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What inspired Jesus to tell the parable of the prodigal son?

Did Psalm 137 inspire Jesus’s famous parable?

By on Friday, 20 September 2013

"The Return of the Prodigal Son," unknown artist, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City (CNS)

"The Return of the Prodigal Son," unknown artist, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City (CNS)

The question of the origins of a text is always an interesting one. For example, on of the most fascinating fields of research in Augustinian studies deals with reconstructing the reading of Augustine’s youth, and seeing how the various books he read were distilled later into his own writings. One of the things scholars agree on is that the Confessions, in its structure and in one or two key scenes, recalls the Aeneid of Virgil. Indeed the Confessions is best understood as a spiritual Aeneid. One great scholar, Henri- Irénée Marrou even went so far as to reconstructing the milieu of Augustine’s education, which greatly helps us in our understanding of the Saint’s theology. The same archaeological work has been done on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in an immense work called The Road to Xanadu, by John Livingston Lowes. Famously, Coleridge claimed that his Kubla Khan poem was the result of a dream. Lowes shows, however, that it was the result of years of reading, distilled into a single, magical and seemingly spontaneous lyric.

There is nothing controversial about this. The fact that Kubla Khan was not created ex nihilo should surprise no one. But what happens when it is held that a religious text is ex nihilo, and a literary critic can prove that it is in fact no such thing? What happens when religion and literature collide?

A clear example can be furnished by the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe that this text was delivered to Joseph Smith on golden plates by an angel called Moroni. In fact, through examination of the text, and examination of the various editions of the text that show revealing changes, it is clear that the Book of Mormon is a not particularly skilful forgery – in other words the sort of book that someone of Joseph Smith’s background would have written if he had wished to pass it off as a sacred text delivered by an angel. The Book of Mormon has generated a significant body of literature, which demonstrates to all but the Mormons that the book is firmly rooted in the milieu of Joseph Smith’s America.

A more complex and arresting example is provided by the Muslim holy book, the Koran. This has only recently been subject to critical examination. Muslims believe that their prophet was illiterate, and that the Koran is the uncreated world of God. Those who have studied the text without the eyes of this faith see it as originating on the fringes of Syria and Palestine in the seventh century, and even see its origins in a Christian liturgical book. Many scholars now see the Koran as a product of a historical milieu rather than an uncreated text. As such, it would have sources. This scholarly belief (a famous exponent is Tom Holland) must naturally contradict the faith of those who believe that the Koran is the uncreated word of God.

Christians may sympathise with this, but we have been there, and we have moved on. Once it was more or less considered de fide to believe that one person wrote the prophecy of Isaiah. Now we know that there were at least three authors of Isaiah, and that it falls into three sections by different hands, which were written at different times. This does not mean that Isaiah is a forgery; rather it means that we have developed and deepened our understanding of just what divine inspiration means. We now know too that it is a mistake to attribute the Letter to the Hebrews to Saint Paul, but that does not mean it is any less inspired.

All these thoughts are occasioned by last week’s Gospel, which was the parable of the Prodigal Son. Now, this tale is clearly original to Jesus; he made it up; it is most unlikely that he was telling a well-known story already in circulation. If the story were an old one, the disciples would perhaps not have thought it worth remembering; and we would have examples of it, perhaps, in the literature of the period. But, original as it is, does the Prodigal Son parable have any literary antecedents? Can we, in examining it, find out what Jesus may have read, or what may have inspired his story telling?

I think we can.

Consider these verses (Luke 15, 13-16): “After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.”

Where was this distant country that was afflicted by famine? Was it Egypt? Was it Babylonia? Or was it simply the country that haunts the Jewish imagination, the place of exile? But this young man has gone into self-imposed exile, an exile from which he can return. The distance between him and Zion is moral as much as physical. And what does he feel in his estranging exile from his father? Is it this?

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
And there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for words of song,
And our tormentors, for mirth:
“Sing to us from the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the song of the LORD on an alien land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill,

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Given that Psalm 137, verses 1-6, is the most perfect expression of nostalgia ever expressed, and the trauma that comes from exile, and that Jesus would have known this Psalm well, it seems to me to be perfectly natural to believe that it was his reading of this psalm that was the origin of the creative impulse that produced the parable of the Prodigal Son.

  • cjkeeffe

    umm his God he did not need inspiration!

  • Charlie Angel

    Interesting article Father, thank you for this new angle on what I believe Orson Welles said was the ‘greatest short story ever told’.

    I always love seeing the various threads of inspiration and influence that go into the formation of these great stories of our spiritual traditions. And it’s why I have always loved a story that is told in the Talmud which has similarities to that of the Prodigal Son. As to how the two relate to each other historically, I couldn’t say….

    But in the story, a king’s son gets more and more wayward. And finally he runs away from the palace driven by every hedonistic desire. Needless to say, after splurging all the royal cash, he falls on hard times. So far so similar to the Christian parable.

