Did the Biblical society influence the collective behavior of people?
Acheived and Ascribed Shame - A case study using the Parable of the Prodigal Son
“20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And 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 servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24)
Comment: When we continue to review this story, we put ourselves back into the story of this second son who has gone and pursued a wayward lifestyle. But we see the father having compassion on his second son and runs to meet him and the celebration ensues.
Now, in this first century context, the behavior of this second son was seen as scandalous and reprehensible. In fact, as mentioned previously, had the neighbors known what this son had really done, his name could have very well been blotted out of memory seeking to distance this community from such a rebel in the hopes that no other youths would follow his horrifying example of outright rebellion.
Let’s be clear. We are here talking about rural farming conservative people. They are not city folks or living in or near a port city which was much more secular and had much greater foreign influences. Here you are talking about conservative Bible believers and these people were God fearing, simple family oriented farmers generally speaking and they were working to maintain and perpetuate their conservative family oriented lifestyles. Young men who ask to cash out of their families’ inheritance, leave the area leaving a rural farming family to fend for themselves, pursuing profligate lifestyles in big cities who end up wasting all their money and then have the nerve to come back and show their faces in their home towns were not people that the local folks looked up to. On the contrary! When that boy came back, had the local people known what he had done, he might never have even made it alive into the village. Sound extreme? Let us once again remind ourselves of some aspects of the cultural environment we are talking about here. The following text from the Torah can put some perspective on what we are talking about here.
“18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Now, note the above mentioned law in general was rarely implemented and especially after the Temple was no longer in existence, but it just goes to show the attitude of people concerning “stubborn and rebellious sons.” In short, they did not take kindly to these types of individuals who are a threat to a whole way of life.
Continuing, we can think that when he talks about the ring on the finger, the best robe and the fatted calf, this all had to be done as a part of the story being told? Let’s be clear. The ring on the finger, the best robe and the fatted calf and inviting the neighborhood to a feast is not to celebrate the return of a profligate loser to the community. Even today, who would throw a huge party and pull out all the stops to rejoice the return of a family member who left the family in a hard spot, cashed out on his inheritance, went on holiday and blew it all and then came back home begging just to have a roof over his head? Not a real high point in the history of the family and certainly the stock of the family among its neighbors would certainly sink to all time lows were they to advertise the massive failure of this young person.
It can be looked at as a carefully calculated plan (the cover) to retain the dignity and honor of the family to welcome back the victorious winner who has returned to his home with his head held high after being away on important family business and now he has returned safely to his just reward. This can be how we look at this circumstance of the ring, robe and fatted calf. Here this father saw a chance to restore his son to some semblance of dignity in the eyes of all in the community. What really happened would stay within the family knowledge never to be shared outside. As I said before, were the truth known, not only would the profligate son be jeopardized, but his sin would have affected the whole family negatively. Who in their right mind would ever give their daughter to such a person in marriage, much less a family that produced such a person? In short, everyone was affected by the behavior of such a person. So, what happens next?
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (ESV- Luke 15:25-32)
So, now we see the return of the elder son. He is the one who has stayed loyal in the face of his rebellious brother’s totally unacceptable behavior. When he hears that his brother has returned, he refuses to enter the feast. Think about how this looks? The father is inside having this massive celebration in honor of the hero’s return and his older brother refuses to come inside and join the celebration? I mean this is his only little brother? Talk about awkward. Dad then goes out of the party (another awkward moment when you are supposed to be celebrating with your hero son who has just returned and you just killed the fatted calf and now you are leaving the party? Very out of character for a major celebration for the host to disappear in such a fashion) and “begs” his older son to come inside and join the party (which is a charade in honor of this profligate son).
The older son will have none of it! Look at what he says which is the strongest indictment yet of the horrible behavior of his little brother, who he has already disowned: “But when this son of yours came (very strong language), who has devoured your property with prostitutes,…” Note this guy is no longer “my brother.” He now equates the father with the son who is reaching down to his level to try to restore him in the eyes of everyone. He even goes and uses stronger language to describe what he did specifically adding fuel to the fire. Remember, once again that this is rural farm country we are talking here and to say that he “has devoured your property with prostitutes” is pretty strong language. In fact, it is scandalous and it is even more so in a rural first century context.
Now, we'll next consider how we can better understand issues associated with Shame and Honor and how these two issues influence individual and collective behavior.