Jesus' three-in-one parable in Luke 15 is more than just a masterful remix of the shepherd imagery. It is a reframing of the story of Israel. We will look at what Kenneth Bailey has to say about this in the next post. First, a brief excursus into N. T. Wright’s analysis of this passage in Jesus and the Victory of God (125-131).
Wright’s thesis is that the story of the Compassionate Father is Jesus retelling of the story of Israel using the Exodus motif. The Jews have been in exile (the prodigal). The Samaritans are in the land and are resentful of the Jews (the older brother). God (the father) is bringing them together within one household. Wright catalogs several of Bailey’s observations about this parable and writes in footnote 15 on page 129, “Here as elsewhere the work of Bailey 1983 [1976, 1980] has been eyes to the blind.” (The book is Poet and Peasant/Through a Peasants Eyes.)
Concerning Wright’s thesis, Bailey writes in Jacob and the Prodigal:
I readily grant that exile and return is the main theme of the parable of the two lost sons. But any attempt at finding too close a parallel (or set of parallels) between the exodus, the exile and the parable creates problems for interpretation. Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt because of famine. They did not leave their homeland under a cloud of sin related to tensions and ambitions within the family, as did the prodigal and Jacob. They were not driven into exile by God because of their worship of idols.
Too close a tie between the parable and the details of the exodus further complicates the overall interpretation of the parable. Wright suggests that the older son (who opposes the prodigal’s acceptance at home) can be identified with Pharaoh (who tries to stop Israel from returning home.) But the older son did not try to stop the prodigal from leaving the far country as Pharaoh attempted to do with Israel. Such a part could easily have been played by the citizen in the far country who hired the prodigal to feed his pigs. That citizen could have come on stage and done his best to prevent the prodigal from starting home. Said citizen would understandably not want to lose a pig herder whom he does not have to pay, unlike Pharaoh the citizen does not oppose he prodigal’s return. In fact no one attempts to stop him.
Close comparisons with the exodus and the exile introduce other complications. Among them are the following.
(a) A difficulty emerges with the exile in Babylon, where the old brother, in Wright’s view, parallels the Samaritans. The Samaritans oppose the returning Jews. There is no group that welcomes the Jews back. In contrast, the older son quarrels with the father and his actions. The reader knows that the older son does not like his brother, but the older son’s anger is focused on the father’s welcome, not the fact of the prodigal’s return.
(b) Wright suggests that the prodigal is “brought back” like Israel out of Egypt. This is also problematic. Indeed, the tradition affirms that Israel was brought back by God, but there is no such hint in the account of the return of the prodigal. The prodigal is not brought back, or helped back from the far country, by his father or anyone else.
(c) The authenticity of the prodigal’s repentance in the far country is a further difficulty. Wright observes, “When, therefore, Israel comes to her senses, and returns with all her heart, there is an astonishing, prodigal, lavish welcome waiting for her.” This assumes that the phrase “he came to himself” (Lk 15:17), used to describe the prodigal in the far country, is authentic repentance as taught by Jesus. As I have argued at length in this study, if this be the case, then the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are false presentations of Jesus’ views. In both of these stories the key figure must work hard to find the lost. The lost do not come home of their own accord.
Does the third story (the parable of the prodigal son) contradict the other two parables that immediately precede it? Surely not. … (197-198)
Instead of the exodus and return as the central metaphor, Bailey believes Jesus is retelling he story of Jacob and Esau as sons of their father Israel. We will look at this more in the next post. Bailey writes:
Jubilees rewrote the saga of Jacob, as did Josephus. The rabbis commented on the fixed text. Philo chose to philosophize on it. Jesus writes a new story, but that new tale reuses, revises and reverses primary elements from the old. As regards “exile and return,” I would suggest the Wright is correct in observing that Jesus’ parable relates to that classical movement. Perhaps it is helpful to see four distinct journeys of exile and return, each with its own unique elements. These are:
- Out of fear Jacob goes into exile to Haran and returns to Succoth.
- Jacob’s family migrates to Egypt because of famine, and centuries later with God’s help, returns at the time of the exodus.
- Israel is driven by God into exile in Babylon, and part of the community returns under Cyprus.
- Jesus tells a new story about exile and return, and those around him hear this story as a unique addition to this series, an addition that is fashioned out of the saga of Jacob. They also understand this new story as containing a description of his own person and mission.
Naturally, the “unique addition” has a new twist. Wright correctly affirms, “The real return from exile … is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion in Jesus’ own ministry. (199)
So in what sense does Bailey see the story of the Compassionate Father in Luke 15 as a retelling of the story of Israel?