11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”Luke 15:11-32
The parable of the forgiving father and the two sons has played a significant role in forming ideas about “God” in the minds of Indian Christians. Due to its patriarchal language and setting, which I’ll say more about soon, it continues to serve as a model to uphold an androcentric image of God and maintain a male-centered church leadership by correlating the father’s compassion in the parable with divine virtue. Moreover, when seen in context of India’s oppressive caste-based framework, such an androcentric model can reflect deeper cultural and political practices of exploitation and oppression that maintain unequal social relationships based on caste identities. What I’d like to offer for consideration, therefore, is the possibility that the parable in Luke 15:11-32 might not serve as a model to imitate but rather could caution against false and oppressive leaders (“fathers”) who maintain hegemony by exercising fallacious compassion. Let’s unpack these claims.
During Jesus’ time, unequal power structures were everywhere. Patrons held power and bestowed them on clients to further expand patrons’ power. This kind of top-down relationship in which power is “shared” only to maintain the status quo might be called a patron-client model. On the one hand, the unequal power relationship in this model is built on the idea that both patrons and clients would benefit from mutual support. On the other hand, the patron-client structure depended heavily on the goodwill and generosity of the patron, who expected subordination and compliance from his clients. Situated within a peasant society, this model provided peasants (clients) to find favor (resources) from a patron at times of economic decline and insecurity. The model provided access to goods and opportunities only for those clients who embraced patronage unquestionably. The patron in return would receive deference, labor, information about other peasants and various other forms of political support from his clients. The patron-client model thus reflects the monopoly of patrons (landlords) who had exclusive control over resources and thereby controlled the fate of his clients (peasants).
The patron-client relationship ultimately maintains exploitative patronage. When read against this context, the parable mirrors this asymmetrical power structure by which the patron-client relationship functions. The father-child relationship and the household represent the patron-client setting in which the parable is narrated. The child experiences challenges of estrangement and reintegration. The responses made by the father, however, unveil the father’s self-interest to maintain and strengthen his patronage. The compassion offered by the father, therefore, is a miniature of the patron-client system that assures benefits for its client only to extend and strengthen its power.
The socio-political structure in India’s caste-ist society is identical to such a patron-client model. Dominant castes are oppressive communities that hold autonomy over power and wealth. Dalits, in contrast, are oppressed communities, regarded as outcasts and “untouchables.” The caste system restricts upward mobility for Dalits and maintains systemic hegemony to extract maximum services and benefits for those at the top who assume the role of oppressive patrons. Dalits are forced to depend on their oppressors to receive favor for their basic needs and survival. The dominant castes hold autonomy over resources by virtue of their caste identity, presumably transferred from generation to generation. The resources they provide to Dalits is valorized as an act of generosity. But the truth is that their generosity reveals that the wealth and power they accumulate, acquired through unequal and exploitative caste-based practices. The generosity that they show, therefore, exposes their complicity in maintaining caste hierarchy.
Many read Luke 15:11-32 as reflecting the theme of compassion in the father’s act of embracing and reinstating his returned son. The act of the father has often been associated with divine virtue. The text, however, does not necessarily record any such association. The parable simply recalls and describes the nature of the household relationship, the dynamics of power and privilege by which it functions, and the experience of estrangement and reconciliation that occurs within the New Testament familial world.
Moreover, the parable ends abruptly. There is no reference or explanation as to how compassion addresses the issue of estrangement, reconciliation, and justice experienced by the segregated and reintegrating family in the parable. Neither Jesus nor Luke directly derives any spiritual or ethical implication out of the parable to the hearers. In short, the parable might be seen as simply reflecting the concept of estrangement and compassion practiced within a patron-client society.
It is also helpful to situate this parable among the other parables recorded in Luke 15. Set as a response to those who critiqued Jesus’ association with sinners and outcasts in Luke 15:1-2, a series of parables are presented by Luke to demonstrate that Jesus is the savior of the world.The parables, therefore, refer to different leaders/saviors and the nature of leadership they exercise within their context. In the other two parables, for example, responsibility and accountability are shown by the shepherd (in the case of the lost sheep) and the woman (in the case of the lost coin). It is here that we may note a major difference between these two parables and the parable in question here.
While the shepherd’s and the woman’s eagerness to seek the lost display the significance of the sheep and coin, the father’s eagerness to embrace and reinstate his returned son to be his heir (Luke 15:22) displays the importance to maintain and protect power and authority. While the shepherd and the woman respond to their crisis with accountability, the father appears to remain liable to take care of his household. He neither goes to seek nor sends his servants to find out the whereabouts and wellbeing of his son.
Relatedly, the feast that is organized by the shepherd and woman reflects a communal celebration that delights in finding the lost. In contrast, the feast set to celebrate the son’s return reflects a private celebration that is inwardly focused and does not possess a robust theological or ethical dimension. The parable, read this way, serves as a warning and not a model. The lesson is a call to beware of oppressive lords disguised in the clothing of compassion and not to imitate them.
What this suggests is that Luke 15:11-32 is a model to eschew, not follow. The parable invites vigilance. “Watch out for spiritual leadership that imitates and reproduces caste-based and other hierarchies,” the parable seems to say. Or, “watch out for systems that perpetuate exploitation and discrimination of those on the margins of power.”