Prodigal Prodigality Versus Village Party: On Not Killing the Fatted Calf

By Jim Perkinson

One of the effects of the irruption of Global South thought into Global North theology in the last half century is a re-reading of the bible from within the experience of poverty.  Not least among the new insights occasioned by this re-reading is that concerning the parables.  Scholars like Walter Wink and William Herzog and popular cultural educators like Ched Myers have made us aware that such folk stories, read in social context rather than spiritualized and universalized, have the character of political cartoons.  Rather than allegories offering us characterizations of God or Jesus, they are better understood as politically-coded riddles, inviting their hearers to judge for themselves the situations they find themselves in.  In 1st century Palestine among an oppressed people, they often served a function of consciousness-raising, provoking peasant listeners to dare risk thinking and voicing their own interpretation of events and discover their own wisdom.  Only indirectly and obliquely do the parables speak about God, and then only by way of unmasking domination and uncovering the cry of anguish it silences.  The results of such a contextual reading can be startling. 

Feminist bible critic Sharon Ringe, for instance, notes how easy it is to get taken in by our romanticizing of the gospel writers.[i]  Because the Parable of the Prodigal Son appears in Luke, and we deem Luke inspired, it is hard for us even to recognize how smoothly the story reinforces the sense of privilege many of us in the First World bring to the text.  Ringe writes about the startling effect on her class when one of her students dared bring up the role of the servants in the prodigal’s household.  For them, the celebration of the son’s return “from the dead” was in no manner “celebratory.”  It simply meant more work, more orders to follow, one more experience of watching the wealthy kin of a spoiled enfant terrible “eat, drink and be merry” while they slaved away at cooking, serving, and cleaning up.  The story is loved and itself celebrated in Christian history as the tenderest of evocations of what a forgiving “Father” might look like.  But what happens to the story if we try to imagine our way into the text from the point of view of the servants?

More to the point, in what follows I want to offer a thought experiment in connection with the entire 15th chapter of Luke, letting the three scenarios recorded there signify in relationship to their social context and in relationship to each other.  The setting is provided for us by Luke: Jesus is partying with the hookers and loan sharks, the pimps and rent-to-own clerks of his day, who come to listen to him because that is what he does to them—listens!  The Pharisees and theologians, on the other hand, are “sweating” him, taking careful notes on his crew, readying the case of treason they are building against him.  And it is imperative that we be clear here: the plotting on the life of Jesus begins already in chapter four in Luke.  Jesus is a marked man.  It is not a question of whether the authorities will arrest and execute him, only a question of how and when.  His entire public vocation is conducted under heavy surveillance.  He knows and the powers know.  Every “innocently asked” question hides a hammer and nails; every citation of Torah and commendation of his conduct as a rabbi “who teaches the way of God rightly” is barbed with deadly bait.  The tenor of the talk is J. Edgar Hoover saying “hi” to Martin Luther King at a Civil Rights rally.  The “watchers” charge him, out of earshot and among themselves, with eating with gangbangers and terrorists.  The focus is the figuration “sinner”—Jesus makes common table with ‘em!

So Jesus, says Luke, tells “them” a parable, in the singular.  As if the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin were all of a piece with the Lost Son.  And so we shall read.  And we would also do well to ask: which “them”?   The scribes?  Or the “sinners”?  It matters.  But it is also clear.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one” . . . begins the master rapper.  And already the audience should be certain in our minds.  The elites and their agents were not in the habit of tending their own flocks in the rural outback, far from the towns.  That was patently the province of unclean shepherds, a mangy manner of vocation as notoriously unclean and “cursed” as the prostitution and tax collecting represented at Jesus’ table. 

Luke’s description of Jesus’ “signifying” on the scribal whispering is pointedly clear: this is a verbal “cap,” told in the hearing of the desperate gathered round him in party mode but aimed at the wire-carrying elite.  “Which one of you—who labors in a stigmatized job, who knows the sting of want, who lives at the edge of exhaustion and under the opprobrium of exclusion, who can taste poverty on your lips and smell it in your clothes every day, and who cannot afford to lose this last, desperate employment separating you from a life of begging and early death—which of you, having lost one of your charges, will not risk the ninety-nine and go after the lost one?  And on finding it, not breathe a huge sigh of relief, and once home, break out the beer, call the neighbors, and put on a James Brown record?”  “This,” says Jesus, “is real joy—known by those who live at the very edge of jeopardy!” 

And we should note that the concluding reference to heavenly joy is comparative (even if the adage is likely a later church addition).  The raucous ribaldry of the socially suspect—the very quality of the table fellowship gathered around Jesus at that moment—is more explosive in heaven than all the high manners and elegant talk of the upstanding at their “invitation only” banquets. And “repentance over sin” here below on earth as the major concern on high—hmm, I wonder which is the real sin of concern? Being forced into a debt trap, failing subsequently to pay the required annual tithe, and thus being labeled “sinner” by the Torah-guardians—as was “happening” almost endemically to peasants at the time?  Or being one of the initiators thereof—and benefitting economically from the fall out? Of course, a parable would never indulge in parody, right?

