The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

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by Tim Widowfield

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s post from last year — “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?” — got me thinking about a story told by David Livermore in his course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. He tells of a New Testament scholar and minister who performed a small experiment in which he asked people of different cultures to tell him the parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterward, he compared the points of story to what people remembered, noting what they tended to remember as well as what they left out.

His results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that our cultural background, social context, and personal history can have a large impact on what we consider important. Without realizing it, our frame of reference profoundly distorts how we understand and recall information.

How did the Prodigal Son end up in a pigpen?

Although Livermore and others have used this anecdote (you can find many references on the web), I found it rather difficult to track down the original scholarship. Sadly, the book in which the paper first appeared, Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, is far too expensive for me; however, you can see bits of it in the Google Books preview. Fortunately, the author, Mark Allen Powell, recapitulates much of his paper in the book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.

Powell, a narrative critic, frequently uses the term polyvalence, which for him has a specific meaning:

Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns. (Powell, 2007, p. 12)

I would add that the situation might even be worse for those of us who were steeped in a particular tradition since childhood. Not only have I been hearing New Testament stories for over five decades, but I’ve been told what they mean, again and again. I even know them by titles that drive the reader or hearer to understand them from an orthodox point of view. For example, I knew the parable of the Prodigal Son long before I knew what the word “prodigal” even meant.

As I said earlier, Powell asked a number students to pair off, then read, and finally describe the parable to their partners. He then noted the details they emphasized or omitted. (The exercise comes from Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie’s Mark as Story.) Oddly enough, they all left out the part about the famine that struck right when the young man’s money ran out. Powell notes:

On that day, twelve seminary students read the text carefully, then recounted it from memory to twelve partners. Not one of them mentioned the famine to which Jesus refers in 15:14. They all retold the story in ways that went something like this: “The younger son asked his father for his share of the inheritance and he went off to a far country—but when he got there, he squandered all the money and pretty soon he was broke—so he got a job feeding pigs and was so hungry that he wished he could eat the pig food—then he realized …

The story in Luke’s Gospel actually says that after the boy squandered his money, “a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need” (15:14), but that must have seemed like such an extraneous detail that it simply dropped out of the memory banks for all twelve of my students that day. (Powell, 2007, p. 20, emphasis and reformatting mine)

Curious, he decided to investigate further. He expanded his test to 100 subjects, of whom only six recalled the detail of the famine. Among “famine-forgetters,” the respondents’ race, age, gender, or religious affiliation appeared to make no difference. The one thing they did have in common (all 100, in fact) was the fact that they were from the United States. Powell wondered what would happen if he asked people in another country to do the same exercise.

The next logical step, then, was to survey non-American readers, and I had the opportunity to do this when I spent a portion of 2001 on sabbatical in Eastern Europe. There, I polled diverse respondents in the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. I was only able to access a sample one-half the size of that in America (fifty total respondents as opposed to one hundred) but a shocking forty-two of these specifically mentioned the famine when they re-told the story that they had just been asked to read.

Again, the likelihood of such recall could not be linked statistically to any specific factor(s) of social location within the St. Petersburg sample. The only factor that emerged as relevant in this survey was the geographical one: only six out of one hundred Americans remembered the famine, compared to forty-two out of fifty Russians. (Powell, 2007, p. 21, emphasis and reformatting mine)

Who remembers famine?

For much of the twentieth century the British memory of war was that of the Great War — especially the trenches in the French countryside. “War” conjured up images of the stalemate on the Western Front, of artillery barrages that lasted for days, of gassed soldiers following one another in line, one hand on the shoulder in front of him. That nightmare vision stuck in the British psyche.

But famine — who can remember famine? Sure, we citizens of the world’s English-speaking nations can recall reading about crop failures in Ireland, but that was a long time ago. We’ve read about Stalin’s policies in the Ukraine that led to starvation and death. However, the word “famine” does not stir up cultural memories of shared horrors the way “war” does.

Things are different in the former Soviet Union. People have a vision of “famine” in Russia that rivals the nightmare of “war” in the minds of Britons. I can imagine both memories as a vast canvas painted by Pieter Bruegel.

The Triumph of Death
The Triumph of Death — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Powell writes:

In 1941, the German army laid siege to the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and subjected its inhabitants to what was in effect a 900-day famine. During that time, 670,000 people died of starvation and exposure—about one fourth, of the total population. Some of the current inhabitants of the city are survivors of that horror; more are descendants of survivors. (Powell, 2007, p. 21)

People don’t forget a famine that kills a quarter of their city’s inhabitants. I would suspect ancient people who lived through droughts, famines, wars, and plagues had similar mindsets. They didn’t have to imagine what these things were like. And I would further suspect that they, like the Russians Powell talked to, would focus less on the younger son’s profligate spending than the famine that came afterward.

