Kenneth E. Bailey has written a marvelous book in
which he seeks to provide Middle Eastern insights into the understanding of the
story of Prodigal Son. Bailey has worked in the Middle East most of his life.
He understands its culture and has a grasp of the languages so that he has
access to eastern attempts at understanding this parable over the course of
Christian’s lives. His goal is to rediscover the original cultural assumptions
behind this story. Today, I will share some of the insights from Bailey in
order to enhance the points of the messages and our understanding of the
Prodigal Son story.
In the story, there are three main characters: the
father, the elder son, and the younger son. It is a surprise in a Middle
Eastern story that the younger son speaks first. He is out of his place
already. What he speaks is even more astonishing. For his own reasons he makes
the decision to leave his family and seek to build a new life for himself
elsewhere. And he asks for his share.
All Eastern commentators on this story acknowledge
that the son’s request is totally inappropriate. It is an unthinkable request.
A father only gives the inheritance in death. Such a request would probably be
viewed as a disgraceful thing, an act that dishonored the father. The father
should explode with anger at such an inappropriate request.
However, he does not explode. He grants a request
that was completely unimaginable in his time. Instead of refusing, the father
gives him his share of the inheritance. This is a very unusual father. He
divided his life with his son.
As we already know, the son promptly goes out and
squanders his property in dissolute living. He soon began to be in deep need.
According to the insight from eastern commentators, returning home was not a
likely option this point. Such a return would bring great shame on his father,
on his brother, on his whole community, and himself as well. Shame is a
painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong
or foolish behavior. This shame was to be avoided at all costs in the culture
of the time.
He sought pleasure but found pain. He sought freedom
but got bondage. The son ends up doing things with pigs that were unthinkable
and deeply offensive to his family and community. At that time, a pig was
regarded as being unclean and gentile. Bailey, the scholar, suggests that what
is totally broken here is relationship with his family and community.
In verse 16, the prodigal son reaches the lowest point.
He wishes he were a pig. At least the pigs had something to eat. It was then
that this young man came to himself. We usually think of this as his moment of
repentance. However, Bailey notes that Arabic translations of these words read
that the prodigal gets smart. He gets smart in the sense that he now was ready
to look out for himself. Then, he made a plan to go back home, not as a son,
but as a slave. He knows he can’t go back as a son.
Now, let’s take a look at the father in the story.
What is he doing in the story? He has been watching the distant road. He knows
that if his son returns, the village will treat him with contempt. He is
determined to reach the boy first. To reach the boy first.
He alone can protect the boy from the hostility of
the town. When the father sees the boy coming, he has compassion and runs to
meet him. You know what? No Middle Eastern gentlemen would ever run in public.
This is the only story of its kind in the Gospels where a man runs in public.
In order to run, a man had to gather up his robe and expose his legs. This was
a great shame in this culture. That is, the father exposes himself to shame.
Bailey notes that Arabic translations of this story refuse to translate this
running. They avoid this because it is clear that the father here is acting as
God acts towards prodigals. Running in public is too humiliating to attribute
to a person who symbolizes God. The father symbolizing God wants to run to
reach the boy before the boy reaches the village.
Bailey calls this a costly demonstration of unexpected love.
He thinks of the father here as a suffering servant. He endures humility. His
love is made visible in public. Bailey came to be convinced that at this point
Jesus is talking about himself who will soon suffer and the meaning of his
We have the image here of the running God in public.
Additionally, this image goes on in its development, the father kissing his son
in public, another way to expose himself to shame. No matter what the plan the
son has, the father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace. The
son is totally accepted.
The change of clothes is called for by the father.
The father wants no one to see him dressed so poorly. Rather, the prodigal gets
the best robe, the father’s robe, and a ring as a symbol that he is trusted and
sandals as well.
The father proceeds to throw a banquet as an act of
formal reconciliation that involves the whole village, a banquet that is in
honor of the father and the reconciliation that has been achieved. The prodigal
son is honored and reconciled with his father and the village.
Finally, there is the matter of the elder brother. He
brings shame on his father by refusing to attend the banquet of reconciliation.
He prefers the righteousness of the Law. He says, “I have never disobeyed your
command (v.29).” He sounds just like the Pharisee fixating on the Law. However,
the father’s speech to the elder brother is most important to keep in our mind.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to
celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to
life; he was lost and has been found.”
In this story, the elder son has given no
affirmative response, but it is possible that, out of love and respect for his
father, he will be persuaded by his father’s words.
The key realities are that both sons insult their
father and break the relationship. The prodigal son represents the ones such as
the tax collectors and sinners, while the elder brother represents the Pharisees
and Scribes. Through the story, one meaningful message is that the one who
broke the law and the one who kept the law are under God’s unconditional love
and grace and not to mention everyone is welcome only by the grace of God.
Let’s wrap up today’s sermon. In today’s story, we
can see an unconditional love from the father representing God. However, we
don’t know the story of their lives after the banquet. That is, the story of
the Prodigal son is open-ended. We must finish the story. How do we respond to
the father’s invitation in this story? How can we continue our story as a
response to the invitation? God says to each and every one of us through this
story: “You were lost and now you are found. You were alienated, but now you
are invited to the reconciliation banquet.” This God of unconditional love and
grace awaits the honor of our reply.
(Buiding on Preaching Luke’s Gospel by Richard A. Jensen)
Let us pray,
Loving God, thank you for your inexhaustible love
and grace for all of us. Bless us to be the Christians who respond to your
invitation for reconciliation every day.
In your name, we pray. Amen.