For a little while, now I’ve been furrowing my eyebrows at one particular line in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. It was niggling at me and puzzling me in equal measures of concern and confusion.
Until I realised that the line in question was a very deliberate gender-flip.
And, in my view, a feminist one.
Allow me to explain. Grab a cuppa, this post is 2,000 words.
The plot in brief
Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, or the lost son, is possibly his most famous and most admired.
It’s found in Luke 15:11-32 and tells the story of a man who has two sons. One day the younger son demands his share of the inheritance; when his father gives it to him, he leaves and squanders it. When a famine hits, he decides to go home and eat humble pie; his father is so delighted to have him back, he throws a party. Then the older son complains but the father says it’s right to celebrate because his younger brother “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
You’ll often hear this parable interpreted by Christians as one that shows God’s love for humankind.
If you can, break away from thinking of this parable as an allegory.
Right now, we’ll be better off if we think of it as an elusive open-ended story and prompts us to ask questions.
And if you’d like a deeper study into this approach to Jesus’s parables, I recommend watching Paula Gooder’s lecture on them – especially this bit where she talks about the prodigal son.
Why I love this parable – and a content warning
My love and fascination grew tenfold after I did some deep-dive reading on Deuteronomy.
Yes, I’m rather strange.
Unfortunately, I need to give a CONTENT WARNING because this post will talk about ‘honour’ violence. Because I think this parable directly challenges such violence.
You see, one of the most troubling laws in the Old Testament is that of the wayward and rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. In short, his parents can take him to the city gate, complain that he is disobedient, a glutton and a drunk, and have him stoned to death.
If you weren’t aware, this is ‘honour’-based violence (HBV).
HBV is the brutal, even lethal, response a community makes when they consider a person’s behaviour so bad that they threaten the entire community’s existence, cohesion and reputation. HBV was a thing in the honour-shame culture of the ancient world.
Sadly, in the modern world, similar beliefs can still prevail; they’re a particular risk for women who express their sexuality the ‘wrong way’ or with the ‘wrong people.’
In fact, it’s because these ideas are still so prevalent today that I make a point of studying Deuteronomy.
And it’s why I love the parable of the prodigal son.
You see, the rabbis were discomforted by this Deuteronomy law and they largely nullified it. But while they said such a son never existed, Jesus took a different angle. His parable assumed such sons exist, but he challenged the assumption that parents should respond with violence.
Which is like… wow.
So, what was confusing me about Jesus’s parable?
It all comes down to one line, right near the end.
When the younger son goes off, Jesus describes him as wasting his father’s money “in wild living.” Which is enough for the purposes of the story, but it’s ambiguous.
However, when the younger son returns and the older son complains, he gets specific. He says the younger son has squandered his father’s property “with prostitutes.”
(How does he know? Was he there?)
But why does the older son say this? And why does Jesus put these words in his mouth?
There were three things that didn’t make sense to me.
#1: The sexual promiscuity angle doesn’t make sense in the ancient world
Oh, it sure seemed to make sense when I was growing up.
But growing up, I was led to believe that sexual promiscuity was adultery, and adultery was any form of sex that took place outside marriage. So of course Jesus called out the younger son for cheapening sex and sleeping around!
But actually… that doesn’t make sense.
In the ancient world, adultery was not sex outside of marriage. Adultery was a man having sex with another man’s (a) wife, (b) concubine or (c) free-born betrothed bride. The man’s marital status was irrelevant in determining whether or not an act was adultery. It was all down to the legal and marital status of the woman.
Which means that when the younger son had sex with prostitutes… he was not committing adultery. He was just doing what men could legally do.
We might not like it; but there was no reason for the older son to call it out as the epitome of bad behaviour.
At least… none that I could see.
#2: The older son probably wasn’t calling out prostitution as oppressive of women
For sure, women who were prostitutes were particularly vulnerable. It was a big deal that Jesus treated them with dignity and respect and little wonder that they then put their faith in him.
But while I would love to interpret the older son as calling out the injustice these women faced, I don’t think it fits. This parable is primarily about family relations, not the plight of the oppressed.
Moreover, I can’t help but read the older son’s words as carrying a pejorative tone against these women. Like it wasn’t just that the younger son was doing an unclean act, but doing it with unclean people.
AND YET… Jesus was always challenging that attitude!
So why, why, why would he insert this into his parable? Did he think no prostitutes were listening? Did he not care about how they might have felt? Would not the older son’s words at the very least remind them of the stigma they’d felt the many times they had been called ‘unclean’?
This is what didn’t make sense to me. Given everything that Jesus did and said and stood for, I could not figure out why he would put these words in the older brother’s mouth.
Even if the older son wasn’t criticising the women, his words were totally unnecessary.
