We have seen that the Parable of the Compassionate Father is directly related to the shepherding metaphors that precede it in Luke 15 and in the Old Testament. But the parable actually taps into much deeper images for the Jews of Jesus day. Bailey shows how four other men of Jesus era had used the story of Jacob found in Genesis 27-36:8, as a metaphor for Israel’s present exile and longing for restoration. With out using the direct referents, Jesus retold Israel’s story.
Bailey believes he has identified fifty-one elements common to the story of Jacob and Jesus Luke 15 parable. He divides these into three categories. A. Direct parallels. B. Similar elements with important modifications. C. Radical reversals. The last third of the book focuses on these fifty-one elements and what they mean. I am not going to be able to relate and justify each and every point that Bailey makes but I thought I would at least give you a sense of how Bailey sees the connections by quickly walking us through the Luke 15 parable with an eye to the saga of Jacob.
The Two Stories
Both stories raise the element of the father’s death. Jacob’s father Isaac believes he is about to die (although he lives on for many years) and calls his sons in to bless them and divide the inheritance. The wished for death of the prodigal’s father is implied by the sons request for a division of the inheritance while the father is still living. Both Jacob and the prodigal (youngest sons) receive their inheritance through dishonorable means. Jacob deceives his father and the prodigal insults his father. In doing so, they have broken the relationship with their father and must make a hasty departure to avoid the consequences. Both stories are stories about two brothers where the younger brother finds himself at odds with his older brother. However, Jacob expects to return one day and the prodigal has effectively burned all bridges. The two brothers in the Jacob story represent two clans; Jews and gentiles. The Luke 15 brothers represent the “law-breakers” and the “law-keepers.”
Bailey spends considerable time discussing the fathers in the two stories. The household of Isaac and Rebekah is clearly dysfunctional. Isaac is determined to bless Esau even though he has violated God’s instructions not to marry the local women. Rebekah is scheming and conniving behind Isaac’s back. Esau often seems clueless about what is expected of him. Jacob deceives his father. The great promise of Isaac and Rebekah at the start of their lives seems to dissipate until, after the blessing of the boys, we hear almost nothing of the patriarch and his wife except at their deaths. Isaac is distant, uninvolved, and absent from relationships.
At first it appears that there is no mother in Jesus’ parable. However, Bailey notes that the scene of the father running through the village to greet the son, among other aspects of this parable, is a feminine image. In essence, Jesus is casting the father in the story with both masculine and feminine traits, just as he characterized God with these trait in the two preceding parables about a good shepherd and a good woman. The father Jesus paints is the antithesis of the aloof and uncaring Isaac. The father has great compassion and goes to unthinkable lengths to restore the relationships with his sons.
The youngest son finds himself in a far off land while the older son stays home “off-stage.” Both younger sons become involved in dishonorable animal husbandry. Jacob deceives Laban as he tends to Laban’s sheep. The prodigal feeds unclean pigs. The contrast is that Jacob becomes a great success and the prodigal becomes a miserable failure. Still, because Jacob falls out of favor with Laban, he is left with little option but to return home. The prodigal also finds himself with no other option but to return home, though for different reasons. There is great fear and trepidation on the part of both Jacob and the prodigal as they return home, yet neither shows any remorse for what they have done.
Upon return, both Jacob and the prodigal make bodily contact with God. Jacob wrestles with the angel of God and overcomes him. God blesses him for his determination. The prodigal is embraced by God, symbolized by the father, and it is the prodigal who is overcome by the boundless grace of the father. Bailey also notes that there are only two places in all of scripture where there is a description of “run, fall on the neck and kiss.” They are Esau’s embrace of Jacob and the father’s embrace of prodigal.
Jacob and the prodigal both devise schemes to try to placate family upon return, complete with manipulative speeches. Jacob successfully gets his brother to depart but the prodigal abandons attempts at manipulation in the face of the father’s compassion. Both Esau and the prodigal’s father “run out” to meet them; Esau with a small army and the father with his servants. However, it is implied that Esau is motivated by malice and the father by love.
Both Jacob and the prodigal receive a kiss from their father. Jacob’s is received at the point of deception, while the prodigal receives multiple kisses at the point of return. Jacob brings gifts to appease Esau but the prodigal’s father lavishes gifts on the prodigal as a celebration of his return. Jacob’s mother had stolen Esau’s best robe and placed it on him as act of deception to get the inheritance but the prodigal receives his father’s robe as symbol of the father’s acceptance. Furthermore, the hero is Jacob in the Old Testament story but it is the father in Jesus’ parable.
Finally, in both stories, the older son represents the dutiful law-keeper while the younger son represents the rebellious law-breaker. It was what happens to these two sons that Jesus contrasts so magnificently. There is not self-sacrificing love between any of the three main characters in the Jacob story. Jacob is held up as pinnacle of determination. Jacob never seems to repent of anything but he works hard and, with God’s help, prospers. The prodigal hatches a plan that is based on him working hard and, with the hoped for forbearance of his father, a return to prosperity. The startling element that Jesus brings into the story is the costly love of the father and the way it brings the prodigal to repentance.