Here is an index to the posts relating to Kenneth E. Bailey's study of Luke 15:
Here is an index to the posts relating to Kenneth E. Bailey's study of Luke 15:
Evangelium in Evangelio means the gospel within the gospel. It refers to the Luke 15: 11-32, the passage traditionally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although more accurately it is the Parable of the Compassionate Father. I recently completed a series of posts on Kenneth Bailey’s study of Luke 15. There is so much rich information that it is easy to get lost in the details. I wanted to find some way to present the Parable of the Compassionate Father without having to flip back and forth between the scripture and commentary. It occurred to me that one way to communicate the richness of the parables would be to write them in narrative but a.) make explicit the implicit cultural assumptions and b.) amplify important linguistic issues. So here is my attempt to translate Bailey's work into one continuous flow and I hope I have not misrepresented any of his work. If you want the documented details behind this I highly recommend Kenneth E. Bailey's Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
The setting for the story is Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners. The scribes and Pharisees are deeply critical of his behavior. Jesus has just told them the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin just prior to telling this parable. (I have highlighted the actual NRSV scripture in bold.)
The Parable of the Compassionate Father.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father something outrageously insulting; “Father, give me the share of property that will belong to me.” No son asks this of his father. It is the same as wishing his father dead! Astonishingly, instead of responding in furious outrage, the father was willing to grant the son's request. So he divided his property between them. How curious also that the older son, who should have stepped in as mediator between his younger brother and father, is silent. He simply accepts his portion of the estate. While the sons now own the estate, the father still has a right to live off of the estate, using its profits for his own sustenance.
A few days later, the younger son gathered all he had and for good reason. As soon as the village discovers the outrage of asking for his inheritance, they will likely perform a ceremony that would ostracize him from village life. Even though it often took months to settle an estates, the younger son sold his estate for what he could quickly get and left town. He took his wealth and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. His behavior was not particularly disreputable. He simply was irresponsible in keeping track of his money. Unfortunately for him, when he had spent everything, a great famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. The citizen upheld the tradition of hospitality which made it uncharitable to refuse assistance. However, the citizen also used the culturally approved method to get rid of such people. He gave him a job he knew he would despise, thus encouraging him to move on. What could be more despicable for a Jew than feeding pigs? Nevertheless, the young man was in need and he would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating. These pods were of no nutritional value to human beings. He was a Jew wishing he were a pig! His situation was truly desperate and no one gave him anything.
The young man had been in denial about the hopelessness of his situation but when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” This gave him an idea. He said to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy at this time to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Maybe if he admitted his mistake, his father would have pity on him and take him in as a craftsman (not a slave or servant.) He could earn his way back to respectability. The odds are stacked against him. He had disrespected his father. Then he went and squandered his estate with gentiles! The village will jeer him mercilessly if he returns and he will almost certainly be ostracized. Furthermore, his older brother now owns the estate. What will his reaction be? But what other choice does he have? He knew what he had to do so he set off and went to his father.
But while he was still far off, both in geography and understanding, his father saw him. The father is a man of means and lives at the center of the village where all such people of wealth live. To see his son, he would have had to look out across the village to the road leading from the fields into the village. Being the man of means he was, he was no doubt attired in long robes that covered him to his ankles. He moved about with great dignity and purpose. He would not be caught dead running in public. To run, or even to show his ankles in public, would be a great humiliation. But this was no ordinary father. He does the unthinkable. He saw his son and was filled with compassion. Gathering up his robes, he ran through the village to greet him and put his arms around him and kissed him! A son in good standing with his father would approach, kneel and kiss his hand. A wayward son would fall face down in the dirt and kiss his father’s feet. This father grabs his son and kisses he repeatedly on the neck indicating total acceptance before the son can make a move. We might expect this from a mother, but not a man of this status.
The son is in stunned disbelief. At last he sees that money was never the issue. It was about a relationship, and he had broken that relationship. There was nothing he could do to "earn his way back." So then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. The son dropped off the last part of his speech because he could now see it was pointless. The fathers grace brought the son to true repentance and he recognized his unworthy state. But the father said to his slaves, “Quick, bring out a robe – the best one - and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The slaves had raced after the father wondering what the spectacle was. Most of the village was witnessing these events as well. The robe the father requested would be his own robe and would communicate to the entire community the father’s total acceptance of his son. The ring was likely the father’s signet ring and would symbolize that the son now shared his father’s authority. The sandals indicated freedom, as only free people were permitted to wear sandals.
Furthermore, the father told his slaves to go “and get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” This was to be a "king" sized celebration as fatted calves were killed only in honor of visiting royalty and dignitaries. There was no freezer for the leftovers and the fatted calf could probably feed the whole village. The father is ready to celebrate his recovery of his son. It is true that his son has physically returned, but because of the tremendous grace the father has shown to his son, the son has repented and entered genuine relationship with his father. There is now shalom between father, son and the village. It is this that the father intends to celebrate. The community gathered and they began to celebrate.
Now the elder son was in the field out beyond the village; and when he came from afar off (probably down the same road as his brother), and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. The father’s house was likely a walled in villa, similar to many of the homes in southern Europe or Latin America today, with rooms built around the edges and an open courtyard in the middle. Children would not have been allowed into the house for celebrations so they did their celebrating in the courtyard. They would likely be the first people the older son encountered. Curiously, rather than simply entering the house to see what is happening, the older son stops along the way to gather some intelligence. He called one of the [young boys] and asked him what was going on. Repeating the buzz he had heard from the adults, he replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
At such a grand celebration the older son would be expected to immediately enter and greet everyone. And then, possibly after a change of clothes, he would return and play the role of host, making certain everyone was having a good time. Instead this older son heard what had happened and then became angry and refused to go in, right in front of the whole village! His behavior was totally humiliating to his father. A typical father of his status would have instructed his servants to come and take the son away. He would lock him up to be dealt with later. But as we have seen, this was no typical father.
To the astonishment of everyone present, accept possibly the older son, his father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, with out even respectfully addressing him as “father,” saying, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” Does this father sound like the kind of man someone would have to “slave” for? The older son says he never disobeyed commands, but isn’t this the same son who abdicated his responsibility as an older brother and accepted his inheritance without protest and no attempt at bring reconciliation? He sees his father as an onerous burden. Continuing his invective, “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” His father’s presence keeps him from freely using the assets the way he desires. The older son wishes his father dead every bit as much as his brother had. Yet in this case, he is wishing his father dead in front of the whole community! This was a grievous insult of greater magnitude then that of the younger son's offense.
Still not finished, the older son says, “But when this son of yours (who I refuse to acknowledge as my brother) came back, who has devoured your property with gentile prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Didn’t the older brother just come in from the field? How would he know what had happened to his brother’s wealth? He doesn’t. But he does know that if he can make such an accusation stick, no one in the village will give their daughter in marriage to the younger son. He will become an outcast. His intention is to drive a wedge that separates his brother from the community and destroys the shalom the father has restored. He is beside himself in anger that his father has not required hard penance for his brother's behavior. Furthermore, he has missed the point of the celebration. The celebration is not for the younger son. It is for the father in celebration of winning back his son.
Surely, now it is obvious that this older son is no good. Surely, the father will now show his outrage. We are overwhelmed once again by the father’s response because then the father said to him “My precious beloved son (teknon), you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. The estate is yours and nothing of yours is being taken. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours (and he is your brother) was dead and has come to life; he was lost and because of my sacrificial grace has been found. The father absorbs the scurrilous behavior of his son and extends to him costly grace in the hopes he may get his older son back as well.
The Missing Ending
Jesus gives no end to the story. He leaves that it to the scribes and Pharisees to “write” the end with their response.
The two brothers symbolize the rebellious law-breaker and the rebellious law-keeper. The inclination of most readers is to identify with the younger son. But how often do we resemble the older son? The invitation to write an ending to the story may not be to the scribes and Pharisees alone.
In the end, Jesus is not calling us to identify with either brother. The call is to model the father.
I hope my overview of Kenneth E. Bailey’s work has been worth your time. As I look back over some of these posts they seem a little disconnected and disjointed at times. I hope that despite my feeble efforts at conveying Bailey’s insights it has at least raised your curiosity into Bailey's approach to scripture.
