The Cross and the Prodigal:
Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants by Kenneth Bailey
This is a book summary of The Cross and the Prodigal written by Kenneth Bailey. This is one of most engaging, interesting and inspiring exegesis of Luke 15 that I have ever heard or read. We first heard Kenneth Bailey speak at our church in Florida. At that moment I knew I tapped into a source of understanding the gospels as never before. This summary will be mostly quotes from the book. I don’t have much to add. Get the book – there is a lot more background then there is here.
This little book looks at the three parables in Luke 15. The Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sons. It spends the most time on the famous prodigal son parable. Kenneth starts us off with the following:
Across the centuries since the rise of Islam, Muslim voices have echoed the cry “Christians have perverted the message of Jesus” and pointed to the famous parable of the prodigal son as evidence.
One of the following arguments is used to support this:
There is no cross and no incarnation, no “son of God” and no “savior,” no “word that becomes flesh” and no “way of salvation,” no death and no resurrection, no mediator and no mediation. The son needs no help to return home. The result is obvious. Jesus is a good Muslim who in this parable affirms Muslim theology.
He then asks the following:
… how is it that both the incarnation (God comes to us in Jesus) and the atonement (the cross is a saving power) appear to be missing?
This Bailey does masterfully. Starting with how we read parables and how we need to listen to them with the ears of 1st century Middle Eastern peasants, he tells us the following about Parables:
What lies between the lines, what is felt and not spoken, is of deepest significance. Indeed, it almost cannot be expressed because it is not consciously apprehended. What “everybody knows” is never explained.
We start with the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes and Bailey shows how the next three parables all are Jesus’ answer to this complaint:
Luke 15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them (ESV).”
Then he dives right into the first parable:
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them,
His first observation is:
This verse (Luke 15:4) is a startling response to the complaint of the Pharisees. The Pharisees began as a lay movement, and they were expected to work for a living in some secular profession. One could not accept money for teaching the law. Thus Paul was a tentmaker and Jesus a carpenter, and thereby addressing Pharisees as “working men” was not a problem. But shepherds were considered unclean by the rabbis,” who referred to such people as “people of the land and avoided them. Clearly Jesus did not consider shepherding an unclean profession.”
Pharisees no doubt expected Jesus to say something like this: “Which of you, owning a hundred sheep, if you received a report that one was lost, would not send a servant to the shepherd responsible and threaten him with dismissal if he didn’t find the sheep?”
Then also the story Jesus tells is best understood as a reshaping of Psalm 23, with himself at its center. This possibility turns this first parable into an amazing introduction to this trilogy of three stories. Jesus claims to be the divine presence among the people searching for the lost and thus fulfilling the promises of Psalm 23,
Old Testament Parallels to this Parable
He also believes that Jesus is drawing upon Jeremiah 23:1-8 (ESV)
23 “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. 3 Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.
5 “Behold, the days are coming, declares 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 dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’
7 “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 8 but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”
and Ezekiel 34:1-31.
34 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? …
Notice Luke 15:4 “If he has lost one of them.” No self respecting middle easterner would say that. Arabic translations in the past have turned this into a passive to read “If one of them is lost,”… at both ends of the Mediterranean the speaker never blames himself.
Jesus broke the common speech patterns of the day by placing responsibility on the shepherd, saying “If he has lost one of them.” This departure from traditional idiom is important. Jesus is saying to his audience, “You lost your sheep. I went after it and brought it home. Now you have the gall to come to me complaining! Don’t you realize that I am making up for your mistakes?”
(Vs 4) does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?
Parable Addresses an Age-Old Problem
Bailey addresses the difficult question: What matters more: Should we put the group at risk to rescue one member of the group?
Christian missionaries have debated this point with communist dialecticians in China. Does the lost individual matter or are “the people” alone important? Indeed, it is the shepherd’s willingness to go after the one that gives the ninety-nine their real security. If the one is sacrificed in the name of the larger good of the group, then each individual in the group is insecure, knowing that he or she too is of little value. If lost, he or she will be left to die. When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many.
5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
Bailey notes that the shepherd had to carry the sheep back over very, very difficult terrain. He also points out that:
When the lost is found, the task of restoration has barely begun. This theme disappears in the second story only to reappear with all of its glorious fullness in the third story. It is a crucial theme within which lies the cross.