    Yet in this case, it is the father who has been sending out messengers and servants in search of his lost son. They have been scouring the country, looking for the much missed child. Finally one of them finds the prince and sees what a terrible state he has fallen into. But when the servant tells him that his father is desperate for him to come home, the son is filled with shame and says no. After what he has done, there is no way that can go back. After he has committed such awful and let down the father so badly, it’s too late. He can never go home.

    So with great sadness the servant returns to the king and tells him the news. And of course, not surprisingly the father’s love and forgiveness is instant. He tells the servant to go straight back to his son and tell him this – “Where can a son return to but to his father? Where can he go but home?”

    Sorry for the long reply but as I say, this is one of my favourite stories from the great canon of Jewish tradition and I believe it fits very neatly alongside that equally wonderful story from the lips of Our Lord.

  • agent.provocateur

    While I find the article interesting, I find it slightly ridiculous…especially the conclusion. Was Jesus inspired by the psalm 137? Perhaps…But we must not forget that He was born before the world was created and thus his wisdom and knowledge was not necessary dependent what he learned here on earth as a child and youth…No..although a fully man, he is the Son of God; this is the source of his wisdom, knowledge and power.

    We must be careful not to look at Jesus just as another divinely inspired man. He is unique.

  • Romulus

    Father, you are on to something in the reference to Jerusalem. The parable of the prodigal son is an older brother/younger brother story. There are several of these in the Bible. Guess who always seems to come out better, winning favor, etc? Tout court, the tension between the older brother who is loved but displaced so that the younger brother can advance in favor, notwithstanding his personal merit, is the prophetic thread running through all of scripture pointing to the Old Covenant’s fulfillment in the New. The latecomer always prospers and the first in line is always disappointed. Hearing these narratives with the ears of 1st century Jews, we cannot deny who and what are being described.

    While it is not fashionable to say so too loudly, the Gospels are full of dire warnings to the Jews of their danger of being cut off, dispossessed, etc. There is no question of God hating or condemning the Jews. Not at all. His love for them is as ever, but with the coming of the New Covenant they are assigned a mysterious task in the economy of salvation. The people to whom the law was given give continuing witness from afar, to the problem of man’s alienation from God and our need for a savior.

    In the parable of the prodigal son, the law-observing older son complains that he has followed all the rules yet is denied the attention showered upon the returning delinquent. Jesus pointedly tell us that he refuses to enter the house for the feast. The father assures him that his inheritance is secure and that he must rejoice, but we must conclude that in his pain and indignation the older brother holds out. The alienation between brothers is painful and even dangerous as we see with Esau and Jacob. The transfer of the father’s blessing is a real wedge that divides them and sows something dangerously close to enmity.

    The parable of the prodigal son is about a great many things, but God’s field of vision is far wider than our own and his purpose more encompassing than mere moralizing. It always amazes me that people insist on a reductionist reading with the great salvific mystery almost entirely unexamined.

  • Annie

    Fr. Lucie-Smith: “Psalm 137 . . . it was (Jesus’) reading of this psalm that was the origin of the creative impulse that produced the parable of the Prodigal Son”.

    Timothy 2: 16: “All Scripture is inspired by God”.

    You do know that Jesus is God? He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Christ has two natures: the divine and the human. He didn’t leave His divine nature for 33 years and take it up again at His Resurrection. You want proof? At age 12, Jesus said to Joseph and Mary, when they found Him in the Temple, “How is it that you sought Me? Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”. He *knew*.

    The truth of what you’re saying – although you seem to be unaware of it – is that God inspired God to produce the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t think God needs to inspire Himself.

  • andHarry

    ‘ At age 12, Jesus said to Joseph and Mary, when they found Him in the
    Temple, “How is it that you sought Me? Do you not know that I must be
    in my Father’s house?”. ‘

    What I find most interesting in this story is the extent to which Joseph and Mary failed to understand Jesus’ mission. They undoubtedly envisaged Jesus as the conquering Messiah expected by the Jews of that time generally, and looking for Him in the Temple must have been a last throw; after spending two days back in Jerusalem looking everywhere else for Him.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    We now know too that it is a mistake to attribute the Letter to the Hebrews to Saint Paul.

    I would not call it a mistake to disregard the opinion of todays textual critics. Nobody can say for certain who the author was, some early Church fathers attributed it to St. Barnabas who traveled with Paul. So if its Paul or Barnabas acting as a scribe, it does not really matter.

  • Julian Lord

    In my opinion, the Letter to the Hebrews may have either been redacted by a secretary, or its stylistic differences may be due to its having been written originally in Hebrew, then translated by whomever.

    The 19th and early 20th century concerns with who is its “author” are based on the exalted position of the auteur that was concocted by the literary theorists of the period, notwithstanding the many contemporary examples of authors routinely relying on the help of assistants, as for example Barbara Cartland did throughout her entire career.

    It is furthermore well known that Saint Paul made use of such secretaries and assistants, given that specific reference is made to them in the Scripture ….