I think Bailey provides a corrective for two equally unhealthy tendencies present in church culture when it comes to reading scripture. One is the “plain reading” school of thought. I was recalling yesterday some study I read on a culture (I think in Africa) where nodding your head up and down meant no and shaking your head side to side meant yes. I have also read that in traditional Japanese cultural it is impolite to refuse a request or correct someone. That would mean losing face. Therefore, an inappropriate request is greeted verbally with acceptance but body language is used to communicate the real intent. (Someone please correct me if I am misrepresenting this.) Imagine the confusion of bringing our “plain reading” form of communication into the mix. Understanding cultural context is paramount to understanding scripture. I find many trivialize understanding cultural context as a "liberal" method for bypassing the "plain meaning" while they bring their own unexamined cultural context to scripture and thereby distort the "plain meaning."
We are not from the biblical culture and it is often difficult ascertain with precision the cultural context. Bailey and other scholars have read extensively from records contemporary to Jesus. Bailey concludes that much of biblical culture has survived among some present day traditional communities in the Middle East. While they are not identical, Middle Eastern culture is much closer in time in space to New Testament thought patterns and cultural assumptions than is Western Christianity. Only now are many of the early Bible manuscripts and commentaries of the Arabic and other Middle Eastern traditions becoming available to the rest of the world. The fact is that very early on the Western Church became hostile to Middle Eastern culture and that has warped many of our traditional understandings of scripture. Already these Middle Eastern sources are beginning to challenge our “plain reading” of the text.
The other unhealthy tendency I see is the Jesus Seminar type of approach that makes a host of highly speculative assumptions and then concocts unsubstantiated communities who altered Jesus vision and teaching. The goal is to get to the Jesus behind the alterations these hypothesized communities foisted upon followers. The tautologies employed and presumptuousness involved is amazing. I have only related Bailey’s work about Luke 15. If you read his other work, a picture of Jesus and his teaching emerges that locates him squarely in his cultural context and makes clear how radical and masterful Jesus teaching really was. Jesus entered into the narratives of the Jews (like Jacob) and retold them in a compelling way. He used stories and parables to create alternative interpretative structures that reshape the hearers’ entire frame of mind. It exposes the heavily agenda laden revisionism of the Jesus Seminar types for what it really is.
It is the metaphorical nature of Jesus' theology I find so compelling. I am not dismissing the usefulness and insights that can be had through a systematic theology approach. I am merely suggesting that we to often get lost in the dissection and kill the story. The story is the main thing! Thank you Ken Bailey for making this so clear to me and to so many others.
As for Luke 15 specifically, I find myself pulled in two different directions. First, I am deeply moved by the reception the prodigal son receives from the father. This love is something it took me well into adulthood to truly begin to understand. To see it so vividly exemplified in the parable by Jesus is powerful. Second, I am deeply repulsed by the image of myself as the older son and yet I all too often fit neatly in his sandals. The scribe and Pharisee in me seems to be an ever present companion. But like Nouwen, I don't think either son was Jesus' intended focus in the story, though we can not help but see ourselves in these roles. I think the parable includes within it the call, individually and corporately, to be people who welcome the rebellious law-breaker and the rebellious law-keeper.
There are also some important insights here for ecclesiology and mission. The word "pastor" is Latin for shepherd. When I read Jeremiah 23, I was struck by verse three where God says he will be the shepherd:
Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
An obvious but often overlooked point is that shepherds don't reproduce sheep. Sheep do! The shepherd leads them to safe places to feed and eat. He wards of predators. But other than that, he just makes room for sheep to do whatever it is that sheep do. They provide a place for the sheep to safely expand the flock. This is similar to Dallas Willard's farmer friend who observed that farmers don't grow crops, they tend soil. All they can do is provide optimum circumstances for the seeds to do what seeds do. There are some interesting implications here that I am still reflecting on. I may write more on this later.
When you enter fully into these metaphors there are implications at any number of levels. That is what makes them so powerful. Every time I revisit these metaphors I see something new. I hope it has been the same for you.
If you want to read some of Bailey’s work here are a few suggestions:
Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Combined edition): A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, is actually two books in one. "Poet and Peasant," originally published in 1976, lays out Bailey's methodology for reading the parables. He then focuses on six passages to illustrate the approach. "Through Peasant Eyes," originally published in 1980, is a look at ten parables in Luke using the literary-cultural approach. Reading these two books gives a good overview of Bailey's approach.
Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 is the book I have referenced the most for these posts. The book contains a forty page introduction that talks about Jesus as a metaphorical theologigan and places him with in his cultural context. Bailey goes to great lengths to show how Jesus had tapped into the Shepherd and sheep metaphors in developing his Luke 15 parable. If you are interested in the details of how Jesus "incarnated" the Old Testament stories of sheep and shepherd, this is it. Every time I revist his analysis between Psalm 23 and Luke 15 I see something new.
Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story builds on "Finding the Lost." Bailey has some very interesting material in the earlier chapters about Jesus likely educational experience and his relationship to the scribes and Pharisees. He also writes about the origins of Luke's gospel and how he thinks it came to be. However, the amazing part of this book is the way Bailey unfolds the connection between the story of the Compassionate Father in Luke 15 and the story of Jacob in Genesis 27-35. I don't know of any serious scholars who doubt this parable was authentic to Jesus. It is the evangelium in evangelio. On one hand it shows the direct connection of Jesus to the God of the Old Testament. On the other hand it unmistakably links Jesus to the mission and purpose articulated by the early church that groups like the Jesus Seminar want to cast as later additions. It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.
Finally, Bailey has a fascinating article on-line about women in Middle Eastern Culture called Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View. Also, there is a copy of his article Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. It gives a fascinating presentation of the role Bailey believes the controlled oral tradition played in creating and an authentic representation of Jesus and his teaching in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
[My next post will contain indexed links to this series of posts.]
When Jacob stole his brother’s birthright he did so while Esau was “out in the field.” Isaac sent Esau out to hunt some game for him before he blessed him, but Jacob represented himself as Esau and Isaac believed him. When Esau did return with game the natural conclusion is that he returned from the field. The older son in Jesus’ parable is explicitly said to be returning from the field.
Upon arriving at the house in both stories, the older sons face an injustice. Esau discovers that Jacob has tricked him out of his blessing. The older son in Jesus’ story discovers that the father has started a celebration for his success in “getting his son back” through the show of costly grace. The older son believes it an injustice that the younger son did not have to make restitution before being restored. Both Jacob and the younger brother have much to fear from their older brothers as they return home.
Esau is furious about having been tricked and vows to get Jacob. He holds Jacob responsible even though it was partly his father’s inept behavior that led to the circumstances. It is clear from the passage that Esau intends harm Jacob when he returns but Esau is diverted from his intentions, at least temporarily, by Jacob’s maneuvering. After a brief meeting, the two part and are never reconciled. The older brother in Jesus story is infuriated at both his brother and his father. The story ends with the reconciliation of the older son in question.
As Jacob leaves Laban and the older son confronts his father, they both give angry speeches. Bailey notes that both included the complaint that “I have slaved for you all these years.” Furthermore, both speeches include protestations of innocence, claims of injustice, declarations that their honor has been violated. Jacob’s claims are unjust because he had stolen from his father-in-law and the older son’s claims are false because of the disrespectful way he accepted his inheritance at the beginning of the story. Both Jacob and the older son in the stories are self-deceived and these are precisely the roles in which Jesus casts the scribes and Pharisees. (The older son protests that even a lamb has not been prepared in his honor. Bailey notes that these two stories are the only two places where mention is made of using kid meat for food and says he knows of no theological reason why this should be so. He takes it as one more sign of Jesus’ intention to link the two stories.)
Bailey notes that when Laban responds to Jacob’s angry speech Laban says, “All you see is mine.” He is accusing Jacob of stealing it from him but because of the circumstances he knows he can’t recover it. Instead, Laban and Jacob make a truce and depart unreconiled. When the father responds to the older son’s angry speech in Jesus’ story, the father says “All that is mine is yours.” The father has taken nothing from the son and gives grace out of his own supply. Theologically, the father is telling the older son there is plenty of grace for everyone.
When Laban reaches agreement with Jacob they seal their separation with a sacrifice and a meal. The story Jesus told ends with older brother outside the house refusing to participate in the sacrifice and meal of reconciliation. Jacob and Esau come to a truce but there is no reconciliation or joy. By Contrast there is much joy over reconciliation at the end of all three parables in Luke 15.
Of particular interest is the fact that this story comes in response to the complaint of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus eats with sinners. At the end of Jesus' parable it is the father who eats with sinners (the prodigal son) and the old brother (the Pharisees) who refuse to come in.
