The Prodigal Project (Part 1: Reading Parables Together)

p[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]

With this post, I am inaugurating a series on the New Testament Parable of the Prodigal Son. In future posts, we’ll read this parable together, and explore how to do this reading in an interfaith way. But our reading will commence in earnest in my next post. In this post, I want to raise a preliminary question: why am I doing this?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son might be the most beloved story in the Christian canon. For Christians, this parable shows that no matter how far we may wander from God, God still loves us, longs for our return, and is ready to accept us back and forgive us unconditionally. We might explore this beautiful message together in this interfaith space.

But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of two brothers. The younger one is the prodigal son from the title, the one who wasted his inheritance and eventually returns home to the father’s welcome in a way that gives us the warm fuzzies. But there’s another son in the story: he’s the older son, the son that’s not mentioned in the title of this parable, and he’s more difficult to deal with. While the younger son abandoned his family for the prodigal life in a distant land, the older son remained home to work on the family farm. In the Christian view the older son is the bad guy: he’s self-righteous, whiny and ultimately every bit as lost as his younger sibling, yet instead of seeking his father’s forgiveness, the older son acts like he’s earned his father’s love.

Here’s where we encounter an interfaith problem: historically, Christian interpretation sees the younger son as the personification of the repentant Christian, and the older son as the personification of the Jews who refused to accept the Christian message. Consider this sermon from Saint Peter Chrysologus from the 5th Century:

[T]he elder brother … hears the music in the Father’s house, and he hears the dancing, yet he does not wish to enter. Every day we gaze upon this occurrence with our own eyes. For the Jewish people comes to the house of its Father, that is, to the Church. Because of its jealousy it stands outside…. Through jealousy it remains without. In horror it judges its Gentile brother by its own ancient customs, and meanwhile it is depriving itself of its Father’s goods, and excluding himself from His joys.

That’s not a nice image of Jews! Unfortunately, these sorts of statements continue to be made in the present day. For example, here’s a particularly nasty conclusion to a 2005 sermon on this parable:

Now for a few words about the elder son. What a terrible attitude and personality he had. How unlikeable. The elder brother represented the Pharisees and religious leaders who were incensed with Jesus giving so much attention to sinners and associating with them…. What happened a few weeks later, when Jesus was tried and crucified by the Jewish leaders and what happened forty years later when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the city burned to the ground and untold thousands of Jews put to death – that tells us what subsequently happened to the elder son of this parable.

Admittedly, it’s rare today to encounter a Christian who sees this parable in an anti-Jewish way. Instead, the parable is understood (with good reason) as a rebuke to the Pharisees in the New Testament who opposed Jesus’ ministering to sinners and tax collectors. But does that mean that the parable is no longer viewed in terms of Good Christians and Bad Jews? Certainly, many Christians today distinguish “Jews” from “Pharisees”, and you can find many examples of preaching against so-called “Christian Pharisees” (see also here, here and here). Many Christians appear to view “Pharisee” not as a first century Jewish sect, but as a personality disorder, one that afflicted Christians should seek to recover from.

But this is not the Jewish view. Jews identify with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day as our spiritual ancestors. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most beloved figures in Judaism, was a Pharisee. Rabbi Gamaliel I, who received a favorable citation in the New Testament, was a Pharisee. (Significantly, there are at least two other Pharisees mentioned favorably in the New Testament. One was Nicodemus, the fellow who aided Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. The other was a guy from Turkey named Saul, better known to the world as the apostle Paul.) In the Jewish mind, being a Pharisee is a good thing.

So even if the parable is about Good Christians and Bad Pharisees, Jews like me might identify more with the Pharisees and less with the Christians. This could be a shock to Christian sensibilities. Moreover, I suspect that the Christian association between Jews and Pharisees has not disappeared entirely. The prevailing image of the Pharisee is Jewish – just look at the photo used at the top of this site’s criticism of Pharisaic Christians, and consider the site’s portrayal of Pharisees with “phylacteries flailing” – who is this site picturing (and picturing negatively), if not the observant Jew?  For that matter, google the word “Pharisee” and click on the Images link – do any of those images look Christian to you? No. They all look Jewish. Also check out this images link for “Jesus and the Pharisees”, and notice how the Pharisees look more Jewish (or at least, more Asiatic) than Jesus does.

If you’re not persuaded by Google images, consider instead the traditional critique of the older son: he sought his father’s love as a reward earned for his faithful works. This critique, the critique of “works righteousness”, is the same as that brought by Martin Luther against Judaism.