In all of these early Eastern artistic presentations of the Good Shepherd, the price paid is emphasized by the extraordinary size of the sheep. Clearly Christ’s passion is foreshadowed in this text and in these representations of it.
The Pharisees, as religious leaders, were indeed the “shepherds of Israel.” Thus it is easy to see that in this parable Jesus is holding them responsible for any “sheep” (read: person) that is lost from the community. In the parable the shepherd does four things:
• Accepts responsibility for the loss.
• Searches without counting the cost.
• Rejoices in the burden of restoration.
• Rejoices with the community at the success of restoration.
Jesus here sets a high standard for the church in any age.
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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.
Jesus’ subtle humor is evident in this verse. The “righteous” who “need no repentance” do not exist. Naturally, heaven’s joy over them will be minimal. As the parable concludes, the ninety-nine sheep are still in the wilderness!
But more important is the fact that the lost sheep is clearly symbolic of a repentant sinner. This comes as a complete surprise. How can this sheep represent “repentance”? Quite simple, Jesus is defining repentance as “acceptance of being found.” The sheep is discovered to be missing. The shepherd pays the price to search for, find and restore the lost sheep.
Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then Jesus is also the Good Woman. Clearly this is what he intends his listeners to conclude.
Who was responsible for losing the sheep? … the peasant woman can blame no one but herself. All through her search she mutters repeatedly, How stupid of me! Why didn’t I secure the coin on its chain more firmly? Or as I prefer, Why didn’t I tie my cloth more tightly? Her remorse and desperation stem from this sense of undeniable responsibility, and her joy, like the shepherd’s, cries out to be shared.… the peasant woman can blame no one but herself.
Starting to tie the 3 parables to one pointed message for the Pharisees and scribes, Bailey observes that the shepherd had a party for men while the woman had a party for women.
In the first story the lost is one in a hundred. In the second story it is one in ten, and in the parable of the prodigal son it is one in two.
The second progression is in regard to the availability of the place where the lost article can be found. The lost sheep is in the wide wilderness; the coin is confined to the house. But the sons are lost as they fall out of the circle of a father’s love.
The Three Parables
Bailey provides this helpful summary:
|Actors in the Drama||The Lost Sheep||The Lost Coin||The Lost Son|
|Jesus||the shepherd||the woman||the father|
|irreligious sinners||lost sheep||lost coin||the prodigal|
|Pharisees||ninety-nine||the nine||the older son|
Parable of the Lost Sons
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’
The request itself is a form of mutiny. The prodigal is impatient for his father to die. Theologically, Jesus is affirming that humankind in their rebellion against God really want him dead!
In the villages when I come to this point in a sermon on this text, I always ask, “Who must be the reconciler?” The villagers always answer from their pews, “His brother, of course.” Everybody knows this. Furthermore, he must start immediately. It is up to him to step in at once and try to reconcile his brother to his father.
And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
First century Jewish custom dictated that if a Jewish boy lost the family inheritance among the Gentiles and dared to return home, the community would break a large pot in front of him and cry out “so-in-so is cut off from his people.” This ceremony was called the Kezazah (literally “the cutting off”). After it was performed, the community would have nothing to do with the wayward person
14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’
True Repentance or Not?
“Father, I have sinned before heaven and your sight.” Jesus was addressing a scholarly audience. This sentence is a paraphrase from the mouth of Pharaoh when he addressed Moses after the first nine plagues.
The language of the Aramaic version of this text is even closer to Luke 15:18 than the Hebrew [ in the account with Moses]. Everyone knows that Pharaoh was not sincerely repenting.
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
Things didn’t work out the way the son anticipated. What did happen was radically unorthodox from every perspective.
As the prodigal returned to the village he expected his father to remain aloof in the house while he made his way through the village. To say the least, he would be “subdued” in the process by the crowd in the street. As soon as they discovered that the money had been lost among the Gentiles the Kezazah ceremony would be enacted. The son would then be obliged to sit for some time outside the gate of the family home before being allowed to even see his father. Finally he would be summoned. With the boy already rejected by the village, the father would be very angry, and the boy would be obliged to apologize for everything as he pleaded for job training in the next village.