The nation of Israel, and certainly the scribes and Pharisees, identified with Jacob and saw his saga as a symbol for their existence. Esau, who became the father of the nation of Edom. Edom was considered a mortal enemy. Consequently, any parallels with Jacob would be how the scribes and Pharisees would liked to have been identified. When Jesus tells his three-in-one parable, he “fellowships” with lost sheep, lost coins, and prodigal sons. Also in each story there are ninety-nine sheep, nine coins, and one brother who purportedly need no repentance (finding). Youngest son Jacob is the model the Pharisees identify with but Jesus casts the youngest son as the prodigal. The Compassionate father is the one who welcomes “Jacob” back. If the scribes and Pharisees will not accept the reconciliation of “Jacob,” then by definition they become Esau or Edom, enemy of God and Jacob.
We have seen that the Parable of the Compassionate Father is directly related to the shepherding metaphors that precede it in Luke 15 and in the Old Testament. But the parable actually taps into much deeper images for the Jews of Jesus day. Bailey shows how four other men of Jesus era had used the story of Jacob found in Genesis 27-36:8, as a metaphor for Israel’s present exile and longing for restoration. With out using the direct referents, Jesus retold Israel’s story.
Bailey believes he has identified fifty-one elements common to the story of Jacob and Jesus Luke 15 parable. He divides these into three categories. A. Direct parallels. B. Similar elements with important modifications. C. Radical reversals. The last third of the book focuses on these fifty-one elements and what they mean. I am not going to be able to relate and justify each and every point that Bailey makes but I thought I would at least give you a sense of how Bailey sees the connections by quickly walking us through the Luke 15 parable with an eye to the saga of Jacob.
The Two Stories
Both stories raise the element of the father’s death. Jacob’s father Isaac believes he is about to die (although he lives on for many years) and calls his sons in to bless them and divide the inheritance. The wished for death of the prodigal’s father is implied by the sons request for a division of the inheritance while the father is still living. Both Jacob and the prodigal (youngest sons) receive their inheritance through dishonorable means. Jacob deceives his father and the prodigal insults his father. In doing so, they have broken the relationship with their father and must make a hasty departure to avoid the consequences. Both stories are stories about two brothers where the younger brother finds himself at odds with his older brother. However, Jacob expects to return one day and the prodigal has effectively burned all bridges. The two brothers in the Jacob story represent two clans; Jews and gentiles. The Luke 15 brothers represent the “law-breakers” and the “law-keepers.”
Bailey spends considerable time discussing the fathers in the two stories. The household of Isaac and Rebekah is clearly dysfunctional. Isaac is determined to bless Esau even though he has violated God’s instructions not to marry the local women. Rebekah is scheming and conniving behind Isaac’s back. Esau often seems clueless about what is expected of him. Jacob deceives his father. The great promise of Isaac and Rebekah at the start of their lives seems to dissipate until, after the blessing of the boys, we hear almost nothing of the patriarch and his wife except at their deaths. Isaac is distant, uninvolved, and absent from relationships.
At first it appears that there is no mother in Jesus’ parable. However, Bailey notes that the scene of the father running through the village to greet the son, among other aspects of this parable, is a feminine image. In essence, Jesus is casting the father in the story with both masculine and feminine traits, just as he characterized God with these trait in the two preceding parables about a good shepherd and a good woman. The father Jesus paints is the antithesis of the aloof and uncaring Isaac. The father has great compassion and goes to unthinkable lengths to restore the relationships with his sons.
The youngest son finds himself in a far off land while the older son stays home “off-stage.” Both younger sons become involved in dishonorable animal husbandry. Jacob deceives Laban as he tends to Laban’s sheep. The prodigal feeds unclean pigs. The contrast is that Jacob becomes a great success and the prodigal becomes a miserable failure. Still, because Jacob falls out of favor with Laban, he is left with little option but to return home. The prodigal also finds himself with no other option but to return home, though for different reasons. There is great fear and trepidation on the part of both Jacob and the prodigal as they return home, yet neither shows any remorse for what they have done.
Upon return, both Jacob and the prodigal make bodily contact with God. Jacob wrestles with the angel of God and overcomes him. God blesses him for his determination. The prodigal is embraced by God, symbolized by the father, and it is the prodigal who is overcome by the boundless grace of the father. Bailey also notes that there are only two places in all of scripture where there is a description of “run, fall on the neck and kiss.” They are Esau’s embrace of Jacob and the father’s embrace of prodigal.
Jacob and the prodigal both devise schemes to try to placate family upon return, complete with manipulative speeches. Jacob successfully gets his brother to depart but the prodigal abandons attempts at manipulation in the face of the father’s compassion. Both Esau and the prodigal’s father “run out” to meet them; Esau with a small army and the father with his servants. However, it is implied that Esau is motivated by malice and the father by love.
Both Jacob and the prodigal receive a kiss from their father. Jacob’s is received at the point of deception, while the prodigal receives multiple kisses at the point of return. Jacob brings gifts to appease Esau but the prodigal’s father lavishes gifts on the prodigal as a celebration of his return. Jacob’s mother had stolen Esau’s best robe and placed it on him as act of deception to get the inheritance but the prodigal receives his father’s robe as symbol of the father’s acceptance. Furthermore, the hero is Jacob in the Old Testament story but it is the father in Jesus’ parable.
Finally, in both stories, the older son represents the dutiful law-keeper while the younger son represents the rebellious law-breaker. It was what happens to these two sons that Jesus contrasts so magnificently. There is not self-sacrificing love between any of the three main characters in the Jacob story. Jacob is held up as pinnacle of determination. Jacob never seems to repent of anything but he works hard and, with God’s help, prospers. The prodigal hatches a plan that is based on him working hard and, with the hoped for forbearance of his father, a return to prosperity. The startling element that Jesus brings into the story is the costly love of the father and the way it brings the prodigal to repentance.
As we look back over the shepherd and sheep metaphors of the Old Testament we can see how Jeremiah and Ezekiel each have nuanced the Psalm 23 story to make their particular points. Jesus tells a parable in Luke 15 more closely resembling the Psalm 23 story while retaining a couple of important themes from the other metaphors.
Psalm 23 ends in the “house of the Lord” with a celebration. Jeremiah and Ezekiel end their stories with the sheep back safely in the land. There is a strong Zionist element to their thinking. Kenneth Bailey notes that Jesus “de-Zionizes” the story in Luke 15 and returns to the Psalm 23 version where the shepherd brings his sheep back to the house and celebrates. Jesus is saying something about his mission as the messiah that does not quite square with Zionist vision of the Old Testament metaphors.
Jesus, by implication, includes the idea of a bad shepherd in his shepherd parable. Only a bad shepherd would lose a sheep in the first place. Remember that Jesus told the parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees accusation that Jesus was eating with sinners (i.e., lost sheep.) Jesus was a rabbi and therefore a shepherd with the scribes and Pharisees. However, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was taking responsibility for the lost sheep and searching them out.
This says two things. First, by direct implication, Jesus casts the scribes and the Pharisees asking the questions as the bad shepherds of the Old Testament. Not a very flattering comparison. But second, remember who the good shepherd symbolizes in the Old Testament stories. They symbolize God. Jesus was comparing himself with God!
The fact is that all of the three-in-one parables in Luke 15 appear to be directly connected with the metaphors of Psalm 23. Here is how Kenneth Bailey sizes up these two chapters in the chapter five of Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
1. The Shepherd
Psalm 23 – The psalm opens with shepherd images.
Luke 15 – The chapter opens with a shepherd parable
Psalm 23 – Repentance is discussed within a parable about a shepherd and his sheep.
Luke 15 – Repentance is discussed within a parable about a shepherd and his sheep.
3. A Sheep is Lost
Psalm 23 – In 23:3 the sheep is presumed lost for it is restored. “He restores my soul [nephesh].
Luke 15 – The sheep is lost as is the coin and as are the two sons.
4. God Restores the Lost
Psalm 23 – (With the lost sheep) “He [returns/]restores my soul [life; nephesh].”
Luke 15 – (With the lost son) First (self-restoration): “He returned to himself [nephesh].” Second, (restored by the father): The father finds him and restores him to sonship.
5. God and Female Imagery
Psalm 23 – God does the work of a woman. God prepares a banquet
Luke 15 – A story about a good woman is parallel to a story of a good shepherd and to a story of a good father. The good father runs down the road like a mother.
6. Danger and Survival
Psalm 23 – The psalmist passes through a valley of deep darkness/death and survives.
Luke 15 – The prodigal passes through a great famine and survives.
7. Protection and Comfort
Psalm 23 - The psalmist is protected and comforted by the rod and staff of the shepherd. The banquet protects him from his enemies.
Luke 15 – The prodigal is saved from the famine and protected from the hostility of his brother (and the village) by an embrace, a kiss, a banquet.