To be sure, the parable talks about both — the boy spent all his money, and then a famine struck the land. However, depending on your culture, you will probably remember one element and forget the other.

[Most] Russian readers made no mention of the boy squandering his property when they recounted this story. In fact, only seventeen of the fifty made mention of this point, which had been remembered by all of the Americans.

To put that in percentages:

100% mention squandering
6% mention famine
34% mention squandering
84% mention famine

(Powell, p. 21, reformatting mine)

The more you think about it, the more important this small detail becomes. Not only has the boy fallen into poverty, but now he’s living in a strange land where crops have failed, and people are going hungry. How is it that so many Americans forget the famine? Suspecting that perhaps non-scholars, your typical parishioner in the pew, might simply be skimming over an important detail, Powell studied every commentary on Luke he could get his hands on.

The most obvious lesson I draw from this survey is that scholars who are conducting line-by-line close readings of the text have often attributed no more significance to the mention of the famine than American readers who forget that such a mention is even made. For thirty-seven of the fifty-five scholars surveyed, the famine has no impact whatsoever on their interpretation of the text [about two-thirds]; it either is not mentioned at all, or is just barely mentioned, without comment. Among the eighteen who do take the reference into account, most seem to regard the narrative role of the famine as being to intensify a situation that in any case would have been dire. Thus, Western commentaries, like American readers, tend to regard the famine as an almost superfluous detail or, more than half the time, as a completely superfluous detail. (Powell, 2004, p. 273)

What was the prodigal son’s “original sin”?

Americans blame the younger son for squandering his money. By ignoring that fact and focusing on the famine, were the Russians implying that he was simply a victim of circumstance? Powell asked them:

“Aren’t we supposed to think that the boy did something wrong?” Of course, they told me. But the boy’s mistake was not how he spent his money—or how he lost it. His mistake was leaving his father’s house in the first place. His sin was placing a price tag on the value of his family, thinking that money was all he needed from them. . .

This boy’s sin was that he wanted to make it in the world on his own. He trusted in his finances and in his own sense of rugged individualism, and he figured that would be enough to get by. And, who knows, he might have made it if not for the famine. But that’s what happens, Jesus says. Famines do come—and in a world where there are famines (and factory closings and automobile accidents and medical emergencies), only a fool would want to be alone. (Powell,  2007, p. 23, emphasis mine)

Original readers of this story likely would have agreed. His primary sin was asking for his share before his father died and leaving his family. I would consider this point of view normal for agrarian societies with high infant mortality rates and frequent deaths from childhood disease. Ancient peasant societies valued family solidarity, and would be alarmed at the story of a son who asked or his inheritance from his living father. If, for example, the younger son left with his share (portable wealth?), does that mean his father’s lands were divided with the prodigal’s portion sold off?

Nobody helped him

I’ll mention one more point before I close. In David Livermore’s course, which I mentioned above, he talks about living and working among people who value interaction and charity in society. When they described the story, they all mentioned the fact that nobody helped the prodigal son.

And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:16, ESV)

They found this fact outrageous. In their culture, if you didn’t help someone in need, you would be contributing to the breakdown of society as a whole. Only a fool thinks he can make it in life on his own. And only an antisocial monster refuses to help his neighbor. If we all acted like that, they reasoned, society would collapse!

How different things are in my country, where we all pretend to be rugged individualists, and where we routinely talk about cutting aid to hungry people, because it will teach them the lesson of self-sufficiency. I think such fantasies only persist because we live in a land of plenty. The people in other countries who are able to read the Prodigal Son, and actually notice and remember the famine, as well as his fickle friends and indifferent neighbors, could no doubt teach us some things about Christianity.

Powell, Mark Allen

“The Forgotten Famine: Personal Responsibility in Luke’s Parable of “the Prodigal Son,” in Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, (pp. 265-287), T&T Clark International, 2004

What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew, Abingdon Press, 2007


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament”

  1. If readers focus on information based on their cultural presuppositions, maybe writers do the same thing. Maybe the writers of the New Testament created their reports about Jesus with those first century Jewish cultural biases, so who Jesus was, apart from those biases, is forever lost.

  2. Another reason why the Criterion of Embarrassment fails. What is embarrassing to some (or us), can be perfectly acceptable for others (in space and time).

