A Palestinian Perspective on the Prodigal Son

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C):

Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday March 14, 2010.

Last summer, I had the privilege of attending an international conference in Jerusalem, where I befriended several Palestinian Christians, shared Eucharist with them at sacred sites, and even played the role of ‘groom’ in the re-enactment of a Palestinian wedding. I fell in love with the Palestinian culture and people; and my heart broke as I was exposed to the harshness of their oppression under Israeli occupation. What broke my heart even more was the fact that, only six years before, I had supported the Israeli occupation so zealously that I had dehumanized and even demonized the Palestinian people. Stuck in my narrow understanding of what I knew to be right, I completely wrote off a culture and people that, after getting to know, brought me into a deeper appreciation of God’s love and generosity. Today, I invite us all into a deeper appreciation of God’s love and generosity as we look at today’s parable through the eyes of the Palestinian culture and people.

I am indebted to the eminent scholar Rev. Kenneth Bailey, who stresses the importance of this cultural approach to the New Testament, a collection of texts written primarily by 1st century Palestinians. Bailey’s cultural perspective provides a radically new take on the Prodigal Son parable and I recommend his book Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke for anyone interested in this approach. After walking us through the parable, I will offer insights gleaned from this exegesis as helpful tools in understanding the “ministry of reconciliation” in Israel-Palestine and in our own lives.

“Father,” says the prodigal son, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” In first-century Palestine, this request is an outrageous violation of traditional culture, implying the son’s eagerness for his father’s death. Such an insulting request should be met with rage, a smack on the head and expulsion from the home. Instead, the father breaks the code of the Oriental patriarch and humbly grants his son’s request![1]

The prodigal son travels to a distant country, where he squanders his property in dissolute living. Dissolute, as you know, means degenerate or immoral or decadent, adjectives we often ascribe to the prodigal son. Other translations say “riotous” (KJ) or “loose” (RSV) or “wild” (NIV). However, the Greek word, asotos, does not necessarily mean any of these things. Asotos means “expensive” or literally, “without saving.” The Arabic versions of this text translate the phrase: “expensive living.” With this translation, we see that the accusation that the older son will make about his brother sleeping with prostitutes, now proves to be manufactured in order to defame his brother.[2] The text does not say anything about the prodigal son actually sleeping with prostitutes or even behaving immorally. This does not let the prodigal son off the hook. He has still wasted the family inheritance.

If a Jewish boy, in first-century Palestine, wastes his family inheritance among Gentiles and then dares to return home, the village performs what is called the kezazah ceremony. In this ceremony, the village breaks a large pot in front of the boy, symbolically portraying and officially proclaiming the separation between the boy and the village.[3]

Fearing that this ceremony awaits him back home, the prodigal son looks for a job that might help him earn back all the money he squandered. The only job he can find, however, is feeding pigs. Since the job fails to support him, he eventually becomes so famished that he wants to eat the pig’s carob pods, which are far too coarse for humans to digest. Before wishing to become a pig himself in order to stomach the pods, the prodigal son finally decides to return home and face the humiliation of the kezazah ceremony. He prepares a speech in which he begs his father to hire him as a servant, knowing that the father-son relationship, at this point, has been completely annulled.

The father, in Palestinian culture, is expected to sit in the house, emotionally withdrawn, and wait to hear what the son has to say for himself. The mother, on the other hand, can greet the poor boy with kisses before the kezazah ceremony.[4] Although running is an act done mostly by servants, the mother is allowed to run a little bit to greet her returning son. However, a patriarch never runs. Doing so would be highly undignified and even contemptible.

In the parable, the father breaks all the rules and looks extremely undignified as he runs towards his son and plays the role of mother as he showers him with kisses! There will be no kezazah ceremony. Instead, there will be a joyous celebration for the lost son has been found. The prodigal son does not have time to even finish his prepared speech and so he simply accepts being found.

The celebration, however, is not in honor of the prodigal son. Certainly no one in the village would attend a party held in honor of such a disrespectful son. The celebration honors the father and the father’s self-sacrifice and generosity in restoring his son to the family. The father sacrificed his social dignity and broke the patriarchal code in order to save his son. It is the saving and sacrificial love of the father that the banquet celebrates.

The older son, off in the field, fails to see this when he refuses to join the banquet. Not only does he defame his brother by accusing him of sleeping with prostitutes, he does not even acknowledge him as his brother, but rather refers to him as “this son of yours.” By refusing to join the party, the older son publicly insults the father with an offense that is even worse than the younger son’s premature request for the inheritance. Now the father should demand obedience from his son and order appropriate punishment for his insult, but instead the father, once again, extends grace and offers love.

The parable does not tell us if the older son ever joined the banquet. And by doing so, the parable invites us to consider what banquet we are refusing to join. What banquet are we refusing to join? Who have we cut off and excluded? Who have we defamed? By refusing to join the banquet, we are insulting God. By enjoying the banquet, we are drawn into a deeper celebration of God’s saving love. Personally, I refused to join the rich banquet of Palestinian culture. I cut off, excluded and even defamed Palestinians. After getting to know them, after hearing their stories and enjoying their banquet, I have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and generosity. As a result, I have also been blessed with fun and warm friendships with Palestinians. And my heart continues to ache because of their oppression.

Now I still support the existence of the state of Israel and have enormous fondness for Jewish and Israeli culture. But I wonder what things would look like if Israel saw themselves as the older brother to whom God says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours, but stop excluding and defaming your brothers.” I invite us also to see ourselves as the older brother, as we consider who we are excluding and defaming, whose banquet we are avoiding. The parable invites us to finish the story by joining the banquet and drawing close to those who we might want to push away because it is especially those we are tempted to exclude, that upon getting to know, will expand our vision of God’s generosity. Those who we are tempted to cut off are the very ones whose lives and stories will help us bask in the shower of God’s endless, maternal kisses. Amen.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, The Forgotten Faithful: A Window into the Life and Witness of Christians in the Holy Land. Ed. Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis & Maurine Tobin. “Cultural Understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31), 156-167. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem 2007, 159.

[2] Bailey, 161.

[3] Bailey, 160.

[4] Bailey, 163.

5 thoughts on “A Palestinian Perspective on the Prodigal Son

  1. This is absolutely spectacular. I am teaching a 1st-6th grade Sunday School class and this week’s lesson is on the Prodigal Son. This post provides tremendous insight that will make the story SO much deeper and more interesting.

    Thank you so much for this.

    1. Thanks, Nathan! I’m glad it’s helpful. Looks like you’re doing great work at “Better Bible Teachers”!

  2. thanks …very very helpful and informative… God bless You and may He help you to come up with
    great finding like this one….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s