Psalm 23 – God acts “for his name’s sake” (v. 3). God preserves his own (holy) name.
Luke 15 - The shepherd preserves the honor of his name by finding the lost. The woman and the father do the same.
Psalm 23 - The psalmist is followed by mercy/love (hesed).
Luke 15- The father has compassion when he sees the prodigal at a distance.
10. The Host Prepares a Banquet Before the Enemies of the Guest
Psalm 23 – “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Luke 15- a. Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners in the presence of their enemies the Pharisees. b. The father orders a banquet for the younger son to be held in the presence of his enemies (his brother and his brother’s friends.)
11. The Reversal of Roles
Psalm 23 – God prepares a table before the psalmist. Ordinarily, this is what the worshiper does for God.
Luke 15 – The father gives his sons their inheritance well before his death. He shows costly love to each. They should host a banquet for him. He orders a table spread before them.
12. The House
Psalm 23 – The psalmist is brought back to dwell permanently in the house of God.
Luke 15- The sheep and the coin are returned to the house. The two sons are invited to dwell permanently in their father’s house.
13. Theology Christology
Psalm 23 – a. God the shepherd restores his sheep. b. God prepares a banquet. c. God hosts a costly banquet.
Luke 15 – a. Jesus is the shepherd who finds and restores his sheep. b. Jesus is the woman who finds her coin. c. Jesus (on the road/in the courtyard) invites sons to a costly banquet.
It should now be evident how masterfully Jesus used metaphors of the Old Testament recast a theological perspective for the scribes and Pharisees. But this is not the end of the story. Kenneth Bailey believes that not only is the third story of the Compassionate Father in Luke a related to Psalm 23. It is actually a retelling of the story of Jacob which the Jews identified as a metaphor the nation.
One of the things I have appreciated about Kenneth Bailey is the background he gives on Jesus work and ministry. There is a common perception of Jesus as “blue collar” folksy carpenter with tremendous insight and a quick mind. In actuality, the more accurate picture of Jesus is a well educated scholar/laborer. We mistakenly read back into New Testament culture, our expectations of what a scholar looks like. Bailey points out that scholars in Jesus day were expected to work at practical occupations. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 22-25) Being engaged in practical work was considered fundamental to scholarly purists. So what kind of scholarly training did a carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth likely have?
Bailey writes that by Jesus day, serious Jews organized themselves into associations meaning haberim (“the companion/friends.) It was taken from Psalm 119:63, “I am a companion [haber] of all who fear thee; of those who keep thy percepts.” The associations consisted of men in various trades who spent their time debating the law, theologizing, and making applications to daily living. Bailey says that a young teenager was given the option of joining. Doing so meant making a public commitment to studying scriptures and the works of the rabbis. Men who opted not to join the haberim were called am ha-arets, which meant “people of the land” and there was considerable hostility between the two groups. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 22-25)
Everything about Jesus’ teaching reveals that he was well trained in metaphorical theology and in the modes of conversation common to men of these associations. “Rabbi” was a term given to teachers in these associations and it was a term used by the community for a scholarly sage. Several times in the gospels Jesus is referred to as “Rabbi,” surely indicating that he was a premier member of the haberim. Far from being a folksy sage, Jesus was a teacher who had possibly spent as many as eighteen years scholarly debate and application.
Therefore, when we read passages in scripture of Jesus confronting the scribes and Pharisees (who also joined the haberim) we read of a gifted scholar who knows full well how they think and theologize. He has been hanging out with them, or people like them, for two decades. His parables and metaphors do not spring out of nowhere. They have been honed by his participation in the lives of scholars.
For our present purposes, we can no see how masterfully Jesus took the Shepherd and sheep metaphor from the Old Testament and held it up as mirror for the Pharisees to look into. Jesus parables in Luke 15 reveal the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the love of the father, our role in repentance and a host of profound theological ideas. Below I have posted a comparison of the Shepherd stories. Below is a table assembled by Bailey that shows the parallels between the stories. I wrote in an earlier post that the parable about the lost coin is also is the lost sheep story transferred into the daily lives of women. The first four columns below are Baileys and I have added the fifth. (Source: Jacob and the Prodigal, 70)
I invite you to look this table over and reflect on what you think Jesus was doing with this metaphor. Tomorrow I will relate some of Bailey’s observations and begin to brings us around full circle to the “Compassionate Father Parable.”
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them -- to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
17 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
25 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. 26 I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29 I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30 They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. 31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God.
Ezekiel took Jeremiah’s version of the shepherd and the sheep and expanded it. Once again the bad shepherds are the leaders of Israel who gorge themselves while the sheep go hungry and wonder off. God is the “owner” of the sheep and he holds the shepherds accountable for the sheep that are lost. God announces that he, as the good shepherd, will come and rescue is sheep, bring them home, and restore them to the land.
Ezekiel introduces the idea of good sheep and bad sheep. Also introduced is the idea of David (Son of David?) becoming the shepherd who will become the good shepherd on God’s behalf. Then in verses 25-31, a picture of God restoring shalom is painted, similar to the passage in Isaiah 65 and elsewhere. The parallels between this “sheep and shepherd” passage and the ones in Psalm 23 and Jeremiah 23 should be becoming clear.
Now it is time to revisit again the parable of the “Lost Sheep.”
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."
7 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, "As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt," 8 but "As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them." Then they shall live in their own land.
Compared with Psalm 23, the shepherd and sheep metaphor takes on some new twists. The story starts out with multiple shepherds and a flock of sheep. In this case, the shepherds are the bad shepherds who not only don’t search for lost sheep but scatter them!
The bad shepherds are clearly Israel’s leaders. God announces he will remove those leaders and establish himself as the shepherd with under-shepherds. God will bring home the lost sheep that are far off. They will be returned home to their land where they will live in peace and prosperity.
The three parables of Luke 15 are actually one parable telling the same story emphasizing slightly different themes. The first two stories in the parable are of the good shepherd and the good woman. The story of the good woman is essentially a reiteration (with some important nuances) of the good shepherd story using imagery from the world of women. The use of this shepherd imagery is not something Jesus selected on the fly. We miss the significance of Luke 15 if do not see that Jesus was taking powerful images of the Old Testament, images the Pharisees and scribes would be very familiar with, to break down the illusions the religious leaders were living under.
There are three Old Testament passages that use the shepherd and sheep imagery: Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-8, and Ezekiel 34. Each succeeding passage adds something to the image of God as shepherd. I will look at what Kenneth Bailey has to say about each of these passages and then revisit the parable of the “Lost Sheep” as we bring them back together.
Here is Psalm 23:
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff --
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The good shepherd is one who takes care of his sheep. He protects them and makes sure they are fed. But anyone who has been around sheep knows that sheep have a tendency to wonder off. The shepherd has to keep close watch and if a sheep should wonder off it is incumbent upon the shepherd to restore the lost sheep to the fold.
Verse three is often thought of as God “uplifts us” or “makes us happy.” Bailey writes that the Hebrew means he restores “myself/person/soul/life.” In other words, God “brings me back” or “causes me to repent.” Bailey says that in Arabic versions, verse three begins with “he brings me back.” Clearly the restoring is of a lost sheep that has wandered away. What has the sheep wondered away from? That is answered by the rest of the verse. The NRSV say “right paths” but the old King James Version refers to “paths of righteousness.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 66)
The last phrase of verse three also tells us something we often overlook. If you will remember, I pointed out that the shepherd and the woman in Luke 15 searched out the lost partly because what was lost was valuable to them but also because their reputation was on the line. Why does the Psalm 23 shepherd restore the sheep? For the benefit of the sheep? Clearly that is implied as part of the story but the explicit reason is “for his name’s sake.” The shepherd (God) is doing it because of what it says about him and no what it says about us!
Verse four further exalts the good shepherd. The “rod and staff” symbolizes both the tools of the shepherd in protecting the sheep from enemies and in keeping them from wandering away from the flock. Verse four also hints that the shepherd will do these things in spite of potential great suffering and loss to himself.
The Hebrew word for “table” in verse five is synonymous with “feast.” God is throwing a banquet or celebration. Verse five ends with the “anointing the head with oil” which was done at festive occasions and great celebrations. It indicated divine favor. (It should also be known that food preparation was the duty of a woman and David is ascribing feminine duties to God.) (Finding the Lost, 94.)
The meal is also offered in the presence of enemies. The shepherd does this while protecting from predatory threats. So the shepherd restores the sheep who has wandered into perilous circumstances (like going into a far country and living recklessly) and he protects the sheep from predators (like an angry older brother). Also, remember what prompted the Luke 15 parable. Who is it that sits with “lost sheep” sinners and eats with them while protecting them from their enemies?
