The Prodigal Son: "A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors"

If there is an award to be given for the best interpretation of a parable, Richard Rohrbaugh earns it for the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). The traditional title is a misnomer, since it isn’t really about a prodigal son but rather a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons. The essay is called “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors”, found in the collection edited by V. George Shillington, Jesus and His Parables. Rohrbaugh offers a reading that makes you believe he traveled back in time to mine the cultural cues, then wrote a script for a short film.

Most of us assume that the younger son is the star of the plot, and a lone tragic figure who repents of his transgression to be forgiven by the father. The theological allegory then becomes obvious: God forgives repentant sinners. But “repentance” is never mentioned in the parable; the younger son comes home because he’s hungry. The father is actually the story’s main character, struggling (however foolishly) to reconcile everyone so that the family can survive. Rohrbaugh begins by noting that

“Much more is at stake here than losing and gaining an errant son, traumatic as that event would be. The well-being and future of an entire extended family is at stake. Its honor and place in the village, its social and economic networks, even its ability to call on neighbors in times of need are all at issue. If the family were to ‘lose its place’, no one would marry its sons or daughters, patrons would disappear, and the family would be excluded from the necessary economic and social relations. Families that do not maintain solidarity with neighbors are quickly in trouble.” (Jesus and His Parables, p 149)

Why is such solidarity threatened? Because the family members, all of them, participate in an offensive act. The younger son declares his father dead by asking for his share of his inheritance, and quitting home for the city (v. 12a). The older son, silently and without protest, takes his own share when the father divides the money between them (v. 12b). The father, incredibly, gives in to all of this, in a culture where inheritances are village as much as family property. Rohrbaugh continues:

“What kind of family is this? [Hearers] would be wondering if the family could even continue to function… More than internal family relations are at stake here. Even if this shameful episode took place in private, it would only be a short time before the whole village knew what happened… Village gossip networks are very effective in spreading stories about those who break the rules. What the shameful behavior of the father and his two sons would signal to other villagers, therefore, is the need to close ranks against this family quickly lest the contagion spread.” (p 151)

When the younger son later decides to come home after squandering his wealth in the city, it’s not because he’s repentant, but because he’s starving (v. 17). He’s a classic case of unexperienced peasants who migrate to cities and blow all their money, left with little choice but to eat crow and come slinking home. If his father hasn’t disowned him, he will at least beat him publicly, and plenty of villagers will want to do him harm too. In this light the father’s reaction — running to the son, and embracing and kissing him (v. 20) — signals something unexpected:

“As Kenneth Bailey points out, in the Mediterranean old men do not run. It is not only shameful (ankles show), it also indicates lack of control. They certainly do not run to meet or welcome anyone, and especially not their children. But if an emergency exists, perhaps that is another matter. This makes sense of the unique Greek term used here [in v. 20]: dramon means to exert oneself to the limit of one’s powers. It implies straining to the utmost. Obviously the father acts in this way because the boy is in trouble. The villagers would be angry and the father’s ‘compassion’ is well placed… The embrace and kiss are not first of all signs of welcome, they are signs of protection.” (p 156)

So the father hasn’t disowned his son. He attempts reconciliation, without beatings, and shames himself in the process. But his next step is even more difficult: appeasing the villagers. He does this by throwing a party for them. As Bailey/Rohrbaugh note, the fact that a calf is slain (v. 23) (rather than a goat or sheep) means that the entire village is invited to the party (p 157). Indeed the calf is more for the villagers than the prodigal himself; it’s a peace offering aimed at the community. And the music and dancing (in v. 25) shows that the father’s gesture is successful: the villagers accept the son back into the community.

Or half-successful: the older son defies the father. As the eldest his proper role (as Bailey explains) is to stand barefoot at the door, greet all the guests, and supervise the entertainment. Instead he insults his father (and everyone present) by refusing to enter the house and accept the reconciliation. And once again, the father acts as one feebleminded, by begging instead of harshly ordering his son to comply (v. 28). But the eldest remains disloyal, even cooking up false accusations against his brother — that he spent the money on harlots (v. 30) (the earlier part of the story said nothing about this). His resentment is obviously understandable — his brother’s waste of family money means that he will be the one supporting the father in old age, and probably the prodigal too (p 159) — but his open disloyalty is intolerable. The parable ends with the father still faced by a challenge.


