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Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662

A parable and its baggage

What the Prodigal Son story doesn’t mean

When it comes to parables and to ancient texts in general, our listening skills are not as developed as they should be. Not only do we frequently miss the original provocation, and not only do we frequently default to simplistic interpretations, we also often import ahistorical and anachronistic readings that deform the good news of the gospel into something Jesus would neither recognize nor condone. If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’ Jewish context other than the stereotype of “Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism—whatever it was—must have been bad,” then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.

One common way that parables are interpreted is by drawing a contrast between what Jesus taught and what “the Jews” generally understood. Thus, the Prodigal Son teaches that God loves sinners, whereas the Jews thought God loved only the righteous and didn’t give a damn about sinners.


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