The story ends in verse six with the psalmist/sheep in the house enjoying the presence of God.
Jesus chose a shepherd, a woman, and a father as the central characters in his Luke 15 parables. Is there any significance to the selection of these three characters? Kenneth Bailey would suggest that there is.
There are several metaphors for God in the Psalms but they divide into two categories: Inanimate and animate. For instance, Bailey mentions rock, fortress, tower, or shield as common metaphors. All deal with safety from danger. The most prominent animate metaphor is King and, as Bailey notes, it congers up the same ideas of safety as do the inanimate objects. Bailey goes on to write,
“But a thin stream of metaphors for God is composed of people who are not (like the lord in Isaiah 6:1) high and lifted up, seated on a throne at a great distance from the worshiper. Three and only three metaphors compose this stream, and each deserves scrutiny.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 57-58)
The three and only three metaphors that Bailey mentions are shepherd, father, and mother.
Probably the most beloved Psalm in both Jewish and Christian traditions is Psalm 23:
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff --
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long. (NRSV)
I will have more to say about this Psalm later but for now it is enough to note its central place as an image of God even though Psalm 80 is the only other psalm that directly uses this imagery. (David invites God to be Israel’s shepherd in 28:9. I also find it interesting that shepherding, so despised by the Pharisees and scribes, should be one of three primary animate metaphors.)
Bailey says there are only two psalms that directly refer to God as father:
Psalm 68:5-6 (NRSV)
5 Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
6 God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.
Psalm 103:13-14 (NRSV)
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
These psalms cast God as a caring and compassionate protector of his children.
As to the metaphor of God as mother, Bailey says there is only one mention in the Psalms. Bailey choose the NIV for presenting this passage because he says it is more in accord with pre-Christian Syriac translations:
Psalm 131 (NIV)
1 My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.
So there are only three metaphors used in the Psalms to suggest a caring and compassionate God. Jesus took these three metaphors and wove them into a three-in-one parable about the nature of God. He took minor themes from Psalms and made them the central image of who God is. Jesus was making a direct link to the God of the Old Testament but emphasizing traits that had not previously been emphasized.
But Jesus did not only connect to the Psalms. The shepherd metaphor was used not only in Psalm 23 but also in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Each use of the metaphor says something a little different about God. Bailey makes the case that the “Lost Sheep” parable is actually a retelling of these Old Testament metaphors and of the Psalm 23 story in particular.
I wrote in an earlier post that Jesus’ parables were not intended to make “a point.” They were theological constructs that invite us to enter into an alternate reality. Bailey describes the parables as being theological clusters where a number of theological realities are represented as a package. Each of the three parables has its own cluster and I have highlighted those in recent posts. They all have great similarities but each one adds nuances not contained in the others. So how do these three parables of the “Lost Sheep” (15:4-7), “Lost Coin” (15:8-10), and “Compassionate Father” (15:11-32) connect to each other to tell a bigger story?
Bailey makes seven observations about the interconnection between these parables on pages 60-63 of Jacob and the Prodigal:
Bailey goes on to make one other observation that I thought was important. He had a friend who was a therapist in Jerusalem. His therapist friend shared that,
“…patients often went patients often went to him with a series of layered problems that had almost destroyed them. At times, one of those layers was a pattern of self-destructive behavior relating to sexuality. After a number of sessions, the doctor patient relationship reached a deep level of mutual trust, and the patient was willing to discuss his or her sexual life and problems regarding it. Occasionally, in a later session, my friend asked how much money his patient had and how it was spent. At that point, the patient would withdraw in shock with the expressed or unexpressed question, “Why are you invading my privacy?” The conclusion my friend and other therapists have come to is that an individual’s money and how he or she spends it is embedded more deeply in the psyche of a person than is sexuality. Personal sexuality, it seems, can be discussed more openly than personal finance.” (63)
Jesus began with items of material value (sheep and a coin) and escalated to that which is of eternal value. If we search as hard as we do for that which is of material value and then rejoice when we find it, how much harder should we search for that which is of eternal value? Jesus is putting that question to the scribes and Pharisees by combining these three parables.
These stories are not only interrelated to each other but they also show connections with stories and images from the Old Testament. More on that to come.
Here is Kenneth Bailey’s description of the parable's parallelism.
INTRODUCTION "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
1. LOST if she loses one of them,
2. FOUND does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
3. REJOICE 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me,
4. FOUND for I have found the coin
5. LOST that I had lost.'
CONCLUSION 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
(NRSV) (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 93)
Here are ten theological themes Kenneth Bailey finds in the parable. He notes that the last five move significantly beyond the story of the lost sheep. (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 105-107)
Kenneth Bailey suggests that the “Lost Coin” parable (Luke 15:8-10) is actually a retelling of the “Lost Sheep” parable with some important nuances.
8 Or what woman having ten silver coins [drachmas], if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
The first and most striking thing about this parable is its main character; a woman! Remember that these parables are being directed at the Pharisees and scribes. A speaker in Middle Eastern culture can not compare a male audience to a woman without giving offense. Jesus does it nonetheless.
Bailey notes that Luke, more so than the other gospels, records of a number of doublets or parallels that involve men and women. For example:
Bailey says that Jesus was rare, if not unique, in this regard. This focus was almost certainly done with the intent of elevating the status of women but it also had theological significance. The compassionate father running to kiss his son is something a woman would be expected to do and Jesus ascribes this to God. Male and female traits are reflections of God yet ascribing sexuality to God, as the pagan fertility cults did, was carefully avoided.
The story indicates that the woman had ten coins called drachmas. A drachma was about one day’s wages. The fact that she had these coins meant she was trusted by her husband. Jesus says she lost one of the coins and if you will remember from the parable of the Lost Sheep, Middle Easterners do not take direct blame for such an act. The might say ‘the coin is lost” but they would not “I lost the coin.” Jesus emphasizes that this women has indeed lost the coin and she takes responsibility for having done so.
Bailey suggests that this parable was probably told with the idea of Galilean villages in mind. The homes were made with basalt slabs. The rooms were about seven feet high with six inch slits near the top for windows. The floors were stones pieced together, with numerous cracks where the stones met. In the parable, the woman must light a lamp in the dark room and painstakingly search for the coin.
Her trustworthiness is on the line. She was entrusted with the money and is responisble for it. She knows the coin is in the house. If she looks hard enough she knows the coin can indeed be found.
9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'
The woman finds the coin and invites the neighbors to a celebration. Interestingly, no one would know that she had lost the coin if she did not through the celebration. She also unabashedly admits that she lost the coin. Having found the coin she has proven her faithfulness and it is her success that she wants to celebrate. (I should note here that this would be all women, just as the lost sheep celebration would be all men.) Furthermore, upon her invititation, who would have been critical of her for having searched out the coin until she found it?
Bailey also points out another important nuance. The coin was of no less value when it was lost than when it was found. This is in contrast to the lost sheep and the prodigal son who may have returned diminished. Does this say something about our value to God?
10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Jesus makes clear in these parables that he is talking about repentance. So what did the coin do to earn restoration? Nothing! The coin was restored because one who valued it searched with great difficulty to find it. So when verse 10 says there will be much joy “over one sinner who repents,” who is the celebration ultimately about?
Kenneth E. Bailey shows that the parable is a combination of straight parallelism with an inverted parallelism in the middle.
1. YOU 4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep
2. ONE and losing one of them,
3. NINETY-NINE does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
A. LOST and go after the one
B. FIND that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it,
C. REJOICE he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
D. RESTORE 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors,
C. REJOICE saying to them, 'Rejoice with me,
B. FIND for I have found my sheep
A. LOST that was lost.'
4. YOU 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven
5. ONE over one sinner who repents
6. NINETY-NINE than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
(NRSV) (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 64)
The following are some theological themes that Kenneth Bailey finds in this parable (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 91-92)
Under Christology you will see that Bailey references three other passages dealing with shepherds and sheep. Bailey believes these are central to understanding Luke 15. I will be getting to those shortly but first we must turn to the “Parable of the Lost Coin.”
We have just explored the “Parable of the Compassionate Father” in Luke 15:11-32. It is time now to back up and review what lead up to this parable.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:1-2 (NRSV)
So the primary audience for what follows is the Pharisees and the scribes. Take note of what Luke writes next.
3 So he told them this parable:
The word “parable” is singular, yet Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Compassionate Father as a unit. Kenneth Bailey maintains that these three were to be taken as on interrelated teaching. How? We will start with the Lost Sheep parable.