Thanks to Bailey, most of us have heard how radical the father’s response was.
The father, in his house, clearly represents God. The best understanding of the text is to see that when the father leaves the house and takes upon himself a humiliating posture on the road, he becomes a symbol of God incarnate. He does not wait for the prodigal to come to him but rather at great cost goes down and out to find and resurrect tthe one who is lost and dead. These actions (seen in a Middle Eastern context) clearly affirm one of the deepest levels of the meaning of both the incarnation and the atonement.
Islam claims that in this story the boy is saved without a savior. The prodigal returns. The father forgives him. There is no cross, no suffering and no savior. But not so. The incarnation and the atonement are dramatically present in the story and form its first climax. The suffering of the cross was not primarily the physical torture but rather the agony of rejected love. In this parable the father endures such agony all through the estrangement.
Next, Bailey addresses the question: Did the prodigal repent?
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Notice that the son doesn’t finish his prepared speech.
Traditional Western interpretation has said that the father interrupted the son and didn’t give him a chance to finish his speech. Rather, faced with this incredible event he is flooded with the awareness that his real sin is not the lost money but rather the wounded heart. The reality and enormity of his sin and the resulting intensity of his father’s suffering overwhelm him. In a flash of awareness he now knows that there is nothing he can do to make up for what he has done. His proposed offer to work as a servant now seems blasphemous. He is not interrupted. He changes his mind and accepts being found. In this manner he fulfills the definition of repentance that Jesus sets forth in the parable of the lost sheep. Like the lost sheep, the prodigal now accepts to be found.
Restoration of Fellowship
22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The “best robe” is naturally the father’s finest robe. In the story of Esther, Haman is asked what he thinks the king should do for the man the king wishes to honor. His first suggestion is to have him dressed in royal robes the king has worn (Esther 6:1-9). The prodigal will attend the banquet attired in his father’s most elegant robe. The guests that night will recognize the robe and treat him in a respectful manner because of the clothes he is wearing. They will understand that he has been fully restored to sonship.
The signet ring and the shoes are symbols of sonship according to Bailey. A fully restored son.
The Elder Son
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
Bailey notes that a son never works the field but is an overseer. Bailey notes that it would be normal for him to go immediately in – but “he stands aloof.”
26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
Bailey says that the proper translation here is not servants but young boys who would not be allowed in the feast but would gather outside. The servants would all be hard at work on the banquet.
27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’
Bailey notes with great insight that sitting down to eat with sinners is exactly the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the chapter. That is what the Father is doing.
The young boy does not say, “Your brother has returned.” “Return” is a big word in the Bible. … Indeed in Hebrew the word “return” and the word “repent” are the same word (shub). Here in the parable the young boy tells the older son, “Your brother has hēkei.” In Greek hēko can mean “has arrived”; it can also mean “is here.” There is no hint of the prodigal having made a journey of repentance and return. Rather, he has simply appeared and only then did things start to happen.
If the older son had been told “your father has received your brother safe and sound ” (as in the RSV and NIV), the older son would have rushed at once into the banquet because such a report would have meant that the father had not yet decided what to do with the prodigal. The older son would naturally want to be present to insist, “Make the irresponsible fool get a job and return the money before you let him in the door!” But if the father has already received the prodigal “with peace” then the two of them are reconciled—and the older son’s point of view has already lost.
28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
At such a banquet the father sits with the guests. The older son often stands and serves the meal as a “head waiter.” The important difference between him and the other servants is that he joins in conversation with the seated company. By stationing the older son as a kind of hovering head waiter, the family is in effect saying, “You, our guests, are so great that our son is your servant.” But can he bring himself to serve his brother?
He refuses to enter the banquet hall where the guests have already arrived. In any social situation, banquet or no banquet, the male members of the family must come and shake hands with the guests even if they don’t stay and visit. They cannot stay aloof if they are anywhere in the vicinity of the house. Failure to fulfill this courtesy is a personal insult to the guests and to the father, as host. The older son knows this and thereby his action is an intentional public insult to his father.
Because it is in public, this rebellion of the older son is more serious than the earlier rebellion of the prodigal.