#3: Jesus could so easily have mentioned drunkenness and gluttony
What is the parents’ complaint in Deuteronomy 21:18-21? It’s that their son won’t listen to them, and their proof is in how he’s a glutton and a drunk.
It’s not that eating and drinking are really the son’s crime. His crime is undermining parental authority and, by extension, the entire community’s social order. But it’s his eating and drinking habits that are held up; they are key the marker that demonstrates his guilt to the public.
Now Jesus totally understood all this. That’s why he was so insulted when people called him a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). He knew what they really meant by that. Namely, that he was a rebellious son, a disgrace to his family, a menace to society, and someone who ought to be killed.
No surprises then that he was killed.
But this is what I couldn’t understand about the parable of the prodigal son. Why didn’t the older son mention gluttony and drunkenness? Why didn’t he complain that the younger son had squandered their father’s money on wine and feasting? Or on gorging himself and getting drunk?
Everyone listening knew the younger son was being rebellious. Everyone knew what a rebellious son supposedly did. So why in the closing moments of this parable did Jesus throw in this sudden twist of expectations?
When everyone was expecting to hear about food and drink, why did Jesus mention sex?
It’s because he was gender-flipping.
That ancient double-standard
Deuteronomy doesn’t just talk about rebellious sons, it talks rebellious daughters too.
But in Deuteronomy 22:20-21 the marker of a rebellious daughter is not drunkenness and gluttony.
It’s sexual promiscuity.
In other words, Jesus was deliberately gender-flipping this law. Instead of using the marker for a rebellious son, he used the marker for a rebellious daughter. And he attributed it to the younger son in his parable.
This is… quite something.
Bear in mind, the laws of Deuteronomy 22:13-21 are the reason why I started studying the book in depth. For a long time, I thought these particular laws were about virginity. But there’s plenty of Jewish scholarship to support the view that the daughter’s crime wasn’t sex, per se. It was disobeying her parents — exemplified by her having sex (arguably, lots of sex) outside of her parents’ authority.
And whilst this analysis resolves the most troubling questions about the hymen (which, if you didn’t know, is a wholly unreliable indicator of virginity), I won’t pretend it makes all the problems go away.
In fact, one of my unresolved questions was the asymmetry of the markers in these HBV laws. Why should rebelliousness be exemplified as gluttony and drunkenness in young men, but sexual promiscuity in young women? Doesn’t that stigmatise women’s sexual agency? Doesn’t that ignore rape culture? Why was this OK?
Or… was it not OK?
Is that part of the point that Jesus was making?
Was he challenging this double-standard? You know, the one that says it’s fine for men to sleep around but not for women?
Was he hinting that daughters shouldn’t be met with violence when their sexuality doesn’t conform? Or that sons should take responsibility for how they exercise their sexual agency? (Or that paying vulnerable women for consequence-free sex is a pretty rubbish thing to do, even if it’s legal?)
If you ask me, Jesus was saying all of these things.
So maybe the sexual promiscuity angle makes more sense than I had thought. But it’s for a very different set of reasons compared to those I grew up with. And that’s significant.
For years I’ve taken this parable as yet another example of how men’s libidos are at risk of spiralling out of control. Of how ‘fallen women’ can snare a man in his downward spiral.
But if we read this parable as focussing on Deuteronomy’s HBV laws, then the message is quite different. It says if daughters were expected to be self-controlled in their sexual expression, then sons should be expected to as well. And if sons can be forgiven for sexual transgressions, then daughters can be too.
It’s not that there are no differences between how men and women express their sexual agency. But we would do well to lose the double-standard that shames women for their sexual agency and absolves men of culpability.
At least, that’s what I take away.
And it’s not that I want to throw shade on the compilers of Deuteronomy for writing the laws they did. I’m not saying we should remove this book from the canon or discount it as uninspired.
What I’m saying is this: we need to understand that when Jesus spoke the truth of Deuteronomy (of which there is plenty) he also teased out the cracks in its laws and assumptions.
However much we love the Bible, the question is not whether those gaps are there. The question is, what values and beliefs will we fill them with?
And, in case you missed it, Jesus offered us some answers in the story of this parable.
If you want to read more specifically looking at HBV, there’s this post which looks at Juliet’s argument with her parents (from Romeo and Juliet) and compares it to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, as well as this post about Jyoti Singh (aka Nibhaya).
 See Alexander Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant,” in Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002), 180. He cites T. Sanhedrin 11.6, translated by Neusner, which ruled that “There never has been, and there never will be a stubborn and rebellious son.”
 See Aaron Koller, “Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22,” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 16 (2010): 279–296. Koller argues: “Sex has nothing to do with [her] crime, any more than eating meat has to do with the crime of the incorrigible son [in Deuteronomy 21:18-21]. Meat and sex are merely the symptoms or indicators of the true crime [of subverting the power of the family structure].” [p287]