4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
By saying “Which one of you,” Jesus was implicating the Pharisees and scribes. Shepherding was job beneath the dignity and status of his audience and to compare them to shepherds was insulting. Furthermore, Jesus compares them to bad shepherds.
Bailey notes that in Middle Eastern culture one usually states things in a way that circumscribes taking direct blame. I might say “One of my sheep is lost” but I would not say “I lost one of my sheep.” Right from the start Jesus makes clear that the blame is squarely on the back of the shepherd. Bailey says that for hundreds of years in Arabic translations, the translators have consistently translated the language in to the passive even though the original clearly is not.
Shepherds were not necessarily the owners of the sheep. Many people in a village would own sheep. The shepherds would take the sheep out of the village to graze them. Sheep tend to wander off but it is the shepherds responsibility to find them if they do. The shepherd was held responsible for the loss of sheep except in certain well-defined circumstances. He would be shamed and his integrity would be questioned if he lost any. He was highly motivated to find lost sheep.
It is important to note that all one hundred sheep are out in the wilderness. Jesus speaks of leaving the ninety-nine to find the one. What happens to the other sheep? Bailey suggests that with such a large flock the shepherd would almost certainly have had at least on assistant. If not, he would likely have taken his sheep to a neighboring shepherd while he went to search.
When sheep get lost they become terrified. The often collapse in a thicket and begin bleating. When found they are too terrified to even rise to their feet. They can not be herded or led on a rope. They most be carried. They weigh up to 70 pounds. The terrain the listeners likely imagined was rugged and not easily maneuvered. The shepherd would place the sheep around his shoulders and grab his legs in front. This was hard work! Unlike our Western images of this parable which has Jesus carrying a little lamb under his arm, most Eastern images have sheep that are as big as the shepherd indicating a heavy load that is carried.
Jesus says he returned home “rejoicing.” What was he rejoicing about?
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'
Bailey notes that the shepherd returns home with his lost sheep and calls for a celebration. Why? The Western traditional notion is that it is because he loves the sheep and is happy to find it. That likely would be true but is that the only reason? Note that if the shepherd loses the sheep his character is impugned. The celebration is not just about the lost sheep it also about (and maybe primarily so) the exhibition of his character.
Bailey quotes Isaiah 43:3-4 (emphasis mine):
3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer. I have handed over Egypt as a ransom price, Ethiopia and Seba in place of you.
4 Since you are precious and special in my sight, and I love you, I will hand over people in place of you, nations in place of your life. (NET)
Why does God deliver the Israelites? Partly because he loves them but also because of his holiness and what it means for Him!
7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance..
The Celebration is for the shepherd and what he is done just as the celebration God plans is about what he has done over the sinner who is lost.
So what happened to the ninety-nine? We aren’t told. There is no implication that they are abandoned. It is possible that there is a “quiet joy,” as Bailey calls it, about the fact that they are safe. They simply haven’t come home yet! Therefore, a celebration would be premature.
This parable has many parallels with the Parable of the Compassionate Father. Both the one and the ninety-nine are in the wilderness. The main character exhibits costly grace to retrieve the lost. There is celebration by the central character over what his done. I will write more about this after we examine the second parable.
To close this post I would draw your attention to one fascinating aspect of this parable. What does the parable say about repentance? What does the lost sheep do to save himself? At the most, he bleats! Salvation comes only from the shepherd.
Kenneth E. Bailey lists eleven major theological implications of "The Parable of the Compassionate Father" (Luke 15:11-32) in Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15. (190-192)
Clearly this parable is much more than an illustration about a point Jesus was trying to make. It is a masterfully and powerfully articulated theology through use of metaphors. As we add the first ten verses Luke Chapter 15 to the front of this parable we will see how Jesus tapped deeply into the the Jewish mind and re-framed their understanding through this metaphorical theology.
My presentation of Kenneth E. Bailey’s work on Luke 15:11-32 is woefully lacking. Still, I hope these recent posts have been helpful in seeing how rich the story is when viewed through Middle Eastern eyes. Having closely examined this parable, we now ask what to do with the parable. The temptation is to "gut" the story by identifying "the point" that Jesus was trying to make. That would be a tragic error.
The modernist era has taught us to distill reality down to its foundational elements. In this mode of thinking, the assumption is that Jesus was telling this parable to illustrate a point. He had “a” point he wanted to make and he built a story up from that point. When we can identify that point and articulate it, we think we have understood the story. If we are indeed approaching the story in this way, then we are doing violence to Jesus' teaching.
The Parable of the Compassionate Father, just like other parables, is not an illustration to make a point. It is the presentation of an alternate reality. Bailey writes,
“A biblical story is not simply a “delivery system” for an idea. Rather the story first creates a world and then invites the listener to live in that world, to take it on as part of who he or she is. Biblical stories invite the reader to accept them as his or her story.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 51)
We are all living under illusions about who we are and who God is. Stories like The Parable of the Compassionate Father disillusion us so we can see ourselves for who we are and we can see God for who God is. They invite us into an alternate reality. They invite us to be characters within that new reality. I would argue that not only is that the purpose of this parable but it is the purpose of scripture. God is at work disillusioning us with His story so we may enter into communion with God and with others he has called into community.
All this is not to say that there isn’t a place for identifying key elements of parables and finding themes. These enrich our understanding of God’s character and can help make the stories more accessible. The danger comes in assuming that because we have abstracted what we believe to be key elements, we now “get it.”
Personally, this parable has touched me in so many ways I can’t recount them all. It just keeps getting richer through the years. There have been times in my life where I have felt completely alone and abandoned. I craved closeness to God but could see no way to come home. Then there was this image of God running through the village to greet me! I find that part of the story hard to swallow at times.
There have been other times in my life when I have been outraged at the honor paid to those who I knew were “less spiritual” than I am. There have been opponents who I secretly, if not openly, longed to see humiliated and brought down. When they weren’t, I wondered why I was being obedient to God. Would God just let them get away with everything? Then I would see the image of God standing before me in a courtyard, and as I venomously cried out against him, he kept asking me to come inside the house for the celebration.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book called the Return of the Prodigal. The book is about his mediations as he viewed the painting by Rembrandt about this story. He tells how he came to identify with the prodigal son. He shared with a friend about his reflections and the friend questioned whether Nouwen was not actually more like the older brother. As Nouwen reflected more on this story he began to realize that he was indeed all too much like the older son in the story. He began to question which he more identified with, the prodigal or the older son. He eventually concluded he identified with both.
At the end of Nouwen’s book he articulates a discovery that I too came to realize. He had been asking which son he was most like. In doing so, he was missing an essential piece to the story. The story is not about the sons. The story is about the father! Furthermore, there is an implicit invitation in the parable. That invitation is to take on the character of the father! We easily identify with the sons, but the call is to be the father.
Not many years after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote (emphasis added):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death --
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV)
As we come to Christmas let us realize that the baby born in Bethlehem was merely the first step of a father leaving his mansion to go into the courtyard, and out into the streets, to invite his children to come home. God is inviting us even now to take on the charater of the father in the parable and invite our brothers and sisters, younger and older, to enter the celebration.
Here is the inverted parallelism for the second half of the parable:
A. He Stands Aloof - 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves [young boy] and asked what was going on.
B. Your Brother – Peace (a feast) Anger - 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28Then he became angry and refused to go in.
C. Costly Love - His father came out and began to plead with him.
D. My Actions, My Pay - 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
D. His Actions, His Pay - 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
C. Costly Love - 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
B. Your Brother – Safe (a feast) Joy! - 32 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.'"
A. The Missing Ending???? – [And the older son embraced his father and entered the house and was reconciled to his brother and to his father. And the father celebrated together with his two sons.]
Kenneth Bailey compares the two sons in his book Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15. On page 182 he writes:
Bailey goes on to quote an Arabic phrase that says “Each one of them is worse than the other.” One brother is the rebel and the other is the faithful obedient son but they have one thing in common: Neither understands the love of the father and both have wounded him deeply. Still, the father's love reaches out to them both.
What are we to make of this parable?
Jesus concludes the first eight stanzas of the parable with the celebration getting underway. In the ninth stanza, Jesus shifts the focus to the older son. As you will recall, the older son was silent when the younger son did the unthinkable by asking for a division of his father's estate. The expected role of the older son was to intervene and become the mediator between his father and younger brother. Instead, he is passive and accepts the division of the estate.
25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves [young boy] and asked what was going on.
