Perry J Greenbaum: The Jewish Prodigal

Posted By on August 9, 2015

Reflections & Religion

This essay is a continuation of a previous post, The Jewish Way.

Matthew 5:20, Christian Bible

Matthew 10: 5-6, Christian Bible

One of the most common themes in literature is teshuvah, or return and repentance. I am not a follower of the Christian tradition by any means, but one of the most famous stories that focuses on this theme in the Christian faith is The Prodigal Son.

It is a touching parable attributed to Jesus of Nazareth about a wayward son who asks for his inheritance when his father is still alivea real slap in the face of traditionsquanders it living the high life, and ends up destitute and feeding the pigs, an unkosher animal that symbolizes non-Jewish ways and traditions. He eventually makes it home, expecting to be treated with contempt, but is instead received in kindness and joy as a king.

In the Christian tradition, the story is significant in that it speaks about God’s patient and enduring love for humanity in general and his love for his own, in this case, followers of the Christian church in particular. There is no getting way from that reality when one reads the Christian interpretation of the story, even from the most liberal and Judaic-knowledgeable and -aware sources.

Even so, the conventional Christian interpretation, as full of humanity and humility it contains, surely misses the mark. Unfortunately, this view, even shared by Christian scholars and theologians of first-rank minds, fails to take into account a few essential points. In short, the whole social and cultural history of the parable and frame it within the proper context.

That being said, I would like to add another interpretation of this famous and well-liked parable. A midrash so to speak, in a sort of inquiry to the narrative’s meaning. I am not a biblical scholar or a Judaic studies scholar, but I am fairly familiar with the biblical narratives contained in the main books of both Judaism and Christianity and the traditions that inform them. So I say this not without knowledge or thought. The story of the Prodigal Son is actually about Jewish teshuvah or return to Jewish ways and values.

That is, the story is directed only at Jesus’ co-religionists at the time, his fellow Jews. His message is directly aimed at the idea of maintaining their Jewish ways and traditions, even in the face of opposition and the temptation to assimilate into the larger surrounding culture of Hellenistic Greece, which still had resonance in Roman-conqueredJudea. There is no getting away from that fact, and I am not sure how Christians today can read anything but that essential truth into the story.

Originally posted here:
Perry J Greenbaum: The Jewish Prodigal

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