We can’t escape it. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, a beautiful piece of scripture when read in a purely Christian context, becomes problematic when read in an interfaith setting. Why would I want to perform such a reading, when Christians will identify with Jesus and Jews may identify with his opponents? How, for heaven’s sake, could such a reading be a good idea?

First, the parable is a terrific story. It is rich and nuanced. People like to talk about it. I want to talk about it, too.

Second, the parable is important. It is often referred to as “the gospel within the gospel” (in my next post, we’ll look at a couple more examples of “the X within the X”). We should talk about the important things.

Third, depending on how we read the parable, we may have a story here of two religions in conflict. We can examine the conflict, and deconstruct it, and perhaps come to a mutual understanding.

Fourth, this is a parable whose meaning is in transition. For one thing, no one seems to like the parable’s traditional title. Focusing on the younger son, some have suggested that we use the title The Parable of the Lost Son (though Amy-Jill Levine asks which of the two sons is lost, and others have suggested that both sons are lost). Other potential titles focus on the father in the story: The Parable of the Compassionate Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, even The Parable of the Running Father. I plan to take advantage of the parable having so many titles. I plan to suggest a few titles of my own.

Fifth, Jesus’ parables as a group occupy a crucial space within the Jewish-Christian intersection. As we’ll discuss, the parable is a Jewish form of story. Jesus’ parables address New Testament themes, but often with an Old Testament flavor. For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son harkens back to Old Testament stories about fathers with two sons in conflict (think Jacob and Esau).

In short, there are good reasons for us to read this parable together. But we should be careful. We Jews will bring our own understanding to this parable, but let’s strive to do so in a way that’s sensitive to the beloved status this parable enjoys within Christianity. As for my Christian readers: while holding on to your interpretation of the parable, please try to view the parable with fresh eyes and an open heart. We need not agree with the other, but let’s listen carefully, share enthusiastically and see what happens!

In part 2 of this series, we’ll begin a close reading of the parable, to look for elements in the story that suggest new avenues of interpretation and understanding.

  • I love this way into this crucial text. I remember hearing Billy Graham talking about the parable on the radio when I was a kid. As a result, I completely either didn’t know about or forgot entirely about that second son. Then there’s the matter of the parable as literary form — that it’s a story that is supposed to make you think, wonder, argue, talk to other people about. The parable is a means to open up religious conversation, so how perfect to bring it up here.

    • lbehrendt

      I promise a longer conversation about parables as a narrative form. Also about the “forgotten” older brother.

      • I look forward to that discussion. Like Ms. Hammer (who sent me the link to this blog), I’m a writer, and hope to learn more about the form.

  • Niccolo Donzella

    Good start.

    • lbehrendt

      Thanks!

  • Looking forward to joining the party! I remember being taught this parable, and it always came across to me as a bit mean.

    • lbehrendt

      How so?

      • I’m not sure. I probably identified with the older brother dutifully studying, getting good grades, not wallowing with pigs, etc.

  • AJ

    I’d like to put something out there as a possible strategy. After your last post I took the opportunity to read the parable for the first time. No deep study, no commentary – just the text itself. I had no idea what the parable was about. And I found myself empathizing with ALL the characters – with the younger son who made his mistakes and came home, with the father who didn’t judge him but was simply joyous over his return, AND with the elder son who’d been there all those years, loyal and hard-working, and who never had such a fuss made over him and was understandably resentful. All three characters have their strengths and weaknesses, and all are sympathetic – at least before you get to the overlay of it being a “parable” for something else. Once we apply the parable, somehow the human side of the characters gets lost, and we get into defending either the younger son or the elder son depending on what “side” we’re on. So I’m wondering about a strategy that might start with the story per se, i.e. before it becomes a parable. In that way, maybe we can begin from a point of empathy. Just a thought.

    • lbehrendt

      That’s very close to what I have planned. But we’ll have to talk about what parables are, and the relationship between parables and allegory. Stay tuned!

  • Susan Browne

    Larry,

    Your view of this parable is FASCINATING. I certainly see how you get to the questions you pose.

    As a Christian I have a different point of view. I was radically converted at 30 to Christianity from a semi-profligate lifestyle. My joy at finding my heavenly Father was a year long celebration. My mother compared herself to the the faithful son. She felt that her faithfulness and constancy were being taken for granted. The world is full of examples of the high drama personality receiving the raves, while the solid and faithful are overlooked.

    Since this parable is such a snap shot in time of the older brother’s reaction. I always thought the Father would have gone to the older brother as he nursed his wounds with his favorite cow in the barn and reassured him that his love for him was just as great as his love for his prodigal son, and furthermore, the older son had earned his respect and gratitude for his faithfulness.