    1. The presence of John the Baptist in the gospels is a good example of this. Liberal scholars usually say the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist was real, because the gospel writers would have found it embarrassing (but included it anyway because it really happened). The later gospel writers were clearly uncomfortable with John Baptising Jesus. However, as you said, this doesn’t mean Mark found the baptising episode embarrassing. It is perfectly reasonable to believe Mark thought he was composing a beautiful piece of intertextual theological literature when he was composing the “Jesus baptism by John the Baptist” pericope. Consider the following intertextuality that Mark weaves into his narrative about John The Baptist:

      The way for Jesus was prepared for Jesus by John the Baptist, a purely literary figure in the bible (whether or not there was an historical John the Baptist). The character of John the Baptist was created by the gospel writers as a hagaddic midrash on Malachi 4:5-6, and Isaiah 40:3-4. Building on this foundation of the midrash and intertextuality of John the Baptist, Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; AS IT IS WRITTEN IN THE PROPHETS.” Mark then immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wildernes in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). John’s character is haggadic midrash through an through.

      Following this, as Price says, Jesus’ baptism by John is midrashic all the way down: The heavenly voice (bath qol) speaks a conflation of three scriptural passages. “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) combines bits and pieces of Psalm 2:7, the divine coronation decree, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you;” Isaiah 42:1, the blessing on the returning Exiles, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;” and Genesis 22:12 (LXX), where the heavenly voices bids Abraham to sacrifice his “beloved son.” And as William R. Stegner points out, Mark may have in mind a Targumic tradition whereby Isaac, bound on the altar, looks up into heaven and sees the heavens opened with angels and the Shekinah of God, a voice proclaiming, “Behold, two chosen ones, etc.” There is even the note that the willingness of Isaac to be slain may serve to atone for Israel’s sins. Here is abundant symbolism making Jesus king, servant, and atoning sacrifice. In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

      And, as Price further points out about the intertextuality of John the Baptist, Usually scholars allow some core of historical reporting to underlie the story of the Baptizer’s death (though any reading of Mark must be harmonized with some difficulty with Josephus), recognizing just a bit of biblical embellishment to the narrative. For instance, it is apparent to all that Herod Antipas’ words to his step-daughter, “Whatever you ask of me I will give it to you, up to half my kingdom,” comes from Esther 5:3. Herod’s painting himself into the corner of having to order the execution of his favorite prophet may come from Darius’ bamboozlement in the case of Daniel (Daniel 6:6-15) (Miller). But it is possible that the whole tale comes from literary sources. Price points out that MacDonald shows how the story of John’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer.
      John the Baptist was not the forerunner of and earthly king or leader, but rather the forerunner of the Lord Himself (see Luke 1:16-17).

      Thus, John the Baptist prepared Jesus’ way, while The Old Testament describes John’s “type” as preparing the way FOR GOD (Malachi 4: 5-6). So, as we see, there is no reason to think there is any historical information about John The Baptist in the gospels, because he is serving a completely literary, theological purpose. And as such, as a purely literary character, there is no reason to think the baptism of Jesus by John embarrassed Mark at all. In fact, given the midrashic relationship between John the Baptist in Mark and Malachi 4: 5-6, the scene would have been a way for Mark to identify that Jesus was God.

  3. If the father in the parable is the Christian god, and that god controls famines (and the original authors would have intended that element to matter more than the frivolous spending part), then the parable becomes yet another example of a passive aggressive god that just can’t stand to not be loved and actively punishes those who may have otherwise been fine on their own.

    I’d already recharacterized the parable in my head in terms of how the Christian god isn’t really the open-armed, freedom-respecting, father figure if eternal torture awaits all those who go their own way. Rather he’s a mob boss making you the proverbial offer you can’t refuse. A mob boss who outwardly lets you go, and while standing forever open-armed on his porch (as I’d always imagined it as a kid), whispers over his shoulder to his thugs to go and have his son’s legs broken to teach him a lesson.

    Little did I realize that was already in the parable itself. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Interestingly Thomas L. Thompson draws the same analogy:
      Thomas L. Thompson (1995): “House of David”: An Eponymic referent to Yahweh as godfather, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 9:1, 59-74
      . The “father-son” relationship between Yahweh and his worshipers is replicated in the political client relationship of the day between king and subject. Thus David refers to Saul as his “father” and Saul to David as his “son”. The “love” binding this relationship was from the subordinate to the superior. The godfather patron figure was bound to protect his “children” but if they stepped out of line that could be the end of them. See how David protects Nabal’s flock and then demands due payment for this godfatherly “protection”. It helps to read the NT through the ideologies of the preceding histories rather than through the enlightenment ideals we treasure today.

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