  • aspiring lay capuchin

    The Father in the story did not inspire me. It is said to be GOD THE FATHER. Well I was sorely disappointed. Maybe the Father was prodigal too! If I was the father in that story I wouldn’t have just appeared at the porch each day looking out in the distance for my son. I would have road a caravan of donkeys with freinds round the countryside looking for my son. The father as the good shepherd which Jesus uses is a better example. If I have 100 sheep, and I lost one. I will leave the 99 and go and look for the lost sheep. THAT SHOULD BE THE STRENGTH AND COURAGE OF THE FATHER. The Father as described in the prodigal son is VERY VERY LIMITING

  • Hermit Crab

    Barbara Cartland, as an example of how Saint Paul set about his business, is a delightful idea.

  • Hermit Crab

    Until the modern age, all Catholics believed that the “Letter to the Hebrews” was written by St Paul. It is unwise for us to doubt this on the authority of scholars who belong to a period characterised by apostasy.

  • PaulF

    Good point. I’m not opposed to biblical scholarship, but its value is so limited that you could flush it all down the toilet without missing much. When it robs millions of the power God gives us in his word it is frankly best done without.

  • PaulF

    Other aspiring lay Capuchins might have an issue with your implicit claim to be wiser than God.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Thomas goes into this at some length. Christ’s knowledge as eternal Word is not accessible to his human mind, as it is not encompassable by anything finite. He has four other sorts of knowledge: the Beatific Vision, infused knowledge of God like that of the angels, perfect human knowledge and also acquired knowledge.

    So yes, some of his human knowledge was, on that view, dependent on what he learned here on earth.

    Don’t buy the Psalm 137 origin, though- nice point for a sermon, but hardly persuasive as the actual origin of the parable. Some Scripture scholars see it as an expansion of the Two Sons parable from Matthew.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    The text itself doesn’t say it’s by Paul. Most Patristic commentators didn’t think it was. Irenaeus, your namesake, doesn’t think it was. There’s really no good reason at all to connect Paul with it.

    Save your arguments about scribes etc. for the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Ephesians and Colossians, where there’s actually a debate to be had.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    That’s simply not true, unless you don’t think the Fathers were Catholics.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    As long as you remember that it’s been the work of liberal Protestants since the mid-19th century, it’s fine. Sometimes it’s quite useful. Just remember that most modern Scripture commentators have no interest in Catholicity or Conciliar dogma, ignore them when they ignore that, and you’re fine.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    That’s the same question as whether Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his Baptism. What do you think the answer is? (And then look it up in Thomas Aquinas.)

  • Hermit Crab


    I don’t understand what it is you think I think.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I thought you were saying that ‘Until the modern age, all Catholics believed that the “Letter to the Hebrews” was written by St Paul.’

    I was saying that the early Fathers of the Church mostly did not believe Hebrews is by Paul, and that in my understanding they were and are Catholic.

  • agent.provocateur

    I’m sorry, do you mean St. Thomas Aquinas? If so, then his opinion is just that – his opinion. Jesus Christ is the greates wonder and mystery of the world (visible and invisible).

  • PaulF

    I wouldn’t speculate on what they ‘undoubtedly envisaged.’
    Mary was innocent from her conception, but innocence and maturity are not the same thing. Scripture tells us that she had to grow in understanding of her Son, even as he had to mature through suffering.

  • PaulF

    Easier said than done, Sara. I’ve seen believing Christians begin Scripture study courses, Catholic run, only to end without the biblical faith, incapable of declaring the truth about Jesus. They have exchanged the pearl of great price for a few inconsequential lines of hermeneutics to make them sound smart. What a lousy bargain.

  • Hermit Crab

    Would you accept ‘Until the modern age, most Catholics believed that the “Letter to the Hebrews” was written by St Paul.’ ?

  • Sara_TMS_again

    They should have started with the Fathers or Thomas Aquinas, and saved the Scripture course until they were a bit more solid in their Catholicism.

    But I do think there’s a real need for orthodox Catholics to go back to academic Biblical Studies and start proposing alternative ways of reading the Bible, with a proper eye on Tradition.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    The text itself doesn't say it's by Paul.
    So? Neither do many other sacred texts we know the authorship of. There is the principle of anonymity which is common amongst theological works.

    Most Patristic commentators didn't think it was. Irenaeus, your namesake, doesn't think it was.
    Right, and thats why I mentioned that I am aware of some who thought it was Barnabas. Even still, polling with small majorities is not how we arrive at facts that are indisputable. and beyond doubt.

    There's really no good reason at all to connect Paul with it.
    Yes there is.

    Clement of Alexandria (AD ~150 to 215)

    Origen (AD ~185-254) – “ancients handed it down as Paul’s.”

    Jerome, Chrysostom, tradition of the Church, etc…

    Save your arguments about scribes etc. for the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Ephesians and Colossians, where there's actually a debate to be had.
    Actually, Origen mentions the scribes, and as I have pointed out…. there is still sufficient debate to be had.

  • PaulF

    True. If they had grown up with the old green catechism as I did they would not have been fooled by scholarship.
    Academic Biblical studies? Was the Bible written for academics? I see the Bible as a proposal of marriage from God to his church, as a people and as individuals. The response to such a desirable proposal of marriage is not to study it endlessly and critique it arrogantly. It is to say Yes!