Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Parable of the Loving Father

Everyone has heard of the parable of Prodigal Son.  It is one of Jesus' most touching and powerful parables.  Yet, in this post I would like to suggest a name change for the parable based upon classical rhetoric and how a first century Mediterranean audience would have heard the parable.

I wish I had come up with this argument, but the credit must go to my Doktorvater Mikeal C. Parsons (“The Quest of the ‘Rhetorical’ Jesus.” Pages 30-44 in Literary Encounters with the Reign of God. Edited by Sharon H. Ringe, and H. C. Paul Kim. New York: T&T Clark International, 2004.).

The Greeks had a practice called inflection, which was used in the preliminary exercises under the term klisis and is also a figure of speech called polyptoton. 

For those unfamiliar with Greek, the Greek language has five different cases.  A case determines the function of a noun in a sentence.  We only have remnants of this in English.  For example, "I" is in the subjective case (i.e., the subject of the sentence) and "me" is in the objective case (i.e., the direct or indirect object of the sentence).  Thus the sentence "I hope you give that car to me."  Every noun in Greek can be in all five cases, the case determining the function of the noun.

In the preliminary exercises (progymnasmata), students were taught to inflect the main subject of a chreia or fable in different cases.  Using the different cases for the subject helped to highlight and draw attention to the main subject, making it easily identifiable to the audience.

What happens when we apply this practice to the Parable of the Prodigal son?  We get the following results.

The term father (πατήρ) occurs twelve times and in all five cases; while the term son occurs eight times and only in two cases.  The results are striking.  Not only is the father mentioned more often, he is mentioned in all five cases, including the fairly rare vocative case.  The son on the other hand is mentioned less often and only appears in a measly two cases.

An ancient audience would have heard this parable and, probably even unwittingly, understood that the father was the main subject.  Unfortunately this practice does not carry over into English and the effect is lost. 

The conclusion should be glaring.  This is a parable about the father and his tremendous love, not the son and his wayward actions.  Therefore, I propose that the name of the parable be changed to "The Parable of the Loving Father."

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