Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luise Schottroff

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Luise Schottroff
Luise Schottroff

Having surveyed Hultgren and Rohrbaugh’s perspectives in our two previous posts, we now turn to feminist scholar Luise Schottroff’s interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son found within The Parables of Jesus. In this work Schottroff embeds her feminist critique of oppression and patriarchy within the interpretive hermeneutic of the socio-historical method.[1] She employs the socio-historical method with the understood purpose of explaining the details of the text and providing a foundation from which to understand the social function of that text.[2] For Schottroff, parables cannot be understood as allegorical accounts with purely metaphoric meanings and interpretations.[3] Rather, she argues that parables should be understood as a contextually situated literary form that presumes a response by those who hear the narrative and gives rise to a resulting action.[4] Simply put, even with our modern reading of parable narratives “a response is always part of a parable” in Schottroff’s reading.[5] Schottroff also displays a strong critical awareness of several hermeneutical assumptions within New Testament interpretation that she argues need to be critical analyzed and rejected in our modern context, including the assumption of Christian superiority over other religions, dualisms in theological construction, assumptions that provide the foundation for notions of guilt, sin, and suffering through violence, and the common Christian perception of the ‘duty’ to maintain the social status quo and its structures of power.[6] Further, Schottroff emphasizes the importance of rediscovering the Gospel of the Poor within the words and parables of Jesus and rejecting any and all reasons for ignoring or interpreting the words of Jesus that concern domination and poverty other than the proclamation of the Gospel of the Poor.[7] As Schottroff embeds her methodological framework with both a feminist awareness as well as socio-historical methodology, she pays a great of attention to the context of those who would have first been exposed to the literary parables of Jesus, especially their socio-religious context with regard to Torah and their eschatological expectations concerning not the coming kingdom of God, but regarding the ‘nearness’ of God speaking now.[8] To sum Schottroff’s methodological focus, we see that she writes as one critically aware of the traditional socio-historical method, as one fully embedded in the feminist critiques of traditional patriarchal interpretations and methodology, and additionally gives special care to a renewed eschatological understanding that emphasizes the action that results from the delivery of the parable.

Now turning to Schottroff’s interpretation of the parable that she labels “God’s Hand is Always Open: The Father and Two Difficult Sons”, we will examine the three areas of understanding that she emphasizes in her interpretation: the overall context of Luke 15, the socio-historical context, and the eschatological context of the parable. Here we will look at each aspect of this interpretation, beginning with her socio-historical analysis. Schottroff begins this first section with a translation of the parable,[9] from which she begins her feminist critique of the assumed patriarchy in the parable, most evidence in the father figure, whom she argues clearly rules over numerous slaves and workers, both male and female, as well as family members who are female, all of who are never mentioned in the parable because of the patriarchal focuses on the father as well as his two sons.[10] Moving on from this general critique, Schottroff begins to note specific socio-historical indicators that impact a contextually informed interpretation of the parable. Looking at the young son’s decision to ask the father for his portion of the inheritance, this interpretation argues that the son is actually asking for his “compensation”, a Jewish and Hellenistic practical legal concept that enabled younger sons who were expected to receive less than the older son upon the death of the head of the household to receive a portion of their father’s wealth while he was alive so that they could leave the community and begin their own life.[11] Schottroff argues that younger sons leaving as a common occurrence of younger children in the Roman world and setting of the Jewish diaspora, arguing that unless the father owned a huge estate that would have provided the son with the means for a farm of his own, it would have been likely that he was expected to convert his inheritance into money and to travel to a distant land.[12] Such an interpretation clearly indicates that the son’s actions were within the realm of accepted practice, and thus the text at this point does not fault the son in any way for asking for his inheritance or leaving his family. The fault of the younger son that Schottroff notes consists in his poor use of his inheritance once he had come to the new land, as she argues that only in verse 18 is any true accusation leveled against the son in this parable.[13] Schottroff goes on to argue that even this charge against the son seems to be slight at best, and that it most likely would have been understood that his loss of the inheritance wealth would have stemmed from the famine, a fairly common occurrence in the Roman empire.[14]