The typical village had the wealthiest people at the center with decreasing social status as you moved to the outskirts. The fields surrounded the village. The workers went out into the fields during the day and returned in the evening. The road to the village would have passed through the fields into the village. Thus, in both sections of the parable, a son is returning from a field to the father’s house.
The houses in these villages were walled in enclosures with an expansive courtyard in the middle. The celebration is loud and boisterous. As the son approaches the village, one might reasonably expect that he would quicken his pace to see what the celebration was about. Upon entering the house he would be greeted by cheers of welcome and be informed of the good news. His role, possibly after changing clothes, would be to mingle among the guests and make everyone feel at home.
Instead, the older son finds a young boy and inquires what is happening. The word for the boy is paidos which can mean either slave/servant, young boy, or son. “Son” doesn’t fit here. Kenneth Bailey notes that in verse 27 the boy responds “your father did so and so" instead of “my master did so and so" which means he almost certainly was not a servant. Children were not allowed into the house for such events and this boy would no doubt be one of the children playing in the courtyard. The servants would be occupied with serving at the celebration.
27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28Then he became angry and refused to go in.
There are a couple of important subtleties in this passage. The phrase “your brother has come” does not accurately convey the meaning hear. The Greek does not have the passively receiving his son. The connotation is that the father is the one was active in "bringing him back." The Greek word translated here as “safe and sound” is the same one used in the Septuagint (i.e., Greek translation for the Old Testament) for the Hebrew word shalom. It means wellness, prosperity, peace and right relationships. The father, of his own action, has achieved shalom with his youngest son.
The oldest son is furious. He is incensed that the father would reconcile with the younger brother. Bailey points out that it is hard for us to imagine how insulting this behavior was. He suggests that we imagine a wealthy man having a black tie, candle lit dinner for prestigious guests, only to have his son show up at the door unshaven, without shirt and shoes, and begin to verbally attack the father. According to Bailey, this analogy is too mild to convey the revolting nature of the older son's behavior!
Bailey suggests that the behavior of this son is actually more cutting than the behavior of the youngest son at the beginning of the story. At least the disrespect was done in private. The oldest son has now embarrassed his father in front of the whole community. A traditional father would have called his servants to subdue his son and have him locked in a room. How does the father respond?
His father came out and began to plead with him.
Keep in mind that this exchange is now happening in full view of the community. Rather than retaliate, the father humiliates himself and implores his son to come in and join the celebration. The first hearers of this story would once again be absolutely stunned at the reaction of the father. His extension of grace earlier in the day had brought one son into shalom. Might it happen again?
29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
The first thing to note about this statement is the disrespect of the son by failing to address his father with the title “father.” Second, he says “I have been working like a slave for you.” Does this father exhibit anything remotely suggesting that he is a mean taskmaster? Third, “Never disobeyed?” Really? Never? Note that he is saying this in front of the community in the most disrespectful and disgraceful way he can. What about his refusal to mediate between the father and the younger son at the beginning of the story? Clearly the son sees his relationship with his father as a stifling and constraining one.
The older son accuses his father of favoritism but there is something more subtle being said here. The older son has technical control of the estate but can not dispose of it the way he wants because his father is still around. His father and brother are at this banquet but apparently they do not count as part of “with my friends.” He does not even see himself as part of the family. If his father were dead, he could throw parties whenever he wanted to and invite whomever he wanted to. In essence, just like the prodigal, the older brother wishes his father was dead and out of the way!
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
“This son of yours” is the older brother’s expression of contempt for his brother by refusing to even acknowledge that he is his brother. But pay particular attention to the accusation he makes, “devoured your property with prostitutes.” Remember in an earlier post I noted that nothing Jesus said about the youngest son suggested anything about bedding with prostitutes. The “wild living” merely connoted that he was financially reckless. But the real question is how would the older son know anything about what his brother had done since he had just come in from the field? He wouldn’t. So why the remark?
The older brother knows the celebration will seal the new found shalom between the father, his brother, and the community. Sleeping with prostitutes would be bad enough but he was in a far away place, which meant he would have been sleeping with gentile prostitutes! This is an insult that might provoke murder. The son is intentionally being inflammatory as he viciously tries to destroy the shalom between the father and the younger son in front of the whole community. The older son knows if he can make such a fabrication stick, no father in the community would give their daughter in marriage to the younger brother. He is outraged that his father will not enforce social custom.
Furthermore, the oldest son misstates the point of the celebration. The celebration is not about the prodigal son. It is about the father’s joy at having achieved shalom with his son! The older son can only see it as a competition between him and his brother.
31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
Bailey writes that this response “staggers the imagination.” The older son refused to even address his father as “father.” Bailey notes that huios, meaning “son,” is used eight times in the parable. Here Jesus uses teknon, meaning “beloved son.” Just as one might respond affectionately to one’s father as "daddy," this is the reciprocal endearing response of a father to a son. After humiliating the father in front of the entire community, the father calls him teknon!
The estate belongs to the oldest son. The father is actually reminding the son the all his “slaving” has actually been for himself since he already owns the estate. The older son is fearful of loosing what he has a “right” to and the father assures him that nothing has changed.
32 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.'"
Without digressing into great detail, the first portion of the verse 32 could be taken as a defense of the father’s action. This translation gives some of that feel. In fact, it is more likely an observation that the celebration was irrepressible. In essence, how could it occur to anyone to do otherwise?
The father, countering the older son’s remark “this son of yours,” says “this brother of yours.” He will not let the older son distance himself from the family and the relationship.
Finally, in Greek, “he was lost and is found” emphasizes the father’s action in “finding” him and restoring shalom. The father still holds out hope that his self-deprecating love will even yet draw his older son into the celebration as well, restoring shalom among all.
But there is something missing here. If you go back and count you will see there have been only seven stanzas. The story begs for an eighth stanza. What did the older son do? Bailey suggests that an anticipated ending might have gone something like this:
And the older son embraced his father and entered the house and was reconciled to his brother and to his father. And the father celebrated together with his two sons.
But it doesn’t say this. It just stops. Jesus left it to the religious leaders he was addressing to fill in the ending of the story with their response. He does the same for us.
The parable of The Compassionate Father consists of two inverted Parallelisms. The first is about the younger son and contains eight stanzas. The second is about the older son and contains seven stanzas.
I you are not familiar with this type of presentation, note that “A.” below is answered by the next “A.,” “B.” by the next “B.” and son on. Here are the first eight stanzas as named by Kenneth E. Bailey:
11Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons.
A. DEATH 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.
B. ALL IS LOST 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
C. REJECTION 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
D. THE PROBLEM? 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
D. THE SOLUTION? 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
C. ACCEPTANCE 20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
B. ALL IS RESTORED 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
A. RESSURECTION 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
These eight stanzas leave us with the relationship between the father and youngest son reconciled. It is this part of the story that most of us identify with. I think most often people identify with the prodigal son in this story and long for the love the father shows him.
But Jesus’ story is not complete. The youngest son has returned but the oldest son is not yet home from working in the fields that day. There are problems yet to be resolved. Technically the father no longer owns the estate. The father has the right to make use of whatever he needs for his own needs but the older son owns the estate.
How will the older son respond to the lavish grace the father has bestowed on the younger son?
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
There are two key issues with translation here. First, in verse 19, “I am no longer worthy” can be translated two ways. It could mean that he permanently is no longer worthy. This is how it is most often translated within Western Christianity. However, it could also mean “I am presently not worthy” leaving open the option that he might once again be worthy at some future date. In other words, his current status renders him unable to be worthy but he could alter his status. This later connotation is the one Kenneth Bailey suggests.
Second, “hired hands” is not equivalent to slaves. In ascending rank were slaves, bond servants, free laborers and family in a large household. The younger son sees himself occupying a role just one step below a family member while he earns his way back into his father’s good graces. He seems to see this largely as matter of financial mismanagement and is oblivious the damage he has done to relationships.
Bailey suggests the religious leaders listening to the story would almost certainly have been nodding their heads in approval up to this point in the story. “We must first acknowledge our guilt and then earn our way back into God’s good graces” they would say. They likely envisioned the father’s response to the approaching son as one of disgust and anger. The village would likely cut him off from community life and the father might relent enough to allow the son to work on his estate. (The key word is “might.”)
20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Our Modern cities tend to have the poor in the urban core with increasing prosperity as you move to the periphery of the city. Not so in Jesus’ day. The wealthy lived at the center with decreasing wealth as you moved to the periphery. The fields would be just beyond the periphery of the village.
