Sometimes you hear something so often you don’t think twice about if it is true or not. I can’t recall a sermon or reading a book on the parable of the prodigal son that did not mention that it was a dishonorable act for the father to run to greet his son. Here are just a few references I found:
ESV Study Bible: “The father cast aside all behavioral conventions of the time, as running was considered to be undignified for an older person, especially a wealthy landowner such as this man.” (Note on Luke 15:20)
The NLT Study Bible: “Running was considered undignified for the family patriarch, but the father was full of unbridled joy at his son’s return.” (Note on Luke 15:20)
The Orthodox Study Bible: “”Though it was considered unseemly in Jewish culture for an old man to run, the father did not passively stand by waiting for his son return. He ran to him.” (Note on Luke 15:20. Emphasis in the note.)
Craig Blomberg in Interpreting the Parables: “no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son (v. 20).” (p. 176)
Klyne Snodgrass in Stories With Intent: “Respected older men avoided running because it was viewed as shameful to show one’s legs and to appear so undignified.” (p. 126)
But Snodgrass later writes: “Nothing in the parable suggests that the father acted shamefully or that the village needs to be reconciled.” (p. 133 Emphasis mine.)
Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus says this is wrong. She notes that Proverbs, a “‘Semitic patriarch rule book,’ presumes its readers run, both literally and metaphorically” (Prov. 4:12). Other Old Testament passages speak of running with no implied shame (Is. 18:10; 40:31) “Running is fine—a potential disciple runs to Jesus (Mark 10.17); Zacchaeus runs to see him (Luke 19.4); Peter runs to Jesus’s tomb (Luke 24.12)—the point is, as Paul states, not to ‘run aimlessly’ (1 Cor. 9.24-26).” (55-56)
Levine is not alone. David Garland offers this in his commentary on Luke:
“Some claim that running is beneath the dignity of an Oriental elder because it suggests that he is not in control of his time or resources, and he would have humiliated himself pulling up his long robes and bearing his legs as he dashes out to greet his son. According to Sir 19:30, the nobleman is known by his gait, that is, by the slow, dignified pace that betokens his stature in the community. But in Gen 33:4, Esau did the same thing when his brother Jacob appeared. He ‘ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.’ Can we expect anything less from a father who loves his son, longs for his return, and sees him coming down the road? He will naturally run to greet him. The celebrations for recovered sheep and coins in the previous parables prepare us for the father’s excitement over the return of his son.”
Luke in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament by David Garland, pp. 626-29.
Snodgrass makes the following observation about these kind of cultural observations with particular attention to the work of Kenneth Bailey.
“Awareness of such cultural expectations is illuminating, but fascination with the culture can cause one to read into the parable aspects that are not there. K. Bailey’s contribution from his experience as a missionary to Middle Eastern peasants is often insightful, but he uncritically assumes a continuity between first-century Jewish Palestine and modern Middle Eastern peasants impacted by centuries of Islamic rule. . . . Further, Bailey and others who focus on sociological approaches become more intrigued with the culture than with the parable, more with what is not there than what is. Once again the principle is demonstrated: the more an interpretation focuses on what is not explicit in the parable the more likely it is to be wrong.” (p. 132)