Parable of the Prodigal Son: Richard Rohrbaugh

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Richard Rohrbaugh

Richard Rohrbaugh

We now turn to the examination of our second perspective in the interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the view of Richard L. Rohrbaugh, which provides us with an example of parable interpretation from the perspective of the social sciences. With regard to methodology, Rohrbaugh approaches the text of the New Testament primarily from the perspectives of sociology and anthropology, arguing that one cannot find proper interpretation of the stories contained in the Gospel accounts apart from their socio-historical context within the Ancient Mediterranean Jewish context.[1] While essentially skirting past any substantial critique formed by literary or redaction criticism, Rohrbaugh bases his parable interpretation out of the received text of that parable found in Luke, arguing the likelihood that at least a portion of both the Historical Jesus and Lucan audiences would have contained the characters that Rohrbaugh employs to situate his interpretation: the ancient Mediterranean peasant.[2] In basing his interpretation out of the world of the typical Mediterranean peasant, Rohrbaugh makes a notable assumption, namely that the contexts of the historically delivered parable and the literary parable were essentially the same. Such a perspective may seem to sit at odds with the long-held understanding of Luke’s gospel to have been written with an imperially informed and non-Jewish community. However, Rohrbaugh’s main concern in his interpretation of Luke 15 lies with the supplemental information that it presents in contrast to and in conglomeration with the traditional interpretation of this parable as one of repentance, forgiveness, and a stubborn older brother.[3] With the social sciences as his primary tool, Rohrbaugh relies heavily upon the works of those scholars who have sought to reconstruct the socio-historical world of First Century Palestine. This interpretation provides very little by way of direct evidence for the socio-historical claims made, with far fewer primary or even secondary accounts being utilized in the construction of the social world that is presented as the norm for the parable, making it difficult to weigh Rohrbaugh’s socially located claims against interpreters who would argue for a different set of social norms. Rohrbaugh’s methodology remains situated within the framework of the historical-critical model by its use of social-scientific and contextually oriented investigations of the socio-cultural world in which the parable was first delivered.

Turning from Rohrbaugh’s methodology to his interpretation, we must first note the importance in his interpretation in the proper understanding of the Greek text of Luke 15, as such interpretation must retain the socially situated cultural meanings and inferences that would have been understood in the parable’s historical context.[4] By examining this parable within the framework of Ancient Mediterranean culture, this interpretation argues that this parable should be understood as a kinship narrative that tells the story of a dysfunctional family and its neighbors.[5] Rohrbaugh notes several problems with the traditional understanding of this account as a story of repentance, namely that the term repentance is never employed, that the younger brother seems to be motivated by little more than his stomach in returning home, and that his first instinct is not to repent but to try and work his way back into the honor structure.[6] While this interpretation does not seek to totally reject the traditional interpretation of this parable, it offers the social context as a tool for further understanding the world of the parable and for making offering a more fully rounded interpretation of the narrative.

The basis for Rohrbaugh’s interpretation of this dysfunctional family consists of two major contextual factors: the role of Ancient Mediterranean communalism and the importance of a societal framework of honor and shame. First, Rohrbaugh argues that the original audience for this narrative would not have consisted of highly individual Western readers, but instead would have been understood within the context of a “dyadic” and communally based anthropological understanding of the characters in the story.[7] Quite simply, one should understand that in Ancient Mediterranean peasant societies the family was the primary source of identification. A son would only be known by a reference to his father, and one’s identify was always tied to its genealogical origins.[8] Further, this communally based understanding of human beings did not only find identify with the family, but also extended to solidarity with the village, which Rohrbaugh argues would have existed as an essentially closed social network that enabled close knit kin relations to co-exist for generations alongside each other.[9] Within this communal understanding of people, the most important facet of life was the maintenance of social conformity.[10] The second contextual factor that Rohrbaugh notes directly relates to social conformity, that is, the framework of honor and shame relationships.[11] From this perspective, people and kin groups were constantly involved in encounters involving a complex standard of procedures and activities related to one-upmanship. If one would abide by the rules of social conformity, honor would be accrued; if one did not conform, then shame was allocated to the members of that group. For example, a village wide feast would afford the host family a great deal of community honor, whereas a conflict over land or marriage rights that spilled into the public setting could accrue shame.[12] Within a village setting, while familial conflict was typical,[13] Rohrbaugh notes that inter-family conflicts of honor and shame could become honor-shame disasters for a family, leading not only to expulsion from the village, but drastically reducing the family’s chances of survival in a harsh ancient world.[14] Given this social context, Rohrbaugh argues that this narrative demonstrates that much more than the loss of a son is at stake. Indeed, the wellbeing and future of the entire family within the village was at stake.[15]