    The Father pleads with the older son to be reasonable. “All that I have is yours … but my son was lost, and now is found.” He is not condemning the older as a nasty no-good, but consoling him like a hurt child.

    Then they both would have gotten up, hugged and the older son would have had a new insight into the depth of the father’s love for him as well … both would have joined the party. From then on the bond between the Father and older son would have reached a new height based on a greater understanding.

    How someone could strap a rebuke to the Jewish people and the Pharisees from this homely little parable is beyond me. I think you gotta’ want to find something condemn the Jews for in this sweet little story.

    It is impossible to me to speak for what most in the Church think but I have always taken the admonishment to the Pharisees in the generic sense. Every religious zealot who uses their piety to beat up on other people and lord their righteousness over others is in the generic term a Pharisee. The Christian Church has more than their share.

    The dichotomy is Christianity is centered on an introspective examination of personal shortcomings. The Jewish examination was always corporate to save the nation. While pointing out the sins of others has value to the Jewish calling, it has no place with Christians. We are to take the log out of our own eyes before we take the speck out of brother’s eye.

    If the Jewish people were so tolerant, God might have allowed a Persian King to come steal their harvest … again. Their Contract with God was to corporately adhere to God’s standards or face the consequences as a nation. As Christians we have the same Contract, only our consequences are personal.

    I always thought that Jesus came because the Pharisees had gone overboard in burdening the people with the laws … all 615.

    But recently, I have come to believe that was not the case at all. The Jewish people were finally doing exactly what God expected of them. They had fulfilled their task to bring the knowledge to the world that in their Laws, Statutes and Ordinances were hidden the keys to Shalom, PEACE – nothing missing, nothing broken.

    But those laws also showed that humans were not capable of keeping the law and needed to get a fresh start every morning, minute and hour. So that the sin they could not avoid, that took them away from God in fear, could be forgiven and they were free to enter into the presence of God by his mercy and grace.

    Mercy and grace would have been useless if people were not aware of the law and that they were breaking it.

    So I am sure Jesus came not because the Jews had failed, but because they had succeeded. The Christian message was to write the laws into the hearts of men so that they might clung to God’s love and forgiveness and grow better little by little by the association.

    Shalom,

    Susan

  • yisrael

    Departed and went to a far away nation – The younger son left Torah observance (to go to a far away Nation is a Hebrew euphemism for leaving the Torah, for leaving Judaism) Remember, the older brother contrasted himself with his younger brother and said ‘I never disobeyed a command of yours’ (The Torah)

    Wasted his inheritance with loose living – Did not keep the Torah

    there was a famine in THAT LAND – a spiritual famine, a famine for Torah

    attached himself to a citizen of that nation – an idolater or non-Jew

    longing to fill himself with the pods that the swine was eating – It is bad enough for a Jew to eat pig meat, but for this Jew to sink so low that he wants to eat what the swine is eating!! He had hit rock bottom. This is about as far away from Torah as you can get!!

    I will arise – spiritual ascent

    and go – walk in the commandments

    he returned/repented – He returned to Torah

    the father said to the servants, “quick, bring the best robe and put it on him – Tzitzit

    Then the father said:
    and put a ring on his Hand (not finger) – Tefillin

    put shoes on his feet – shoes are for walking (this was showing that he was going to walk/follow in the Torah)

    Tzitzit Tefillin Shoes – all these together points to The Shema, Hear O Israel, the quint essential Jewish prayer!! This is because they are all mentioned in the Shema prayer. Shema, the quint-essential Jewish prayer!!

    My son was dead, and has begun to live again. The Torah IS our life!!!

    • Terrific reading! There are problems with this reading that need to be solved, particularly with the older brother, who is traditionally understood as the bad guy in the story. I think these are solvable problems. Jesus is clearly trying to teach the Pharisees something about the nature of forgiveness. For certain, the Pharisees desired forgiveness and return to/observance of Torah. Jesus didn’t need to teach them the importance of Torah. But (I think) there’s always a question of how to handle sinners. What kind of forgiveness do we require before we pronounce someone ready to return to the community? Indeed … do we let a sinner return to the community even before they have apologized? Jesus seems to be arguing for a radical reacceptance of the strayed sinner — the idea (and here, I’m, borrowing from the thinking and writing of Amy-Jill Levine) is first to get the family back together again, and let the apologies and making good follow later.
      I DO mean to return to this parable! I’ve been 18 months away from it. The matters you’ve raised deserved a more careful response. Thanks for this great comment.