Why would Jesus have told such a story? Because, as Rohrbaugh says, it’s something peasants could identify with and understand, “commending the valiant struggles of a beleaguered if foolish father” (p 163). The story affirms responsibility to both kin and village, even in the face of outrageous disloyalty. But it does so in a bizarre way: the father counters shamelessness (disloyalty) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. He could have gone the route of beating the prodigal to set an example, and railroading the elder for his insults. But he makes an ass and fool of himself on both accounts. Is this the sort of thing Paul had in mind by being a fool for the Lord (II Cor 11-12)?

Jesus’ parable isn’t the repentance/forgiveness story taught in modern Sunday schools. Neither is it an obtuse allegory of Israel’s return from exile (Tom Wright), nor even an abstract metaphor for accepting all people (Brandon Scott). It’s exactly what it describes. The key is to resist parallels between the father and God. As William Herzog would say, this isn’t an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning, but an earthy story with a heavy meaning”. In view of the imminent apocalypse, Jesus thought people were called to change their behavior radically, like this father, to become asses and fools for the sake of the kingdom.


Bailey, Kenneth: Peasant and Poet: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Eerdmans, 1976.

Rohrbaugh, Richard: “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors”, in Jesus and His Parables (edited by V. George Shillington), T&T Clark, 1997, pp 141-164.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward

6 thoughts on “The Prodigal Son: "A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors"

  1. Thanks for this analysis. It’s very illuminating. I know you are working with the parable assuming Jesus’s life as the Sitz im Leben. How does the honor/shame interpretation carry over to Luke’s use of the parable, following as it does the Lost Coin/Lost Sheep stories? I know that these other stories condition the way many readers understand the ‘lost son’ story. Until now, my focus had been on the elder son and the presence of Pharisees/unsympathetic listeners in Jesus’ audience (as Luke tells it). Again, thanks!

  2. In the context of the Lukan narrative, the Prodigal Son points to the rescue of the weak and the lost; as you note it’s strung together with the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin. So the bit about the younger brother being “lost and found” (vv. 24,32) is probably Lukan.You may find the discussion in Brandon Scott’s <>Hear Then the Parable<> to be helpful for your purposes. See pp 100-105 where he distinguishes between three levels of narrative in Lk 15: the first level aimed at the vindication of Jesus’ association with sinners; the third level involving three distinct parables (lost sheep, lost coin, lost “prodigal” son) with their own distinct plots; and the second intermediate level which ties the first to the third by making a narrative whole. The fictional audience is found in the first level (scribes and Pharisess), which must be distinguished from the historical audience (Jewish peasants). Even Scott — who ends up interpreting the historical parable more traditionally than he thinks, since he takes the father in the story as a cipher for God — acknowledges that the traditional title, “Prodigal Son” owes to the first level narrative. Taken on its own right, The “Lost (Prodigal) Son” is only superficially similar to the Lost Sheep and/or Lost Coin. Luke has exploited this for his own purpose.Honor-shame elements come into play on all levels of the narrative. Take the lost sheep: on the first level narrative, Jesus asks the the (fictional) Pharisaic audience to imagine themselves in a shameful despised occupation (shepherds). And so on.

  3. Bailey himself seems to take an “Israel story” approach at times, which allows room for NTW’s view: see <>Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story<>. More later as I’m in German class…

  4. Thanks, Loren. I hadn’t come across Rohrbaugh’s essay, but had read Bailey. Broadly, I’ve been preaching this interpretation for a good 20 years now, so it’s nice to find it being promoted.I would add that Luke’s context (whether original to Jesus or not) may add an additional dimension. Luke’s Jesus (and IMHO the historical one too!) redefines repentance. In Lk 15, we reach the parable of the foolish father via two others, in which neither a sheep nor a coin do anything except get found. In this parable, the father runs before the younger son can say anything, and there remains a certain potentila ambiguity in “he came to his senses” Does that mean he “repented” conventionally, or that he worked out a wheeze to rely on his father’s continuing foolishness to get three square meals a day and a roof over his head? — “I know what to do: I’ll go to Dad whose always a soft touch and make a meal of saying sorry … “

  5. I just read Bailey’s Jacob and the Prodigal last month. I don’t have much to add to your discussion here, but I was just AMAZED at the depth Bailey brought to that parable. It is quite an odd thing to see how his whole writing career has been devoted to that one small section of Luke. I was mildly disappointed to see that Bailey did not engage much with the context group folks, but certainly Bailey himself seems to have more than enough knowledge himself to make his own case.

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