel 34:16, ‘shub’ appears in the statement, “I will bring back the strayed” (RSV).

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel build upon and expand themes present in Psalm 23.  Jeremiah introduces the element of the bad shepherd; Ezekiel that of the bad sheep. In Jesus’ telling of the parable, He incorporates elements from all three passages.

The parable of the lost sheep opens with a bad shepherd who’s lost one of his sheep. He accepts responsibility and goes after it. He leaves the 99 in the wilderness, and we don’t hear of them again: the parable is left open.

When the shepherd finds the sheep (weighing 50-70 lbs/23-32 kgs), he puts it on his shoulders and carries it as it is too terrified to walk. He does so rejoicing, rather than complaining.

Luke 15:7 contains Jesus’ conclusion to this story. But how is the parable about repentance?

In Jesus’ day, repentance was seen as a going to God with no need for Him to come after us. But Jesus now emphasises the need for God to come to us:

  • The shepherd leaves the flock, knowing that the lost sheep won’t come home on its own
  • Finding the sheep isn’t enough, it must be carried home. This points to the price to be paid.
  • Repentance on the sheep’s part is to accept being found

Repentance is accompanied by joy for the shepherd, and presumably for the sheep as well.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

Three stories, one parable

This post is based on chapter 6 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

The three stories in Luke 15 form one unit. The heroes—the good shepherd, the good woman and the good father—are symbols for God, and all three evolve into symbols for Jesus.

Precedents for these metaphors can be found in the Psalms:

  • Shepherd: Psalm 23, Psalm 80:1, 3. The shepherd provides food, drink, security and salvation.
  • Father: Psalm 68:5-6, 103:13-14. The father shows compassion for children, widows, the desolate and prisoners
  • Mother: Psalm 131:1-2. Also in Isaiah 42:14

In Luke 15:1-3, the word ‘parable’ is in the singular. All three stories have a parallel storyline:

  • Each ends in a party—eating, as the Pharisees and scribes accuse Jesus of doing in verse 2
  • In each of the three stories, something is lost
  • In each story there’s a special finder
  • In each story there is a price to be paid—the shepherd expends energy to find and carry the sheep; the woman searches diligently for her coin; the father humiliates himself running down the road to reconcile his son.
Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

Jacob and the Prodigal

Book cover: Jacob and the Prodigal

Book cover: Jacob and the Prodigal

Kenneth Bailey spent forty years living and teaching in the Middle East, and he combines his scholarly smarts and his personal experience to enlighten those of us who haven’t had the same privilege. One of the main themes of his works is highlighting the importance of the Middle Eastern perspective when reading the New Testament. In his research, he references the centuries-long tradition of translations and commentaries in languages such as Coptic, Syriac and Arabic. He also applies insight gained from contemporary traditional Middle Eastern culture which, even though different from 1st century Palestinian culture, is still closer to Jesus’ own than contemporary western culture.

In Jacob & the Prodigal, Bailey expounds 51 common dramatic elements between Jacob’s saga and the story of the prodigal. I could argue that some were contrived, but I haven’t spent a lifetime in study like Dr Bailey has. He groups them in three categories:

  • Dramatic material that appears in each account with little change (12 elements)
  • Dramatic material that appears in each account where the reuse in the parable shows some significant revision (16 elements)
  • Dramatic material that appears in each account but with major differences (23 elements)

That material is fairly hard to summarise, so I chose to concentrate my book notes on the 4 chapters which Bailey dedicates to the parable in Luke 15. ‘Parable’, not ‘parables’ because the three stories in this chapter make up one extended parable.  If you could read only one portion of the book, the section comprised of chapters 6-9 is it. Much of the material in these chapters is taken from one of his previous books, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (Amazon), so it may make more sense to check that out instead.

If you’re of the audio-visual persuasion, here’s a talk given by Michael Ramsden (a student/mentee of Bailey’s) which covers much of the same ground. The relevant portion starts around the 15-minute mark of the 1-hour long talk.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)