I really enjoy Kenneth Bailey's work and thought it would be interesting to excerpt some of his commentary on the parable of the Prodigal Son from his excellent book: Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15. His work has made a huge difference in my deeper understanding of the Middle East and its customs as they apply to Christ's teachings.
Kenneth E. Bailey:
This story badly needs to be rescued from familiarity and from its traditional cultural captivity. For centuries, we in the West have read the story in the light of our own cultural presuppositions, which have dulled its cutting edge.
I spent most of my childhood in Egypt, and from 1955 to 1995 our family
lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, where I taught New Testament in
seminaries and institutes. For all of my adult life, it has been my privilege to study the New Testament while living and teaching in the Middle East. Indeed, when I began to take seriously the traditional Middle Eastern culture of which Jesus was a part, the parable of “the father and his two lost sons” began to unfold for me in a new and exciting way.
In the light of that culture, available through early Jewish and Eastern Christian sources, answers can be found to the original challenge with which my pilgrimage began. In short–are the Incarnation and the Atonement a part of this crucial parable? Yes, they are. I will try to explain why.
This parable must be seen as the third part of a trilogy in Luke 15. The
Pharisees challenge Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (quotations taken from the NRSV unless otherwise noted).
The Babylonian Talmud makes clear that rabbis did not eat with the‘am-ha’arets (the people of the land) who did not keep the law in a precise fashion. Luke records, “So he told them [the Pharisees] this parable [singular].” What follows are the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons (the Prodigal Son). Thus we see that Luke understood them to be three parts of a single parable.
A shepherd pays a price to find and restore a lost sheep. The woman does the same
for her coin. In these two stories it is clear that Jesus is the good shepherd and he is the good woman.
Which raises a question about the third story: Is he also the good father? And does this third story parallel the first two stories by having the father pay a high price to find and restore his son(s)? To answer these questions, which point to the larger issue of atonement and incarnation, at least 14 aspects of the parable need to be rescued from their traditional interpretation.Continued...