Alternative Readings of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the cornerstones of Western Christianity, a classic story known by millions, helping us to appreciate the truth about God’s grace.

There really couldn’t be a better passage to use to illustrate how diverse interpretations of the Bible can be. To start with, I’ll paraphrase two vastly different readings of the story.

Interpretation #1 – A tale of two sons

Timothy Keller’s popular book, The Prodigal God, lays out this classic interpretation in a way that is engaging and profound.

A wealthy father’s youngest son asks for his inheritance, essentially wishing the father dead, and leaves his home. Out in the world, he squanders his money on sex, drugs and alcohol. Having run out of money in this way, he gets a job working with pigs (a ceremonially unclean animal in Jewish law), and is so hungry that he longs to eat the pigs’ food.

Eventually, he realises that it would be better to work at his father’s house as a hired hand than to stay with the pigs, so he returns, rehearsing his speech of apology. But as soon as he comes in sight of his homestead, his father sees him, and runs out to meet him (a very undignified action for a man of his status). The father waves away the prodigal son’s apology, clothes him in fine robes, and orders a fattened calf to be slain for a celebratory feast. On the periphery of things, the eldest son looks on in jealousy.

In this interpretation, the father is God, the son represents someone who has fallen away from God through sin, and then returns, receiving the unconditional forgiveness of the father. The eldest son is commonly taken to refer to ‘Pharisees’ – religious people (including modern day Christians) who haven’t grasped the powerful, undeserved nature of God’s grace.

Interpretation #2 – A failed revolutionary

Now let’s turn to an alternative reading that turns this parable upside down. I first read about it in Peter Rollins’ The Divine Magician, and found it fascinating. I’ll do my best to paraphrase it here.

A wealthy father’s youngest son grows tired of living in luxury while the outside world seems full of adventure. So, he takes his inheritance early and goes out with the intention of making a difference in the world, or at least his own life. However, he becomes distracted, and after wasting his money, he is placed in a position of deep financial need.

The son knows that he would be more comfortable returning to his father’s estate, but he is reluctant. He doesn’t want to return to his old ways of wealth and luxury, so he decides to return as a hired hand, working for a living. He returns home, but as he meets the father (who, as Rollins notes, has not gone out looking for him as the apparent parallel figure does in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin), the father doesn’t want to hear any of his sons strange new ideas about working for a living, and shuts down his apology, accepting him back into the fold in such a way that everything returns to the state that it was before the son left.

The son had the opportunity to leave and return with a transformative message that might have challenged and changed his family, but he failed and his thoughts of revolution were squashed.

Evaluating the interpretations

Interpretation 1 is the more familiar of the two interpretations for most people who have heard the story. It fits into the wider framework of orthodoxy in the majority of the Western Church as a whole, and supports ideas of a loving God, and the possibility of redemption for everyone, no matter what they have done. I think this interpretation makes it a pretty beautiful story, one that describes a lot of the Christian experience and works well as a pattern that still applies today.

Interpretation 2 is more jarring. It surprises you as you read it, and many of you probably had an instinctive reaction to it where you knew it didn’t sit right. That’s because it doesn’t sit well in the same traditions that the first interpretation sits in. While I would argue that the two interpretations are not completely opposed in their messages, the second interpretation is working from a completely different system of understanding the gospels to the first.

An objection to this interpretation could be that it doesn’t sit with the wider themes of the gospels, but, having read some of Rollins’ work, I would push back and say that it actually fits rather well with the themes that he finds in the gospels, and it is the first interpretation that now looks out of place.

For the record, I do find the first interpretation more compelling, but I’m willing to say that a part of that is because it’s the way that I have been taught all my life, and it fits more neatly with my pre-existing view of Christianity. I do have to ask whether my acceptance of an interpretation like the first is truly an act that allows the Bible to change me, or whether it’s an example of me reading the Bible through my fixed ideas of what the Bible is going to say.

Avoiding polarisation

My intention with presenting two alternative readings of the parable was not to show that one is right and the other is wrong. The way that we talk about the Bible and issues of faith so often leads to a polarisation that prevents us from seeing the merit in both alternatives, and I happen to think that there is a lot of good in both interpretations above.

While I would argue that the first interpretation describes what’s going on more completely in the context of the wider themes of the gospels and the Bible, I think the second interpretation foregrounds a lot of good ideas. The idea of the revolutionary Jesus is a compelling one, and it allows us to consider issues like social justice and practical compassion in a way that the first interpretation doesn’t really touch upon.

Respecting the text

You may be wondering how two apparently contrasting interpretations of one text could both have value. The way that we many of us read the Bible in the West, as a text with a set meaning that we will discover or God will reveal to us, does not really allow for different interpretations to be valued together. Because of our fear of postmodernism, the idea of multiple truths sets off warning sirens in our minds.

However, one of the great advantages of postmodernism is the value that it gives to individual readers and the meaning that they give to texts as they read them. I believe that interpreting the Bible in conjunction with a living God, who is speaking today, requires some admission that the things that we see as important in the text are going to change pretty much every time we come to it, and with every person that comes to it. That’s why I think it’s so good to read the Bible with other people – you will see significance and meaning that you never would have on your own.

What I have tried to show with these interpretations is that there is more meaning in the Bible than our single ‘correct’ interpretations allow us to acknowledge, but that there is incredible value in finding multiple meanings and understanding the contexts in which they work. And thinking like this just might help us to lose some of our assumptions when approaching these texts, and make it a bit easier for God to speak to us through them.

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