Did the Father of the Prodigal Son Act Shamefully When He Ran?

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)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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3 Responses to Did the Father of the Prodigal Son Act Shamefully When He Ran?

  1. Roger Penney says:

    Who are these experts who think they know all about life in a remote country in the Levant two thousand years and more ago? It was considered by some rabbis that you ought to hurry to the syanagogue then walk slowly away. What has custom to do with the sheer delight, relief and tearful greeting of the father finding his lost son. Would you not run as fast as you could and throw your arms round a returning prodigal?
    And does not our Heavenly Father throw aside his awesome and mighty dignity when a sinner turns to him in true repentance? .

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  2. Clarke Morledge says:

    Louis: If the assumption concerning the father’s running as being shameful is flawed, I am curious to know where this idea came from, and why have scholars repeatedly used it? Do we know the history behind this idea?

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    • Mark Stephens says:

      It may go back farther than this but I seem to see the respected German Bible scholar Joachim Jeremias often quoted in support of the notion that the running of the father in the parable of the prodigal son was “beneath the dignity of an ‘aged oriental’ “. (On a side note, Jeremias probably had many much better observations to share, so it seems unfortunate that this would become such a famous quote for which he is often remembered.)

      Jeremias spent much of his youth growing up in Jerusalem in the early 1900’s. At first this immersion in the “holy land” seems to lend credibility to his assertion. On second thought, however, we should consider that – although He was in the land where Jesus walked and talked – the Jerusalem of Jeremias was still 1900 years removed from the Jerusalem in which Jesus spoke. By the early 1900’s, it seems possible that fundamentalist Islamic ideas of “propriety” may have radically altered the general views of propriety in the Middle East, even among orthodox Jews.

      I hope someone with greater knowledge on this topic chimes in.

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