Parable of the Prodigal Son: Introduction

Parable-of-the-Prodigal-Son-imageThe parables of Jesus have long been perceived by Christians and scholars alike as instances of impressive theological reflection and noteworthiness within the writings of the Church for their simplicity, depth, and history of diverse interpretation. Building upon a long scholastic history of reading and interpreting the parables of Jesus found within the synoptic texts of the Christian New Testament, this series examines the interpretive perspectives of three New Testament scholars concerning their understanding of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”[1] found in Luke 15:11b-32.  Over the next week we will examine the interpretations of Arland J. Hultgren, Richard L. Rohrbaugh, and Luise Schottroff. Each of these scholars builds upon a similar history of Western interpretation and each has unique perspectives and insights into the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We will examine Hultgren’s interpretation as an example of a traditional perspective, Rohrbaugh’s work within his work in the social-science interpretation of the New Testament, and Schottroff’s view as a representation of the general feminist school of interpretation. This series examines these three interpretations and their critical interactions with other interpretations as a demonstration of the hermeneutical diversity within contemporary parable interpretation in New Testament scholarship.

After providing a common translation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (for the convenience of those investigating the diversity of these interpretations), we will examine the methodology and general contours of each scholar’s interpretation. After examining Hultgren, Rohrbaugh, and Schottroff’s general interpretive perspectives, we will reflect upon the general critiques that each scholar’s work infers about the other respective positions before offering some final thoughts on the diversity of the interpretations available in modern New Testament Studies with regard to the parables of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. We now begin with Luke 15:11b-32 in the New Revised Standard Version.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “[2]


[1] While several scholars have pursued the practical renaming of this parable, it is not the purpose of this series to engage in that debate, or indeed in any that deals with the traditional title assigned to this narrative. Thus, when not specifically referencing a scholar’s designation for the materials found in Luke 15:11b-32, the traditional terminology will be employed. [2] New Revised Standard Version Bible. Copyright 1989. Online.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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