A follow-up story confirms the conviction.  Jesus pointedly pops the patriarchal presumption by next featuring a village woman, presumably wearing her dowry as ornament and security 24/7.  This is the only asset-stash she can control—and she faces loss of a tenth of the little she presumably has.  The silver drachma coin was likely worth about a day’s wage—a meagre hedge against the foreclosure crisis visited by heavy-handed taxation and predatory debt-promulgation on rural Galilee of the time, as Herodian sycophants and Jewish elites collaborated in pirating ancestral holdings.  But for the poor, even a pittance is a treasure.  (Like a widow putting her last two coppers in a Temple-fund—a “vast” sum, diabolically “extorted” by priestly exhortation if that is the entire stake available.)  So, this village-dweller searches with all anxious fervor, unable to countenance such a loss.  And when the renegade piece “answers to” her lamp-light and sweeping, she dances in relief, calling village neighbors to join the chorus!  Of course!  And the angels join in!

In these two preface riffs, the emphasis is evident: the care taken for the slightest misplacement, the diligence exercised to overcome the loss, the relief celebrated in actively gathering local community.  Poor peasants have to be vigilant!  And heavenly vigilance attends their own.

But then we come to the main vignette—a favorite of the class-unconscious Christian, reading right past the delineation of this situation as full of wealth and ostentation.  The storyline is well known: ungrateful youngster, pinning for parties and profligate indulgence, with undeterred hubris acting as if he wished the father on his death-bed!  The old man does not demur, splits the hedge-fund account, liquidates the younger’s half and the parties soon begin, once the latter has gone on tour, away.  But we need to go slow, the cues are subtle; the difference from the first two scenarios profound.

First, Jesus does not address the hearers here as in the previous scenarios: “What one of you . . .”  Because, indeed, none of the real addressees—the “tax collectors and sinners”—are part of this third scenario.  The “sinner” stigma is the focal point of the first two “send ups”; shepherd “thieves” (the common stereotype regarding transhumance herders) and peasant women sweeping their village hovels were already part of the “blessed poor” whose “domain” is (the kingdom of) heaven in Jesus’ Sermon-on-the-Plain teaching in Luke. Neither is quite at the level of “hired help” in a fat cat household (although the latter “backdrop figures” are their counterparts in the third act of the three-part parable told here).  The “Prodigal Son” piece of this street pedagogy is told third person and at a remove, as counterpoint to the first two depictions.  It is an object lesson in how it all goes down.

But we need to note, also, the wealthy surplus of this drama-beset household and ask its provenance. In 1st century Palestine, we are likely talking a “landlord” mansion—perhaps part of the Jerusalem-based Hasmonean gentrification of Galilee beginning under Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE—but in any case, a debt-finagling denizen of the outback elite who accumulated contiguous parcels of real estate by sidestepping the Jubilee land-return provisions of Mosaic legislation.  They did so in Jesus’ time by means of the “Prosbul Convention,” enacted long after the prescriptions of Leviticus, allowing the rich to offload foreclosed lands to a third part entity (the “prosbul-council”) never mentioned in the older law codes, who held the parcels in escrow until the 50th year had passed and then returned them to the debt-monger, unrestricted for another 50-year stretch.  And this is worth a bookmark: when wealth appears in a story, never simply take the bling and glory for granted!  Ask whence and how!  Jesus is forever trying to get underneath the glitter and glow to the escrow!

So how does it unfold then?  Young ingrate disses father finesse, leaves older brother in the lurch, grabs inheritance early, commandeers the family jet and off to Monte Carlo to party!  Drinks, eats, and beds until the account goes belly up and the bill comes due.  Then off to a brief stint at waiter-rates or minimum wage until he wakes and says, “Humpf!  Even Dad’s wage-slaves do better than this, let me go back to the pirated estate and bake bread in the kitchen or clean gutters for a while.”  Does he suspect the father’s likely disposition?  Your guess.  A wealthy real estate baron watching his son scrape and bow, labor long hours and answer to the whim and call of class fancy (“a bit of caviar and whiskey, boy—and make it quick!”)?  It plays as we would expect—a father of wealth who will not tolerate his son “positioned” as servant even for a brief half-breath of learning.  Out comes the Gucci, the Zirconium ring, the $700/pair Finney footwear. 

And down goes the calf, fat with marbled flesh.  Party over here!!!—if you can match the style and the designer! Meanwhile, older brother coming in from the field is all flustered and sulking.  But suss the detail—he doesn’t go querying on his own!  He calls up a servant for the scoop. And then refuses the plate and party, teeth-grinding at the gate.  Father scurries out to entreat. Brother pouts, claims he has been servant and succor for the house, but never feted with a feast!  (Wonder what the real servants said in their heads, listening in?)  But catch the rejoinder, father is true mobster—”all that is mine is yours!”  No uncertainty here, no sense of gift-economy, no jubilee.  This is sheer stolen goods title and rich-family property—secured in the bank, never leaving the bloodline.  It. Is. Mine.  And the blowout festivity is comity, what is warranted when wealth returns from momentary displacement among the distressed and lowly.  But entirely within the walls of accumulation—no “neighbors” or “friends” in the mix this time!

And here ends the riddle—no explanatory uptake and gloss about what will happen in heaven, no inflecting remake as morality or allegory.  Straight up “throw down” on the hard ground of peasant cynicism and recognition.  Complete contrast with village solidarity and mutual recognition of the stakes.  Here in the house of wealth—no concern to conserve and save; no agency to undo the profligacy; no hesitance to expend lavishly or even “lose” wantonly.  Kill the calf! Throw back the drink! Slop the dish and dance!  Plenty more where all that came from!  The servants will prepare.  The servants will clean.  The servants will clear.  And the servants wouldn’t dare do other than bow and defer and give thanks!  And disappear under the surface of the story.   Right? 

Ah, but what one of you . . . ?

[i]See Sharon H. Ringe, 1995. Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), Westminster John Knox Press, 8-9; also Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32,

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