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)