Ancient Jewish Family

Ancient Jewish Family

Moving into Rohrbaugh’s interpretation of this story of a dysfunctional family and their neighbors, he immediately notes both the blessing of two sons in the ancient world, as well as the irregularity of a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance before the father’s death.[16] Such actions place the son in dangerous waters because they indicate that he has little sense of familial shame or loyalty.[17] However, when the father gives into his son and grants him the share of inheritance, the situation worsens. Not only has the son questioned the family’s honor, but the father, in granting his sons request, has damaged, if not destroyed, the wider familial honor in the community by exposing all fathers with sons to this dangerous economic possibility.[18] Further damage is done with the son leaves the village, as he would never have been expected to leave his father or his mother, whom he would have been expected to care for later in life.[19] Thus, the first part of this parable indicates that the actions of both the younger son as well as the father have severally damaged the honor position of the entire family in their village. In the second portion of that parable, Rohrbaugh notes both the lack of specificity concerning the younger son’s actions while away and the role of patron-client that the son put himself into as a result of his decreased resources.[20] Here this interpretation seems to fault the younger son for moving outside of the traditional village context, thereby placing him at the mercy of those much more experienced with city life and the appropriate use of wealth.[21] In the phrase that he interprets “he came to himself” concerning the sons decision to return home, Rohrbaugh places a great deal of weight, arguing that this indicates that the son has decided to return to his village and the operating principles of honor and shame within both community and family, and that the guiding principles of the community that he had left will serve him better than his rejection of their effectiveness.[22] When the son returns to the village, Rohrbaugh argues that the father again goes out on a limb for his son, as he precipitates the shaming actions of the villagers against his son and runs out to accept and protects his son from the mockery of the community, all while reestablish his son within the family and community by dressing him.[23] While noting the father’s actions as those of extreme paternal affection for his son, Rohrbaugh also notes that the actions of the father, especially running, would have been shameful. Thus yet again both the actions of the father and the son would have been shamed by the village.[24] In order to restore the family’s honor, the father then offers the village a feast, killing a calf as a rare and expensive indicating of returning the whole family to the honor system of the community.[25] With the arrival of the villagers, the community has indicated that they have welcomed the son back into the family and the entire family back into the honor system of the village. However, at this point the older son remains amiss, and Rohrbaugh argues that the parable creates a dichotomy between the reactions of the villagers, who have welcomed back the family, and the older son, who fails to recognize the restoration of his younger brother.[26] Ultimately, the father seeks the unity and honor of his family by calling his older son back into fellowship with his younger son, who has now been embraced by the community.[27] For Rohrbaugh, the open-endedness of the parable places the reader in the place of the older son,[28] with the offer to accept the lost representing Jesus’ call for his followers to remain integrated with and maintain solidarity to the community,[29] to reject city life and the patronage system prevalent there,[30] and to emphasis the necessity of reconciliation of family and kin groups as the father sought to do.[31]

In concluding our examination of Rohrbaugh’s social science perspective, we note several important considerations. First, Rohrbaugh seeks to approach the parable from a perspective far different than a traditional interpretation, namely through sociology and anthropology. Second, Rohrbaugh wants to pay a great deal of attention to the social context that would have informed the original audience of the parable, though he here assumes that the original audience and literary audience are highly similar. Third, Rohrbaugh’s understanding the parable is formed primarily by his understanding of the social network of honor and shame. This system of honor and shame, coupled with the communalism of the Ancient Mediterranean world, provides the framework that best describes the actions of those involved in the parable, especially in the resolution of the conflict between the family and the community. Finally, the open-endedness of the parable indicates for Rohrbaugh that those who heard this parable should place themselves in the place of the older son and heed Jesus’ call to remain integrated in their communities.


[1] Richard L. Rohrbaugh. “A Dysfunctional Family and Its Neighbors (Luke 15:11b-32): The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Edited by V. George Shillington. Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today. T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1997. Print. 143. [2] Ibid., 144. [3] Ibid., 142. [4] Ibid., 141-2. [5] Ibid., 143. [6] Ibid., 142-3. [7] Ibid., 144-5. [8] Ibid., 145. [9] Ibid., 145. [10] Ibid., 146. [11] Ibid., 146 [12] Ibid., 146-7. [13] Ibid., 147. [14] Ibid., 147-9. [15] Ibid., 149. [16] Ibid., 150. [17] Ibid., 151. [18] Ibid., 151. [19] Ibid., 151-2. [20] Ibid., 152-3. [21] Ibid., 154-5. [22] Ibid., 155. [23] Ibid., 156-7. [24] Ibid., 156. [25] Ibid., 157-8. [26] Ibid., 161-2. [27] Ibid., 161-2. [28] Ibid., 162. [29] Ibid., 163-4. [30] Ibid., 164. [31] Ibid., 164.


2 thoughts on “Parable of the Prodigal Son: Richard Rohrbaugh

  1. I am currently a seminary student at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga. One of my current courses is Social Worlds of the New Testament in which we study social scientific criticism. I must say that each class session, each academic book we read, and each New Testament text we break down using this method leaves me in awe every time. Great exegesis by you, Dr. Rohrbaugh. This is indeed a much needed interpretation of a text so commonly preached.

    • Amber,
      While I’m glad to hear that you approve of Rohrbaugh’s perspective, I feel it pertinent to note that this is my presentation of his perspective, and not actually that of Rohrbaugh.
      Thanks for the comment, JJP

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