For the second time in the same day the father’s response is incredible. Once again he demonstrates a willingness to endure shame and self-emptying love in order to reconcile. The parable briefly and succinctly states, “His father came out and entreated him.” It is almost impossible to convey the shock that must have reverberated through the banquet hall when the father deliberately left his guests, humiliated himself before all, and went out in the courtyard to try to reconcile his older son.
The father’s agony of rejected love is more keenly felt with the older son because of the son’s public insult. Earlier in the day the father paid the price of self- emptying love in order to reconcile the prodigal to himself. Now he must pay the same price to try to win the older son.
29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
The Elder Son’s Sin
The elder son refuses to participate in reconciling his brother to the village because he:
• Rebels against his father. In this speech he insults his father for the second time in one evening by omitting any title. The phrase “O father” is an essential sign of respect.
• Has broken a relationship, not a law.
• Accuses his father of favoritism
• Reads himself out of the family.
• Refuses partnership with his father.
• Despises his brother.
• Catches himself in an unsuspected trap. He says that the younger brother devoured “your living with harlots.” Thereby he refuses to acknowledge that the portion given by the father to the son was really the prodigal’s to do with as he pleased.
• Understands his relationship to his father as that of a servant before his master.
• Needs to be forgiven by his father and his brother.
• Falsifies the meaning of the banquet. The young boy tells him that the banquet is in celebration of the father’s success in creating shalom. The older son cries out, “you killed for him the fatted calf.” The banquet is in honor of the father not the brother. The older son does not allow himself to understand this.
• Is consumed with envy, pride, bitterness, sarcasm, anger, resentment, self-centeredness, hate, stinginess, self-satisfaction and self-deception. Yet he appears to see his actions as a righteous search for honor.
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
If the father is an oriental patriarch, he will cry out, “Enough! Lock him up! I will deal with him later!” By contrast, this father bypasses the omission of a title and overlooks the bitterness, the arrogance, the distortion of fact and the accusation of favoritism. There is no judgment, no criticism and no rejection. He opens his reply with teknon, which is not the ordinary word for “son” (huios). Huios is used for son in verses 11, 13, 19, 21, 24, 25 and 30. The new word (teknon) introduced here is a special word for “son” indicating love and affection.
The parable of the prodigal son is unfinished. Jesus leaves the account in midair. The entire trilogy moves to its poignant climax in the courtyard. Inside the banquet hall tense guests wait to see if the son will give up his rebellion and enter the house in humility. But the ending is missing. Clearly it is omitted on purpose. Jesus’ reason for this omission is obvious in that he is addressing the group of religious sinners who stand in opposition to his message. There is still a chance for them to be reconciled to the Father, present among them in Jesus’ person. In hardness of heart they can also reject his love and increase his suffering. … Is not the end of the story the cross ⁵? But another option is still open.
Jesus is telling them, “This is my explanation of why I sit and eat with sinners. What now are you going to do with me?” Each reader or listener is pressed to ponder the same question.
The Parable of the Two Lost Sons—the Theological Cluster
Sin. The parable exhibits two types of sin. One is the sin of the law-breaker and the other the sin of the law-keeper.
Freedom. God grants ultimate freedom to humankind, which is the freedom to reject his love.
Repentance. Two types of repentance are dramatically illustrated: (1) earn your acceptance as a servant/craftsman, (2) accept the costly gift of being found as a son/daughter.
Grace. Grace is a freely offered love that seeks and suffers in order to save.
Joy. For the father, joy is in finding. For the son, joy is in being found and re- stored to community.
Fatherhood. The image of God as a compassionate father is here given its finest definition in all of Scripture.
Sonship. Each son returns to the father either defining (the older son) or in- tending to define (the prodigal) his relationship to the father as that of a servant before a master. The father will not accept this definition.
Christology. Twice the father takes upon himself the form of a suffering servant who in each case offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love.
Family/community. The father offers costly love to his sons in order to restore them to fellowship in the context of a family or community. The family is Jesus’ metaphor for the church.
Incarnation and atonement. The father empties himself and goes down and out to meet the sons where they are (incarnation). In the process he demonstrates costly redeeming love (atonement).
Eucharist. As he partakes in the banquet the prodigal is sitting and eating with the father who through self-giving love won the prodigal into fellowship with him- self. Thus the heart of the Eucharist is clearly affirmed.
The book concludes with a play that Bailey wrote about this parable.