We know from the details of the story that the father is a wealthy man and therefore lives at the center of the city. Such a man would have had much dignity and respect. In public, they wore robes that covered them down to their ankles. They moved about gracefully in keeping with their social position.
The image Jesus paints is of this father at his estate in the center of the village looking diligently into the distance, anticipating the return of his son. It is entirely possible that if the son reaches the village and is recognized, the townspeople may assault him.
The father sees him “while he was still far off.” The double meaning is distance both in geography and relationship. Jesus says the father “was filled with compassion” and then Jesus says “he ran!”
To run to meet his son the father would need to gather up his robes, thus exposing his legs as he ran. (Envision some time when you have seen a woman in our culture wearing a long wedding dress and trying to move quickly and you will get the picture.) For such a man to even show his ankles in public was not dissimilar to someone dropping their pants today. The image is of the father humiliating himself before the village as runs out to greet his son. Bailey points out that this image is so unseemly that many Arabic translations throughout the centuries have tried to translate it into something more dignified.
Jesus says the father hugged and kissed his son. A son in a good relationship with his father would approach, bow and kiss his fathers hand. However, a son who had committed such travesties against his father would be expected to fall to the ground and kiss his father’s feet. Here the father runs a grabs his son before the son can greet him and kiss his son the neck signifying complete acceptance and welcome. It is hard to overstate the shocking impact this picture painted for the first hearers of the story.
21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Notice what is missing from this passage. The son has dropped off the “treat me like one of your hired workers” idea from the greeting to his father. The astonishing love of the father has finally awakened the son to the reality that there is no way he can earn his way back into his father’s graces. He now realizes how much the father loves him and how horrendous were his deeds. He is overwhelmed by the grace his father shows him.
The father’s dramatic sprint through the city was certain to draw a crowd. These events were happening before the community. Before the community the father tells the servants to bring his best robe, a ring, and sandals. The robe means that the father’s status is now conferred on the son. The ring is likely a signet ring signifying the son has the father’s authority. The sandals signify that the son is a free man, as only free men wore sandals. The father imputed his character to his son in front of all the witnesses. Who would now dare to initiate a ceremony to cut the son off from the community?
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
Killing a calf for the village to celebrate is the kind of action that would be done for visiting royalty like a king or prince. To kill a fattened calf would mean that you are expecting a very large crowd. Once an animal was killed it was assumed it would be consumed then and there. Truly the father intended this to be a celebration of celebrations for his lost son.
11Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.
Many commentators have suggested that there is nothing particularly noteworthy in this passage. The request of the younger, while maybe a bit uncommon, appears to be a legitimate request. Kenneth Bailey shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
There are recorded instances of a father dividing his estate among heirs while he is still living. Abraham did this to avoid conflict within his own tribe. However, the idea that a son would request the division of the estate by his living father was unthinkable. Bailey claims to have searched countless ancient records and inquired of other scholars on this matter. There is no evidence of this ever happening in the written record!
The younger son's request is equivalent to wishing his father's death. The father is in the way of the son's plans and the son wants to get on with it. So offensive is the idea that the father probably would not have been blamed for killing his impudent son on the spot.
But there is third character participating in this transaction as well. Because we are of another culture, we miss a crucial assumption being made about the older son. The older son's role in such a case should be the role of mediator. He should be confronting his younger brother and telling him to beg forgiveness. He should be interceding with the father begging him to have mercy on his brother. What do we get from the older son? Silence. We also apparently get an uncontested division of the estate. Something is amiss with the older son in this story.
Of course the most scandalous thing of all is that the father grants his son's request without protest.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
Here we have more insult to the father. In cases where a father divided his estate with his sons while living, both the father and son were prohibited from independently selling off parts of the estate. Furthermore, while technically belonging to the son, the father had claim to the estate for his own survival and care. Here the son sells the estate and leaves, depriving his father of the livelihood he was entitled to.
If you have ever been involved with probate proceedings you know that it can take months to resolve the issues of dividing an estate. It was not much different in Jesus' time. Verse 13 says "A few days later" the son took his inheritance and ran. He no doubt found someone in the village on the sly and did the transaction. He probably did it at below market cost to facilitate a speedy exchange. Why was he in such a hurry? Because he knew that if the village found out what he had done they would have been furious. He was racing the clock to avoid having his deeds discovered before he could leave town.
Later on in this story the older brother will accuse the younger brother of living like a heathen, spending his money on prostitutes. Bailey points out the words "squandered" and "dissolute" in the Greek don't carry a connotation of immorality. They simply mean he was reckless with his money and didn't watch his finances. This will become important later in the story.
Verse 14 points out that the younger son is now in dilemma. The Jews were prohibited from selling their land to gentiles. If a Jew did such a thing, the community would perform a ceremony that cut that person off from the life of the community. The only way to return to the community was to repurchase the land. Not only has the son disrespected his father but he can not return to the village because of his offense of squandering his inheritance with gentiles. Now he has no resources and can not regain his estate.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
It was considered inappropriate in Middle Eastern culture to deny someone's request for assistance but one way to get rid of a person was to make their live so miserable they moved on. According to the Torah, Jews could not eat pigs or touch a pig carcass. Technically, feeding pigs was not prohibited. Yet in Jesus day, the Pharisees would have considered such work unacceptable. This gentile citizen was clearly trying to rid himself of the younger son. Carobs (pods) were of little nutritional value to human being and his desire to eat them was in essence a way of saying he wished he was a pig!
17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
Many commentators have argued that the phrase "came to himself" was a euphemism for he repented. As we will see shortly this is not so. It merely means he has taken full stock of his situation and realizing there must be better alternatives. He has disrespected his father, his older brother now controls the remaining estate, and the community may be ready to stone him as soon as he shows his face. Still, facing these obstacles now appears preferable to his present dilemma. What will he do?
Many people are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). It is an image that is deeply embedded with Western Culture. But have we really understood what Jesus was speaking of when he told the story of the parable?
Jesus told the story to specific people at a specific time and place. The people were the Pharisees. The time and place was First Century Palestine. The fact that we call the story “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” suggests that we have not understood what this story is about.
Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey has done extensive research on this passage and published several books that relate to the topic. His research draws our attention to how First Century listeners would have heard the story when it was first told. Over the next few posts I want to relate to you some of the important insights Bailey brings to an understanding of this passage.
“The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is third of three stories Jesus told in response to complaints made by the Pharisees. Bailey shows the three stories are actually reflections of each other. There is the parable of “The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep,” “The Woman and the Lost Coin,” and “The Prodigal Son.”
These parables are three different ways of pointing to the same reality. I will start by first examining the third parable and then looking at its place within a large picture of what Jesus is teaching here.
Bailey tends to prefer the New Revised Standard Version translation for his work so here is a presentation of the three parables using that translation.
Three Parables: Luke 15:1-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, '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.'"
About ten years, I agreed to lead a Sunday School class at church using a tape series by some guy named Kenneth Bailey. To prepare for the class I got the video tapes, put the first one in the VCR, and started to watch. It was a talking head seated at desk in front of a bookshelf. As Bailey began his matter of fact presentation I remember thinking to myself, “Great. Who is going to come back and watch the rest after this first ‘scintillating’ presentation.” But as I sat there and watched I was stunned. This guy opened up insights about well worn passages of scripture that have totally transformed my whole understanding of the scripture and the gospel.
Starting next week, (probably on Tuesday or Wednesday) I want to expose you to the work of Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. Here is a bio from a book published in 2003.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. An ordained Presbyterian academic, he also serves as Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. In addition to a doctorate in New Testament, he holds graduate degrees in Arabic language and literature as well as systematic theology. He spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He is the author of many books in English and in Arabic, including Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes and Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
I will be focusing on his analysis of Luke 15. Luke 15 is where Jesus tells three parables that Bailey believes are actually to taken as a unit. The parables are of the “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin” and “The Prodigal Son.
I will be drawing on two of his books in particular. First is Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. This is a 1983 compilation of two previous books, the first published in 1976 and the other in 1980. The second book, published in 2003, is Jacob and the Prodigal. How Jesus Retold the Israel’s Story. I will first take an in depth look at the story of the Prodigal Son. Then, I will pull back and look at the three stories of Luke 15 as unit as Bailey does in the second book. (Bailey's The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants and Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 may make their way in to this discussion.)
As I have read other books, I find Bailey in the footnotes. N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God and Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son are just a couple of examples. I believe that Bailey brings insights that should resonate strongly with anyone wrestling with being a Christian in a postmodern context. I won’t do his work justice so I strongly recommend you read his books, especially Jacob and the Prodigal. If nothing else, I hope to whet your appetite for his theological feast.