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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.