The Parable of the Loving Father, or the Prodigal Son if you prefer the somewhat misleading traditional title, probably expresses the unconditional love of God more clearly than any other story that Jesus told. Here are two sons who both misunderstand that love: one fearing that his mis-deeds would cause his father not to love him and the other bemoaning the fact that his hard work and obedience haven’t made his father love him more.
I am totally amazed at the richness of meaning and at how so much could be compressed into so short a story. It reinforces to me the stunning quality of Jesus as storyteller, and also highlights his ability to speak to the heart of the immediate audience.
For all its insight, however, the impact of this story is reduced by its dependence on purely masculine imagery. The patriarchal language diverts today’s reader from what I take to be Jesus’ intent. That is not at all surprising given that he crafted the story for the ears of those in a culture far different from ours. If Jesus had delivered this story in English, in this century, then of course he would have told it differently.
Nevertheless, the linguistic stumbling blocks in this story of a father and two sons can create enough smoke that Jesus’ intended message is obscured. If God is like what we know of fathers and if this story implies that the important people in any story are surely male, then it is at odds with the way Jesus himself treated the people around him.
It seems to me that Jesus presented a view of relationships -- both between people and between people and God -- that was radical both then and now. Jesus was born in a patriarchal culture but frequently challenges the oppressive nature of patriarchy. As with the whole trajectory of the Bible, we see in the Gospels a God nudging us away from our violence, tribalism, blame and exclusion towards unconditional love, solidarity with the marginalised, forgiveness, and equality.
God is not male. For cultural and linguistic reasons the Bible typically does refer to God with masculine titles and pronouns. Many, though not all, images of God in the Bible are masculine. But almost everything that can be said about God is metaphoric. God is not a man, no more than God is a wind or a shepherd or a rock or bread.
In contrast to nature-based religions, Jesus treated God as a person: as someone with whom you could hold a dialog, someone with an independent existence and distinct personality. I take that to be non-metaphorical: I do not think of God as person-like, but as a real person. Not a human, but nevertheless a person. Not a vague presence or the sum of everything, or the force of love, but a moral agent who has knowledge, intentions, creativity and who can act with free will.
According to the Gospel writers, Jesus’ favourite way of addressing God was “father”. I take that to be metaphorical, and I take the father in this story to be the exemplar on which Jesus bases that metaphor. This parable is Jesus’ way of defining a new understanding of fatherhood, for the father in the story does not behave in the way the surrounding culture would have expected. [Kenneth Bailey explains that view in more detail in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 99.]
If Jesus intended to shock his audience with this redefinition of fatherhood, it should not surprise us to find it difficult to identify with the father. Whether male or female, we need to imagine something beyond our experience of human fathers if we are to understand God as Jesus does.
I cannot claim to speak for Jesus or to know his intention more than anyone else, but I do think it is important for any reader of the Bible to consider the historical context in order to understand the intended meanings rather than to interpret the translated words as though they were spoken in our times. It is unfair to the text to start with *our* understandings of fatherhood and interpret the story as though that was the understanding that Jesus intended. The story paints an idealised picture of a perfect father and it makes no sense to discount that portrayal by noting that our own experience of real fathers falls well short of that ideal.
I recognise, however, that women may find the story difficult to identify with, not because of the father figure but because they have no experience of being a son. Perhaps the whole process of individuation and separation from parents as expressed by the younger son is so different than the way daughters approach that process that the story just doesn’t apply. Is it essential to Jesus’ intention that the story depicts sons rather than daughters?
Many mothers may find it difficult to imagine allowing their daughter or son to leave in these circumstances. Perhaps they would be more likely to find another solution for their child, or to leave with them. But perhaps, just perhaps, another challenge implied by Jesus’ recasting of the role of parent is to understand a God who allows us to leave.
If the reader of this parable is hindered by an inability to identify with the characters, they could also ask about what Jesus intended by distinguishing between the younger and the elder sibling. Is it always the younger who goes astray? Of course not. But I’d hazard a guess and say that in both first-century Jewish culture and our own an elder sibling is expected to look out for the younger.
In the same way, it is unlikely that any of us have had the experience of our parents killing a fattened calf for us! You might even be a vegetarian. But that does not prevent us from appreciating the point Jesus is making about celebrating the return of something treasured that was lost.
It takes very little effort to replace father-talk with parent-talk, and doing so – at least I claim – makes virtually no difference to the story’s meaning.
“There was a married couple who had two children. The younger one said to the parents, ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ So the parents divided the property between their two children.” etc
An unfortunate side-effect of removing gender references, however, is that the grammar sounds odd to English ears and the story becomes flat, insipid, less vivid. “Sibling” and “parent” are such cold words. I cannot imagine any storyteller in Australia at any time of my life spinning a yarn about a family without giving the characters gender.
So rather than just de-genderise the story, I have tried to craft a more vivid retelling for modern Australian ears that, hopefully, still conveys the core of what Jesus expected his audience would hear.
Consider the audience to whom Jesus spoke and the social context of the telling. As Luke describes the situation, a group of social outcasts gather around Jesus and, because Jesus seems to enjoy their company, some religious leaders (I can just picture them lurking at the edge of the crowd) mutter to each other about it being impossible to take Jesus seriously when he hangs around with such low-lives.
Jesus tells three stories, all with a common thread that highlights the difference between the two groups who were listening. He says “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”. I hope you can hear his sarcasm! I can almost see him using his fingers to draw quotes around “sinner” and “righteous”. The crowd close by has a chuckle and the religious leaders on the margins scowl as Jesus looks their way. As often happens, Jesus has drawn the marginalised into the centre and, by marginalising those with more power, he turns their ire against himself.
His second story compares God to a woman, saying that both rejoice when they find something that was lost.
Then he tells a longer story about two siblings who were both lost. The close gathering of outcasts would have been in no doubt that the sibling whose return was celebrated was them. And the muttering religious leaders would have been in no doubt that the complaining elder sibling was them.
Enough rambling. I’d love to know how you respond to …