thAt this point, Schottroff notes that the impoverished son is brought to the verge of starvation, making him an economic refugee, a “foreigner with no rights” whose subsequent attempt to land a laboring position does not provide enough for his survival, thereby forcing him to make another attempt to save his own life, namely, by returning to his father.[15] At this juncture, Schottroff notes that then son’s confession of sin stems from his poor decision making concerning the use of the inheritance money, and in no way relates to the confession of breaking Torah within Judaism.[16] Coupled with his sons return, the father does act outside the norms of the culture by running to meet his son, which Schottroff interprets as an indication that he does not want to interact with his son in the tradition manner of patriarchal positioning, instead seeking to be viewed on the same level as his son, an interpretation that she argues is further emphasized by the father’s inclusion of this son and the dismissal of his son’s petition to work.[17] This interpretation provides that in re-robing the younger son and giving him a ring, the father may actually be demonstrating a form of favoritism toward him at the expense of the older son.[18] Because of this, the older brother appears to be mostly in the right concerning his criticism of his brother, as he has worked hard for his inheritance and has obeyed his father, though Schottroff writes that he almost certainly does not have an accurate portrayal of his brothers actions in the foreign land (v. 30). However, the father demonstrates his love for both of his sons, and reaffirms the authority and position of the older son before the parable ends, leaving the reader in the position of the older brother, feeling left out and taken advantage of while being asked to reconcile with the brother who has wronged him.[19] Ultimately, as Schottroff argues that parables are designed to invoke action from their hearers, the message of this parable in its socio-historical context is taken to be two-fold. First, the reader is shown what the confession of mistakes looks like –coming to one’s father for assistance.[20] Second, the reader is asked to identify with the older son, not as a negative character, but as one who is being acted upon by love (albeit paternal love) and accept those who have wronged them.[21]

Having considered Schottroff’s socio-historical analysis, let us now turn to her interpretation of this parable from her renewed understanding of the eschatological framework. As noted above, Schottroff rejects the traditional understanding of the eschatological framework of Jesus’ teachings that identifies them with the coming end of the age; instead she argues that the phrase “God is near” should be understood in terms of fellowship and proximity, not judgment. From this understanding, Schottroff examines the parable in light of Luke’s perspective that when sinners love God, God forgives sinners.[22] This forgiveness, taken from the first testament, indicates for Schottroff that sin is quite simply a violation of Torah, not a general condition of Torah.[23] With this understanding in hand, she argues that through these parables Jesus offers an interpretation of Torah that calls everyone to God’s table of companionship, healing, and love.[24] For Schottroff, parabolic interpretation necessitates an action-oriented response. From this narrative she offers that an original practical interpretation would have consisted of the recognition that different forms of repentance would have been required of differing people in accordance with their relationship to Torah.[25] The key application, which Schottroff writes can have implications for today, consists in the calling the people of God to live together in joy, just as the younger and older sons are called to be united again.[26] In her understanding of the eschatological factors of this parable, Schottroff firmly rejects the typical allegorization that identifies God as the father and the two sons as religious groups, writing that there is no compelling contextual reason for such an allegorical understanding.[27] This traditional interpretation, it is argued, divinizes the patriarchal father and fosters a romantic understanding of the patriarchal household.[28]  Instead, Schottroff concludes her eschatological interpretation of the Parable of Prodigal Son as a call for a greater community unity and realization that God’s hand is always open.[29] Before proceeding, a brief word should first be said concerning Schottroff’s interpretation Luke 15:11b-32 as situated within the context of the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke. First, Schottroff takes the view that this parable should be considered within its literary context, namely as the final narrative in a series of parables on forgiveness, and the likely literary climax of Jesus’ extended discourse that ends with this parable.[30] She further identifies the series of parables that this account ends as those that address people in their world of experience and indicate future positive events that lay out a vision for the great Messianic feast of God’s joy and healing.[31]

To summarize Schottroff’s perspective, there is first a difference in her view regarding the starting point of the place of scholarship. While each of the scholars that we have examined here have employed some form of socio-historical methodology and paid close attention to context, Schottroff also utilizes her critical feminist consciousness by examining the parable in light of themes of domination and patriarchy. Schottroff’s perspective highlights the lack of reference to the women what should be understood within the parable, as well as the impact that living as a foreigner had on the younger son. In her strong rejection of understanding the patriarchal father figure as allegorically representing God, Schottroff argues that this parable should be understood as an example of true confession of one’s mistakes looks like and understand that they, like the older son are loved even when wronged. Finally, Schottroff places a good deal of emphasis on the literary context of this parable as climactic for Luke’s dialogue on the positive vision of the great Messianic feast of joy and healing.

[1] Luise Schottroff. The Parables of Jesus. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2006. Print. 1. [2] Ibid., 139. [3] Ibid., 99-102. [4] Ibid., 104. [5] Ibid., 104. [6] Ibid., 81. [7] Ibid., 88-9. [8] Ibid., 2. [9] Which has been translated from Greek to German by Schottroff and then from German to English by Maloney. [10] Ibid., 139. [11] Ibid., 139-40. [12] Ibid., 139-40. [13] Ibid., 140. [14] Ibid., 140-1. [15] Ibid., 141. [16] Ibid., 141. [17] Ibid., 143. [18] Ibid., 143. [19] Ibid., 144. [20] Ibid., 142. [21] Ibid., 145. [22] Ibid., 147. [23] Ibid., 146. [24] Ibid., 146-8. [25] Ibid., 148. [26] Ibid., 148. [27] Ibid., 148-9. [28] Ibid., 150. [29] Ibid., 149. [30] Ibid., 138. [31] Ibid., 156.


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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