Jacob & the Prodigal

???????????????????????????????????????????Kenneth Bailey’s book Jacob & the Prodigal overlaps with important sections of my own book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace. In using the thought of René Girard and his colleagues to explore ways of renewing Christian spirituality (see Violence and the Kingdom of God for an introduction to Girard), I comment at length on the stories of fratricidal strife in Genesis and Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. (The Parable is better titled something like “The Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.”

Wee both see Jesus’ Parable as seeking to resolve the strife between brothers although, like the story in Genesis, the Parable is left open, leaving the possibility of resolution open but not fulfilled in the text. Having grown up in the Near East, Bailey has much knowledge of Semitic culture that many of us in the West do not have. As a result, Bailey offers many important insights into the Parable and the earlier narrative that pass many of us by. For example, Bailey emphasizes the foolishness of the Father in the Parable in running to meet his son at the edge of the village. For a grown man to run for any reason was considered shameful and to run for such a purpose especially so. This is just one example among many of the new insights Bailey has to offer us. Bailey treats the Parable as the climax of a trilogy of parables in Luke 15 which begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep and continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. By studying the parables together, Bailey explores the Christology of the Parables where the shepherd, the woman searching for her coin and the father all become images of Jesus Himself as he reveals how overwhelming and unimaginable the Love of God is.

The final portion of the book is a comparison of the Parable with the Saga of Jacob and Esau. Many of the parallels are contrasts which are at least as illumining as the likenesses. In both cases we have two brothers in strife. Isaac, however, in his in ineptness in being tricked is a huge contrast to the father in the Parable. Another contrast is that Jacob does well in the foreign country while the Prodigal Son does not. Another likeness is that neither Jacob nor the Prodigal Son repent of wrongdoing. (Bailey explains at length that the Prodigal Son is only scheming to get set up in a craft to get enough money to live on; he is not repenting of asking his father for half the estate, brutal as that was to his father.) Bailey argues that Esau doesn’t really forgive Jacob as I argue in my take on the story. The number of armed men Esau brings could suggest an aggressive meeting but it could be a defense measure, not knowing how many armed men Jacob might have. Bailey argues that the vowels of the Hebrew word for “kiss: are the same as the vowels for “bite,” leaving open the possibility that Esau bit Jacob. I can’t argue the linguistic case but it seems to me that so aggressive an act would have led to a more violent reaction than we have. In any case, I see Jacob not believing in Esau’s forgiveness and rather than a reconciliation, the story ends in a permanent separation.

In the Parable, the two brothers are separate at the end, thus keeping up the conflict that I see between them dating back to before the younger brother leaves. In the Parable, however, the central separation is between each of the brothers and their father. The younger son does seem to have accepted his father’s welcome, although we don’t know if he persevered in his gratitude. The older son is at odds with his father as well as with his brother. The challenge is whether or not the older son will accept his father’s love for his younger son. In like manner, Bailey demonstrates that this challenge is thrown out to the scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with “sinners.”
Bailey’s book is a valuable source of new insights that deeply refresh our understanding of a Parable that we think we understand so well that we have let it go stale. Most important, Bailey’s study makes the Love of God revealed in Jesus “full of sap, still green.”

The Prodigal Father and His Sons


The famous parable traditionally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11–32) is the quintessential illustration of pre-emptory forgiveness, one that closes the case on Jesus’ teaching on vengeance and forgiveness. This parable is better called “The Parable of the Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.” The opening of the parable draws a triangle: “There was a man who had two sons.” We expect tension out of a triangle, and we get it right off the bat when the younger son asks for his share of the property. The father accedes to his son’s request (demand?) and the younger son goes off with the proceeds. The elder son stays at home with his share of the property, at least geographically. What kind of father would be so foolish? Why would a young man leave a father who would give him whatever he wanted? Was it to get away from his brother? The stories about paired brothers in Genesis predispose us to suspect that the two brothers are mirror images of each other.

The parable goes on to say that the younger son “squandered his property.” Literally, he “scattered his substance.” That is, the younger son, while trying to forge an individual selfhood separate from his father and brother, completely loses himself in dissolute living. Geographical distance has not freed him from continuing to be a mirror image of his older brother. Then comes a famine and the social crisis that comes with it. Chances are that the scarcity was magnified by created scarcity. In such a social crisis, there must be a victim. A foreigner is particularly vulnerable to being a victim in such a crisis. The younger son fit the bill perfectly. He was deserted by everybody, in spite of all the money he spent on his women and carousing friends. Nobody was willing to take him in. He ended up as a servant who feeds the pigs (an unclean animal for Jews) and “no one gave him anything.” In this desperate situation, the younger son recalled how well-fed his father’s servants were, and he “came to himself.” Perhaps it was embarrassment that made him want to return as a servant, but perhaps he also didn’t want to re-enter the triangle with his father and brother.

The father’s ecstatic reception of the lost son and subsequent celebration blows apart the family triangle, leaving no room for mimetic strife. In contrast to the mimetic process that organizes society around a dispensable victim, the indispensable victim who is no longer lost has been found. The elder son, however, wanted to preserve the old triangle. His sour attitude suggests that he still needs to have his younger brother live irresponsibly. The elder brother’s universe would collapse if his younger brother began to play a responsible role in family affairs. No wonder the younger son ran away from a brother like that!

When the older brother keeps his distance, the father runs out to him with the same solicitude he showed the returning younger son. The elder son’s disingenuous accusation of not being allowed to celebrate is shown up for what it is. Apparently, the elder son never thought to celebrate with his friends until his father threw a party for that son of his. What the elder son has done is put himself into competition with his younger brother, when there is no need for competition. This sort of mimetic rivalry creates a stumbling block in the way of forgiveness. It remains to be seen whether or not the younger brother will forgive the elder for his unforgiving attitude.

We are likely to judge the younger brother for his callous irresponsibility and the elder brother for his amazing insensitivity. But if we do that, we find ourselves ensnared in the mimetic struggle between the two brothers, comparing them and taking sides until our own capacity for love is obscured and our capacity for celebration fizzles. The Prodigal Father does neither. He does not upbraid the younger son for leaving; neither does he upbraid his elder son for being such an insufferable prig. He only invites both of them to the party. Most of us have a hard time even wanting to be a father like that!

The parable ends with this challenge of forgiveness and unconditional love: Do we rise to the challenge of the Prodigal Father and renounce our irresponsibility and self-righteousness?