The Busybody welcomes back Leonard Ridge, who earlier railroaded me for endorsing the aims of the Context Group. Today Leonard will address Richard Rohrbaugh’s analysis of The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) which I used a month ago to kick off my series on the parables. Be sure to read that post, if you haven’t already, before going any further.
The Prodigal Son Revisited
by Leonard Ridge
Loren Rosson says that “if there is an award to be given for the best critical work on a parable, Richard Rohrbaugh earns it for the Prodigal Son”. When I read this statement, I immediately went to amazon and ordered V. George Shillington’s Jesus and His Parables, the book containing Rohrbaugh’s essay. It turns out to be an interesting analysis, explaining the story just as Loren says, in terms of “a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons”, family members who must reconcile themselves to each other and — even more importantly — to the entire village they have offended in the meantime.
In other words, we are to understand the story as advocating the reintegration of a dysfunctional family with its neighbors more than the repentance of an individual. I complained before about an implicit fascism emerging from the work of the Context Group, and how the patronization of primitive communal values finds alarmingly wide favor among conservatives. Note how evangelical Craig Blomberg describes Rohrbaugh’s essay as “perhaps the most helpful piece” in a book otherwise top-heavy with liberalism. He approves Rohrbaugh’s emphasis on “the dynamic of the father having to overcome the displeasure of the villagers at his own overly gracious reaction to his son(s)”. The stifling of individual identity and expression in favor of group solidarity is a hallmark of fascism, and the fact that this is “agrarian peasant fascism” makes it no more benign than its totalitarian cousin.
But that’s not all. There’s an aspect of Rohrbaugh’s essay that goes unmentioned by Loren, one that underscores its fascist credentials more darkly. Rohrbaugh derives a menacing corollary — one that we must cite at length:
If one takes a step back from the details of the story and thinks about what is going on as the plot unfolds, it is obvious that one of the key things being celebrated here is the return of a villager who had gone to the city, with tragic consequences. Since the non-elite populations of the cities came primarily from those separated from village families by debt, non-inheritance or family dispute, the experience of the prodigal would have been all too familiar to peasant hearers of Jesus. The story would celebrate the return of one of their own who had experienced the devastating impact of the city upon displaced peasants… [and] call into question the fatal attraction peasants felt toward the city. (Jesus and His Parables, pp 163-164)
Now the alarm bells are blaring. Contempt for cities is a primal ingredient of fascism, for which Alfred Rosenberg may serve as a spokesperson:
“We stand today before a definitive decision. Either through a new experience and cultivation of the old blood, coupled with an enhanced fighting will, we will rise to a purificatory action, or the last Germanic-western values of morality and state-culture shall sink away in the filthy human masses of the big cities, become stunted on the sterile burning asphalt of a bestialized inhumanity, or trickle away as a morbific agent in the form of emigrants, bastardizing themselves in South America, China, Dutch East India, Africa…” (The Myth of the Twentieth Century)
Nick Woomer comments on this passage, noting that “the fascist has contempt for capitalism because the inevitable urbanization it generates undermines and ‘bastardizes’ older, purer, agrarian modes of life”. But Rohrbaugh sees Jesus vindicating exactly this — “older, purer, agrarian modes of life”, group solidarity, conservative village values, all at a safe distance away from the abominable influence of the cities. This is sobering. His Jesus is no progressive cosmopolitan (unlike Burton Mack’s Jesus). His Jesus is a figure I would shun like the plague.
To be fair, Rohrbaugh emphasizes a countercultural dimension alongside the traditional. Loren does too: this is his own spin on the parable, interpreted apocalyptically:
“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… 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.”
So what’s the scoop? Is the story about dishonor — “making an ass and fool of oneself for the sake of the kingdom” — or about unbending loyalty to kin and community? Apparently both. But as I read Rohrbaugh, the latter wins out by a long shot. Tradition supersedes counterculture, completely opposite the Jesus Seminar’s Jesus. Yes, the father’s behavior is unorthodox. But the endgoal (which is what really matters) has nothing but bigotry in view: village loyalty, insular solidarity, away from the cesspits of urbanism. A peasant fascism, if you will.
Don’t tell me the Context Group is trying to explain Jesus neutrally without any sights on contemporary relevance. Rohrbaugh’s essay comes in a book whose stated goal is not only to better understand the historical Jesus, but “to function as a guide for instructors and leaders in religion more generally” (Jesus and His Parables, p 3). His take on the Prodigal Son may be accurate, historically, but I wouldn’t want it to fall into the hands of Christian pastors. Preach instead Burton Mack’s ludicrous fantasy of a cosmopolitan Jesus. Even if bogus, that’s what we need for today’s world.